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For Real Action, There’s No Substitute for Stunt Professionals in Movie Production

Filmmakers use visual effects to create spectacular images, but the technology has yet to be devised that can replicate all human movement. For that reason, many of today’s biggest and most ambitious films still use stunts for their most memorable action moments.

This year five films — “Baby Driver,” “Dunkirk,” “Logan,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Wonder Woman” — have been nominated for the SAG Award for outstanding action performance by a stunt ensemble in a motion picture. The directors on these films all preferred to turn to stunt coordinators as much as possible to capture action through the camera, in some cases enhancing that movement digitally in post.

On the set of “Dunkirk,” helmer Christopher Nolan wanted viewers to experience the minutiae of warfare with the soldiers on-screen, and it was always his plan to use stunt pros instead of digital effects. To prepare, stunt coordinator Tom Struthers researched the historical battle at the center of the film and interviewed veterans to provide his crew with a deeper background. “What we know before we do the stunts will change the way we perform, and it becomes part of what visual effects does because they see a performance by someone who knows this story,” says Struthers. “Chris [Nolan] is very detailed, and he wants everyone who works with him to be just as detailed.”

Sometimes the budget or production schedule necessitates work being done in-camera. For “Baby Driver” and “Logan,” the stunt coordinators were dealing with tighter purse strings than those often enjoyed by larger superhero films or tentpoles. But expectations are the same, especially when the story dictates everything from major car chases to complicated fight choreography.

Though “Logan” follows the character made popular by Hugh Jackman over several films, the project was written as a darker, R-rated story, which meant more realistic stunt work done in a less glossy style. Stunt coordinator Garrett Warren worked with the lead actors and stunt performers to afford a similar edge to what audiences saw on-screen.

“[Actress] Dafne Keen had everything for that role in her eyes — in her face — and we worked with her to help bring that → intensity into the physical action,” Warren says. “The action was a lot closer, so we choreographed the fights [so] that there could be face replacement when needed.”

“I don’t see us as being in competition with effects because we’re all trying to make this movie together.”
Darrin Prescott, stunt coordinator

“Baby Driver” was also done with as much in-camera stunt work as possible, and it was heavily choreographed, since helmer Edgar Wright wanted car work that felt real, according to stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott. “I don’t see us as being in competition with effects because we’re all trying to make this movie together,” he says. “And when you have a stunt driver like Jeremy Fry working with you, that’s something special — the way he took the getaway car, turned it forward and backward in a tight alley after coming in at 70 miles an hour. To have someone really do that gives everything an amazing look.”

Sometimes the lines between live action, CG and visual effects can blur. For “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the stunt pros spent time learning how to walk and move like apes as part of pre-production. Their movements were then digitized via performance capture and used to generate and develop CG characters. “They’re working very closely with digital,” says stunt coordinator John Stoneham Jr. “That can be different than what you think of as stunt work, but it’s part of our work now.”

Damon Caro, stunt coordinator on “Wonder Woman,” believes real stunt work will never be replaced but that CG can extend or enhance it in many ways. He’s worked with actress Gal Gadot on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and quickly developed a rapport with helmer Patty Jenkins over their mutual love of the “Wonder Woman” TV series. Together they imagined stunts that would show Wonder Woman’s fighting abilities in-camera and then get extended in post.

“I love working with the visual effects team to see how good we can make it,” Caro says. “You always know you’re working with a great team when they ask how much you can do in-camera because that means they know that’s the key to making it look great.”

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