It was supposed to be part of a routine fight scene. But when 33-year-old stuntman John Bernecker fell from a balcony on the Georgia set of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on July 12, something went wrong. He missed the safety padding by inches, and his head hit the concrete 22 feet below. He died five hours later in an Atlanta hospital after being taken off life support.
The incident has renewed long-simmering concerns about set safety, especially as they pertain to television. Thanks to the increasing proliferation of original scripted programming on cable and streaming outlets, more and more shows are one-upping each other with movie-quality stunts. But they’re still shot on tight, small-screen schedules (typically nine days for a 60-minute episode), on budgets dwarfed by their big-screen counterparts.
“As safe as you try to make things, and as much as you try to control everything in your power, there’s always going to be a level of risk,” says stunt coordinator Norm Douglass, Emmy-nominated for Fox’s “Gotham.” “That’s where your experience and the preparation come in.”
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When Douglass is rigging a high fall, he first tests it from a lower height and uses sandbags as stand-ins before trying it with live stunt people. For a scene a scene involving a mere 12-foot drop onto a car in season three of “Gotham,” Douglass put the stunt person on a wire rigged with a Goldtail Manual Descender to slow the speed of the fall and had moleskin applied to any exposed areas of his skin that might come in contact with pieces of broken tempered glass from the windshield.
With glass, “there’s a good chance, no matter how safe you are, you’re going to get cut because it goes it goes everywhere,” Douglass points out.
In addition to proper rigging and rehearsal, safety depends on knowing who to cast for which stunt. Coordinators say they not only need a network of established pros to call on with specialized skills in such areas as driving, fighting and falling, but they must also have accurate BS detectors to determine if “stunt” jobs on someone’s resume aren’t really just glorified extra work. The issue has become increasingly critical as productions have fanned out across the country, chasing tax incentives and creating more opportunities for aspiring stunt performers.
Coordinators are also on the lookout for risk-taking daredevils. “They’re great for when you want to throw a guy through a bar window, have them crash through the railing and land in the street, but I don’t need a wild man fighting with my lead actor and popping her in the face,” says stunt coordinator Christopher Place, Emmy-nominated for NBC’s “Blindspot.”
Fights might seem tame and mundane compared to a high fall or a car rollover, but they have their own set of safety risks, especially on a show such as “Blindspot,” which makes frequent use of martial-arts body flips.
“We do [flips] on streets, in concrete basements, and anytime a stunt performer is hitting the deck like that you have to take precautions not to hit them in the head or in the face,” Place says. “There are always weapons involved, too, whether a knife or even just a broomstick. We cheat with rubber and plastic, but even those can crack your nose and split your eye open.”
“Blindspot” also has a lot of firearms shooting off practical blanks and ejecting shells. “In a crowded room, those [shells] could hit people in the face and burn them, so it all takes a bit of choreography to keep things safe,” says Place.
Stunt coordinator James Lew takes extra precautions when he’s choreographing fights scenes with actors, teaching them two to three moves at a time and shooting them piecemeal.
“I’ve found that once you put 12 moves together, with the excitement of staying in character and beating the crap out of this guy, when they say ‘action,’ something happens,” says Lew, who’s Emmy-nominated for Netflix’s “Marvel’s Luke Cage.” “The distance suddenly gets shorter, you get in the energy, and then, pop, you hit somebody.”
CGI technology has helped make stunts safer, allowing performers to wear thick support wires that can be erased in post, or to be virtually inserted into explosions without leaving the comfort of the greenscreen stage.
But while Lew is determined to keep his sets “stupid safe,” as he puts it, he likes to add a touch of non-CGI-enhanced real mayhem to sell the on-screen action.
“I encourage body hits,” says Lew. “We put thin padding on people so they can make a little contact. They should go home black and blue, but not with anything broken.”
(Pictured above: a stunt performer in “Gotham”)