Stunt performers, also called stuntmen and stuntwomen, are actors who perform dangerous scenes in motion pictures. They may fall off tall buildings, get knocked from horses and motorcycles, imitate fistfights, and drive in high-speed car chases. They must know how to set up stunts that are both safe to perform and believable to audiences. In these dangerous scenes, stunt performers are often asked to double, or take the place of, a star actor.
History of Stunt Performer Career
There have been stunt performers since the early years of motion pictures. Frank Hanaway, believed to be the first stunt performer, began his career in the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. A former U.S. cavalryman, Hanaway had developed the skill of falling off a horse unharmed. Until the introduction of sound films in the 1920s, stunt performers were used mostly in slapstick comedy films, which relied on sight-gags to entertain the audience.
The first stuntwoman in motion pictures was Helen Gibson, who began her stunt career in the 1914 film series The Hazards of Helen. Chosen for the job because of her experience performing tricks on horseback, Gibson went from doubling for Helen Holmes, the star actress, to eventually playing the lead role herself. Among her stunts was jumping from a fast-moving motorcycle onto an adjacent moving locomotive.
Despite the success of Helen Gibson, most stunt performers were men. For dangerous scenes, actresses were usually doubled by a stuntman wearing a wig and the character’s costume. Because films usually showed stunts at a distance, audiences could not tell that the switch had been made.
Discrimination in the film industry also resulted in few minorities working as stunt performers. White men doubled for American Indians, Asians, Mexicans, and African Americans by applying makeup to their skin.
As the motion picture industry grew, so did the importance of stunt performers. Because injury to a star actor could end a film project and incur a considerable financial loss for the studio, producers would allow only stunt performers to handle dangerous scenes. Even so, star actors would commonly brag that they had performed their own stunts. Only a few, such as Helen Gibson and Richard Talmadge, actually did.
Beginning in the 1950s the growth in the number of independent, or self-employed, producers brought new opportunities for stunt performers. In general, independent producers were not familiar with stunt work and came to rely on experienced stunt performers to set up stunt scenes and to find qualified individuals to perform them. Stunt performers who did this kind of organizational work came to be called stunt coordinators.
The Stuntmen’s Association, the first professional organization in the field, was founded in 1960. Its goal was to share knowledge of stunt techniques and safety practices, to work out special problems concerning stunt performers, and to help producers find qualified stunt performers. Other organizations followed, including the International Stunt Association, the Stuntwomen’s Association, the United Stuntwomen’s Association, Stunts Unlimited, and Drivers Inc. As a result of these organizations, stunt performers are now better educated and trained in stunt techniques.
An increasing number of women and minorities have become stunt performers since the 1970s. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the union that represents stunt performers, has been at the vanguard of this change. In the 1970s SAG banned the practice of using face paint to have stuntmen play other races, thus forcing producers to find, for example, an African American stuntman to double for an African American actor. SAG also began to require that producers make an effort to find female stunt performers to double for actresses. Only after showing that a number of qualified stuntwomen have declined the role can a producer hire a stuntman to do the job.
Over the years, new technology has changed the field of stunt work. Air bags, for example, make stunts safer, and faster cars and better brakes have given stunt performers more control. Stunt performers, however, still rely on their athletic ability and sense of timing when doing a dangerous stunt.
The Job of Stunt Performers
Stunt performers work on a wide variety of scenes which have the potential for causing serious injury, including car crashes and chases; fist and sword fights; falls from cars, motorcycles, horses, and buildings; airplane and helicopter gags; rides through river rapids; and confrontations with animals, such as in a buffalo stampede. Although they are hired as actors, they rarely perform a speaking role. Some stunt performers specialize in one type of stunt.
There are two general types of stunt roles: double and nondescript. The first requires a stunt performer to “double”—to take the place of—a star actor in a dangerous scene. As a double, the stunt performer must portray the character in the same way as the star actor. A nondescript role does not involve replacing another person and is usually an incidental character in a dangerous scene. An example of a nondescript role is a driver in a freeway chase scene.
The idea for a stunt usually begins with the screenwriter. Stunts can make a movie not only exciting, but also profitable. Action films, in fact, make up the majority of box-office hits. The stunts, however, must make sense within the context of the film’s story.
Once the stunts are written into the script, it is the job of the director to decide how they will appear on the screen. Directors, especially of large, action-filled movies, often seek the help of a stunt coordinator. Stunt coordinators are individuals who have years of experience performing or coordinating stunts and who know the stunt performer community well. A stunt coordinator can quickly determine if a stunt is feasible and, if so, what is the best and safest way to perform it. The stunt coordinator plans the stunt, oversees the setup and construction of special sets and materials, and either hires or recommends the most qualified stunt performer. Some stunt coordinators also take over the direction of action scenes. Because of this responsibility, many stunt coordinators are members not only of the Screen Actors Guild but also of the Directors Guild of America.
Although a stunt may last only a few seconds on film, preparations for the stunt can take several hours or even days. Stunt performers work with such departments as props, makeup, wardrobe, and set design. They also work closely with the special effects team to resolve technical problems and ensure safety. The director and the stunt performer must agree on a camera angle that will maximize the effect of the stunt. These preparations can save a considerable amount of production time and money. A carefully planned stunt can often be completed in just one take. More typically, the stunt person will have to perform the stunt several times until the director is satisfied with the performance.
Stunt performers do not have a death wish. They are dedicated professionals who take great precautions to ensure their safety. Air bags, body pads, or cables might be used in a stunt involving a fall or a crash. If a stunt performer must enter a burning building, special fireproof clothing is worn and protective cream is applied to the skin. Stunt performers commonly design and build their own protective equipment.
Stunt performers are not only actors but also athletes. Thus, they spend much of their time keeping their bodies in top physical shape and practicing their stunts.
Stunt Performer Career Requirements
Take physical education, dance, and other courses that will involve you in exercise, weight lifting, and coordination. Sports teams can help you develop the athletic skills needed. In a theater class, you’ll learn to take direction, and you may have the opportunity to perform for an audience.
There is no minimum educational requirement for becoming a stunt performer. Most learn their skills by working for years under an experienced stunt performer. A number of stunt schools, however, do exist, including the United Stuntmen’s Association National Stunt Training School. You can also benefit from enrolling in theater classes.
Among the skills that must be learned are specific stunt techniques, such as how to throw a punch; the design and building of safety equipment; and production techniques, such as camera angles and film editing. The more a stunt performer knows about all aspects of filmmaking, the better that person can design effective and safe stunts.
Certification or Licensing
There is no certification available, but, like all actors, stunt performers working in film and TV must belong to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Many stunt performers also belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). As a member of a union, you’ll receive special benefits, such as better pay and compensation for overtime and holidays.
Stunt work requires excellent athletic ability. Many stunt performers were high school and college athletes, and some were Olympic or world champions. Qualities developed through sports such as self-discipline, coordination, common sense, and coolness under stress are essential to becoming a successful stunt performer. As a stunt performer, you must exercise regularly to stay in shape and maintain good health. And since you may be working with ropes, cables, and other equipment, you should also have some understanding of the mechanics of the stunts you’ll be performing.
Because much of the work involves being a stunt double for a star actor, it is helpful to have a common body type. Exceptionally tall or short people, for example, may have difficulty finding roles.
Exploring Stunt Performer Career
There are few means of gaining experience as a stunt performer prior to actual employment. Involvement in high school or college athletics is helpful, as is acting experience in a school or local theater. As an intern or extra for a film production, you may have the opportunity to see stunt people at work. Theme parks and circuses also make much use of stunt performers; some of these places allow visitors to meet the performers after shows.
Most stunt performers work on a freelance basis, contracting with individual productions on a project-byproject basis. Stunt performers working on TV projects may have long-term commitments if serving as a stand-in for a regular character. Some stunt performers also work in other aspects of the entertainment industry, taking jobs with theme parks, and live stage shows and events.
Most stunt performers enter the field by contacting stunt coordinators and asking for work. Coordinators and stunt associations can be located in trade publications. To be of interest to coordinators, you’ll need to promote any special skills you have, such as stunt driving, skiing, and diving. Many stunt performers also have agents who locate work for them, but an agent can be very difficult to get if you have no stunt experience. If you live in New York or Los Angeles, you should volunteer to work as an intern for an action film; you may have the chance to meet some of the stunt performers, and make connections with crew members and other industry professionals. If you attend a stunt school, you may develop important contacts in the field.
New stunt performers generally start with simple roles, such as being one of 40 people in a brawl scene. With greater experience and training, stunt performers can get more complicated roles. Some stunt associations have facilities where stunt performers work out and practice their skills. After a great deal of experience, you may be invited to join a professional association such as the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures, which will allow you to network with others in the industry.
About five to ten years of experience are usually necessary to become a stunt coordinator. Some stunt coordinators eventually work as a director of action scenes.
The earnings of stunt performers vary considerably by their experience and the difficulty of the stunts they perform. As of 2006, the minimum daily salary of any member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), including stunt performers and stunt coordinators, was $737. Stunt performers working on a weekly basis in motion pictures or television earned a minimum of $2,746 per week. Stunt coordinators earned weekly minimums between $2,746 and $4,500. Though this may seem like a lot of money, few stunt performers work every day. According to the SAG, the majority of its 90,000 members make less than $7,500. But those who are in high demand can receive salaries of well over $100,000 a year.
Stunt performers usually negotiate their salaries with the stunt coordinator. In general, they are paid per stunt; if they have to repeat the stunt three times before the director likes the scene, the stunt performer gets paid three times. If footage of a stunt is used in another film, the performer is paid again. The more elaborate and dangerous the stunt, the more money the stunt performer receives. Stunt performers are also compensated for overtime and travel expenses. Stunt coordinators negotiate their salaries with the producer.
The working conditions of a stunt performer change from project to project. It could be a studio set, a river, or an airplane thousands of feet above the ground. Like all actors, they are given their own dressing rooms.
Careers in stunt work tend to be short. The small number of jobs is one reason, as are age and injury. Even with the emphasis on safety, injuries commonly occur, often because of mechanical failure, problems with animals, or human error. The possibility of death is always present. Despite these drawbacks, a large number of people are attracted to the work because of the thrill, the competitive challenge, and the chance to work in motion pictures.
Stunt Performer Career Outlook
There are over 2,500 stunt performers who belong to SAG, but only a fraction of those can afford to devote themselves to film work full time. Stunt coordinators will continue to hire only very experienced professionals, making it difficult to break into the business.
The future of the profession may be affected by computer technology. In more cases, filmmakers may choose to use special effects and computer-generated imagery for action sequences. Not only can computer effects allow for more ambitious images, but they’re also safer. Safety on film sets has always been a serious concern; despite innovations in filming techniques, stunts remain very dangerous. However, using live stunt performers can give a scene more authenticity, so talented stunt performers will always be in demand.