Computer graphics imagery has supplanted stunt work in many movies, and that's destroying one of the oldest pleasures of the silver screen.

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 12 2008


Computer graphics imagery has supplanted stunt work in many movies, and that's destroying one of the oldest pleasures of the silver screen.

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 12 2008


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Computer graphics imagery has supplanted stunt work in many movies, and that's destroying one of the oldest pleasures of the silver screen.


The filming of the next James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, hasn’t killed any stuntmen yet, but it keeps coming close: one stuntman accidentally drove a car into a lake, and another went into a coma after Bond’s Aston Martin collided with another stunt car. But for working stuntmen, that kind of carnage may be better than the alternative, because at least Quantum of Solace gives them a chance to get hurt. Most movies today don’t, because this is a time when computer graphics imagery (CGI) has supplanted real, dangerous stunt work and car chases in many movies and TV series. Stunts are so retro that the new Indiana Jones adventure, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, set for a May 22 release, is being sold as a deliberately oldfashioned picture just because it has real stunts: “We’re not cheating with CG,” producer Frank Marshall told the New Haven Register. “It keeps the B movie feel.” Roberto Lopez, a stunt coordinator for television shows such as Flight of 'the Conchords, and who did stunts on action series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, says that these days, “it gets harder to find work. You still find work, but it’s small, meat-and-potatoes stuff, simple

little things. The big stuff is almost non-existent now except in the bigger films.” Despite the efforts of James Bond to put stuntmen in the hospital, we may be losing the oldest pleasure of movies—seeing somebody nearly kill himself on film.

Of course, movies and TV haven’t exactly abandoned stunts, and they never will: James Logan, who has performed stunts on TV shows like NCIS and movies like Kill Bill, says “I can’t think of a single one” when asked to name a movie that eliminates stunt performers altogether. But this isn’t because movies are continuing with old-school stunts; it’s because even the most CGI-heavy movies need some real live stuntmen to make the computer imagery come off properly. Logan points out that “CG-laden films like Transformers and Titanic employed hundreds of stuntpeople. Maybe thousands.” But the new idea is to take stunts and enhance them with computer effects, or use human stuntpeople as just one of the many things we see in a larger special-effects canvas.

That kind of scene may keep stuntmen employed, but it doesn’t really give them much to do. They’re like the man in the first establishing shot of Casablanca: the skyline is a fake, a matte painting, but the director

put a real person in a tower for the illusion that the rest of the shot was real. That’s what happens in Transformers or Spider-Man: there are real people in there, but they share the scene with the CGI artists, who can take simple stunts and use computer animation to make them look more difficult than they are. The stuntpeople are characters in a computergenerated cartoon.

Movies like the Spider-Man trilogy would normally call for elaborate stunts, but most of the action sequences were heavily computerenhanced. And instead of stunt photographers creating aerial shots, many of the backgrounds for the fight scenes were created on a computer—which allows for more elaborate camera movements but also makes the characters look as if they’re living inside a video game. Even the James Bond series, despite its habit of smashing up cars and stuntmen, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2002 by having a computer-generated James Bond defying computer-generated death in Die Another Day. Lopez says that while he appreciates the usefulness of CGI to action movies, it’s gotten out of hand: “The Matrix used CGI, but it took a lot of time with the actors, so you could actually see the actors’ faces and see them going through the paces. But a movie like

Blade 2 tried to do entirely digital fight scenes, and it looked very bad.”

But at least mega-budget movies still use a lot of stunts, enhanced or otherwise; lower-budget films and TV shows have hardly anything worth noticing. The pilot for NBC’s revival of Knight Rider was described by its producer as a throwback to “lighter, fun, ‘action-y’ ” shows of the ’80s. But the one thing it didn’t bring back was the stunt work. The original Knight Rider wasn’t a very impressive-looking show, but it did have tons of car chases with firstclass stunts: the camera would show K.I.T.T. the talking car and the villain’s car bashing each other, turning over and exploding. (It was usually the villain’s car that exploded.) The revival benefited from all the extra production values that TV has available today: the set design, camera movement and lighting are all far beyond what an ’80s show could offer.

And yet the car chases were dismal by comparison with the original: there were a few shots of actual cars not doing very much, but most of the chases were filled out with computerized special effects, fake perspective shots, and rear projection. Viewers who grew up with the original objected to the new pilot’s inability to give them the fun of seeing two cars actually punishing the road. With the technical standards of TV improving every year, stunt work is the only element that is actually worse than it was 20 years ago.

Why did this happen? Start with the obvious: computers can do things real people can’t. If the fight scenes in the Spider-Man movies were done traditionally, they would be limited to the things that humans can do without getting killed (at least most of the time): punching, jumping, falling. Audiences have seen all that before, and what’s worse, they’ve seen more spectacular things happen in the comic books these movies (and many, many other current movies) are based on. With CGI, the filmmakers can show things that couldn’t possibly be done in real life—and, therefore, haven’t been done in other movies. Then there’s the matter of insurance. A movie can’t do an unadorned, CGI-free stunt unless it’s fully insured, and the riskier the stunt, the more it costs to insure

the production. “Studios have had insurance companies involve themselves in production to try to minimize the risk of financial exposure for the insurer,” says John Ashker, a veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator. That means the temptation is irresistible to shift more of the burden to computers, which need insurance only against unexplained system errors. Much of what the computer wizards do is to find ways to allow a stunt to

look more dangerous than it actually is.

But the fun of great stunt performance is that it actually is dangerous. The most famous stunt from the first Indiana Jones movie involved Ford’s stunt double climbing under a speeding truck and grabbing onto a rope at the other end; while there was some special-effects fakery involved there, the reason it’s a classic is that it is mostly a real person on a real truck. The appeal of a great stunt scene, Lopez says, is “the idea that somebody sacrificed to be able to do it.” The current CGI-heavy methods reduce the cost of making films, and they also reduce the risk for stuntpeople with such tricks as digitally remov-

ing wires in post-production (so a stuntman can hang from a wire without worrying that we’ll see it). Many stuntpeople appreciate this: Steve Kelso, the president of the U.S. stuntmen’s association, told Variety that he likes CGI because it provides “new ways to move and hold people, and then go back and take it all out.” But what it also provides is a feeling, on the part of many viewers, that there’s something phony about what they’re seeing onscreen—because unlike the great stunts of yesteryear, it really is phony. “As a stuntperson,” says Logan, “I understand the budgetary realities of filmmaking sometimes require making tough choices between what can be shot practically and what can be generated by a computer, but as an audience member, I don’t.”

In a way, the development of CGI-enhanced stunts is a bit like the creation of rear projection in the 1930s. With the creation of “plates” (footage projected on a screen behind the actors), most movies and TV shows began to keep the actors in the studio and tried to make it look as if they were driving a car or walking in Brazil. But while the effect was cheaper and more efficient for the studios, it looked terrible and has become one of the most-mocked elements of old movies. While CGI currently looks better than rear projection, it’s already starting to look dated, with ’90s computer technology provoking laughter from the audience. The advantage of doing something for real—whether it’s a real person driving a real car, or jumping off a real building—is that it never feels dated and always earns the audience’s respect. Lopez analogizes it to dancing, which never goes out of style: “You take movies that have a long shelf life, like West Side Story, or Fred Astaire movies, they’re still alive today because you can’t fake that skill.” The CGI effects of today will look bad in a few years; a good stunt, like good dancing, never dates.

Certainly the long shelf life of the Indiana Jones movies, along with Die Hard and Rambo and other stunt-heavy franchises that have been revived, demonstrates that the movies with the best stunts are often the ones that hold up the longest. But that doesn’t mean that studios will learn from this; even Indiana Jones fans have expressed fear, on the basis of the trailer, that the filmmakers may not keep their promise to cut down on CGI.

Of course, stuntpeople will always be able to find work: James Logan is adamant that “big action requires stunt performers. Stunt performers will always exist. That’s it. Period. The jury is in.” But even if they exist, we may no longer be able to enjoy watching them slam into walls and break bones. And a movie or TV show isn’t fun to watch unless somebody suffered to make it. M u