CGI meets mayhem maestros

Stuntmen stop worrying, learn to love pixels

A long, long time ago — back in the early 1990s — as CGI technology advanced and was able to more perfectly render natural motion picture images, a wave of anxiety swept through an industry long known for not being afraid of anything: Would computers displace stunt work?

Fast forward to today, and as some of the biggest, most effects-laden movies demonstrate, CGI has hardly edged stunts out of the picture.

Rather, the two mediums have found an integrated harmony in which stunt work is often enhanced (and in some cases made safer) by CGI effects, but is still relied on to provide a human quality to almost every daredevil trick in the book.

Take “300,” arguably the most action-packed and blood-splattering movie of the year. The film, based on the battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartan soldiers defended Greece against tens of thousands of Persians, seamlessly marries its 1,306 digital effects with live-action sequences — a process that was used similarly with good results in films such as “Sin City” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

“300” was shot entirely using a bluescreen, with five actors and 45 stunt men. However, even the nonstunt men performed their own stunts and weapon use, having attended a two-month Spartan boot camp where they were trained in a complex style that melded Thai, Indonesian, European, Japanese and Filipino sword-fighting techniques.

Effects were used to create the film’s backdrop and monsters, layer in more people in crowds, and amplify the carnage on the battlefield.

“We had a lot of combat with weapons, swords and spears,” says Damon Caro, the film’s stunt coordinator. “We would do shots as tight as we could, push it as far as we could, and then CGI would take it the rest of the way.”

Yet, the bulk of the film’s action — man-to-man combat on the battlefield — is an area that computers have yet to conquer.

“Currently, fight scenes in particular have a human quality and human ingredient you need,” Caro says. “You can’t do it on a computer well enough. (Effects) may enhance a shot with motion capture, but you still need people do the motion.”

Perhaps signaling the stunt biz’s embrace of computer graphics, “300” star Gerard Butler was just named male action star of the year at the Taurus World Stunt Awards.

“CGI can help enhance a fire or heighten a fall, so that a guy who fell 30 feet looks like he fell 100 feet, but some things have to have a human quality,” Caro adds.

Terry Leonard, a veteran stunt coordinator who worked on “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” says that in that film, too, the action was primarily performed by humans.

“Nothing was done stuntwise that was enhanced by computers,” Leonard says. “We suspended disbelief by what we were doing physically.”

The “drifting” — a technique in which speeding cars angle sideways around turns — was performed in the film entirely by drivers who trained with pros skilled in the technique.

Like “300,” computers were used to create the film’s backdrop, in this case the city of Tokyo. (The film’s chase sequences were actually shot in downtown Los Angeles.)

CGI also was used to dramatize certain shots. In a scene where cars are racing down a mountain road, CGI was used to shave away some of the road’s shoulder so the cars looked like they were mere inches from the side of a cliff.

“The final visual was closer to the cliff than you’d ever do with a real car, because if there was a mistake, if someone blew a tire, you’d lose a guy down 200 feet,” Leonard explains. “So computers were used to enhance the geography. But nevertheless, the guys were doing what they were doing. Live action worked in harmony with CGI, but CGI didn’t enhance the stunt, per se.”

Leonard equates the CGI threat to the proverbial bear in the closet. “It ended up not being as shocking as it seemed,” he says. “When you know what it is, it seems like less of a monster.