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More Superhero Shows Raise the Bar for Television Stuntwork

With a quartet of Marvel series on Netflix and one on ABC (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), and nine series built around characters from the DC Comics universe airing across the broadcast networks, an unprecedented number of comic-book heroes are battling it out on the small screen in increasingly elaborate, Emmy-worthy action sequences.

While most of the shows’ protagonists are gifted with superhuman powers, the stunt teams still have to keep the action grounded in reality.

“We like to make sure that the laws of gravity are adhered to,” says James Bamford, stunt coordinator for CW’s “Arrow.” “You won’t see floaty wire work or a lot of unmotivated acrobatics.”

James Lew, stunt coordinator for Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” says he developed a “mental bible” of the title character’s powers, because “sometimes the director might want too much or not enough, so it was kind of my job to keep it within the character.”

If Cage (played by Mike Colter) were to throw a punch at a mere mortal, “their entire head would fly off,” Lew notes, so Cage wasn’t allowed to unleash his superpowers until the season finale, when his villainous half-brother Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) dons a suit able to absorb his blows as well as deliver superhuman punishment. In that episode, Lew was able to pull out the stops, throwing Cage stunt double Guy Fernandez out of a second storey window and using an air ratchet to fly the character down the street on to the roof of an SUV.

“We like to make sure the laws of gravity are adhered to. You won’t see floaty wire work or unmotivated acrobatics.”
James Bamford

One of most challenging aspects of doing stunts for television is the schedule, which typically allows only eight days to shoot a one-hour episode.

“We might get a day or a couple of hours to work fights out with the actors and the stunt performers,” says Norman Douglass, stunt coordinator for Fox’s “Gotham.” It’s different in a feature film, “where you might get weeks to rehearse some of those fights.”

The CW’s quartet of DC Comics series — “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and “Legends of Tomorrow” — have an advantage over other superhero shows. They all film in Vancouver, a popular shooting location where the rules allow the individual stunt teams to share equipment and expertise, and they find the time to shoot elaborate pre-visualizations of each episode’s big action sequences. Typically there are three of these per show.

“Our stunt performers do the lines, and we put in music, our version of visual effects and sound effects and all the Foley work, so the director can look at it and make changes they want,” says J.J. Makaro, who oversaw the stunts on all four CW shows.

But there was only so much pre-visualization that could be done for a chase scene in “Supergirl” in which three SUVs were turned over (using air cannons) in rapid succession as they drove alongside a speeding tractor trailer rig.

The car flips could only be done once and the crew had just a three-hour window to get the shot.
“It’s like going to war,” says “Supergirl” stunt coordinator Simon Burnett. “When you get out of it and it’s successful, it’s a great feeling.”

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