Shooting Stunts and Action on a Budget [SXSW 2014 #goodaction]

  1. THE RIGHT PEOPLE – surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Life is a learning experience, and you can always learn something new from anybody, even if it is just how not to do it. Anybody can talk, anybody can show you some footage and claim it is theirs. How do you tell the right people apart? Knowledge and experience. You come to events like this and hear people with proven experience talk, you read books and watch instructional videos made by people with proven experience, people who’ve done it. If you’re lucky, you make friends with a legend and try to soak up as much as you can. Then, when it’s time to hire someone, you ask them to talk about some of the things you know and see how they stack up. For action, the foremost right people are: the Director,  the Second Unit Director which is sometimes also the Stunt Coordinator, your Camera Operator and your Stunt Performers (normally hired by the stunt coordinator, and it should be so). And the first and foremost important thing to know when shooting action, especially on a low to no budget is…
  2. SAFETY –   No stunt, action sequence or actor doing his own stunts is worth injuring someone. Safety is a very broad subject and we can’t cover everything in a paragraph, but as usual, you need to find people you can trust to be safe. It’s natural for a producer to want to cut costs. Movies are not easy things to create. It takes a lot of energy, which can either be time or money. This is one corner it is unwise to cut, unless the person cutting really knows what they’re doing. Always have B and C backup plans if your primary safety mechanism fails. Always walk through each stunt slowly and try to figure out what can go wrong. Think outside the box. Ask an expert. Everybody loves making movies. Even if you can’t afford a pro, take him out to dinner and tell him what you plan to do, and ask him for advice. Offer to give him consulting credit, or something, or better yet, pay him to get the job done right. When you’re dealing with action, all kinds of things can go wrong. Take the example of Sarah Jones’ incident on the set of Midnight Rider, and that wasn’t even shooting action. Of course we can come up with stories of people who got away with it… but they were lucky. What about the people that weren’t lucky? You need to trust your Stunt Coordinator implicitly. If you’re not sure, check with someone else. Again, you can contact us and we can give you an opinion based on the information you provide us. It pays to be safe.

NB: If you don’t think you can safely do something more than once, then don’t do it

  1. PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING –  And as Low and No Budget filmmakers,  you should have started your preparation before the writing stage. Don’t write Star Wars if you’re going to shoot it yourself on a budget. If you don’t have access to it,  don’t write it in.  Then,  before you start,  regardless of budget size,  Low or High, pre-production is where action questions are asked and answered. (Do not put this issue off until you’re almost ready to shoot). Here you can decide what your budget can afford taking Safety into account. It’s better to lose a stunt than regret something for the rest of your life. Here you can ask the right people for safe and cheaper alternatives to a more expensive stunt,  or high-priced camera equipment (e.g. Stand on a truck if you can’t get a crane) – you can ask people like us. Make sure you get a good shot list from the right stunt coordinator well before you hit  the set. Your stunt team will need time to prepare so they can be safe,  and make it look good. Your camera team, ideally, should also learn the routines so they know where they need to be and what looks right and what doesn’t. Obviously budget is everything, but talk to your people and explain your situation. If they opt to shortcut, maybe they’re not the right people for you. If you’ve never shot action before,  just know that the 20 minutes per shot guideline of indie films, does not apply here. Action takes a lot more time to shoot than dialogue.
    1. Prep starts while you’re writing. Not only do you want to make sure you write for the things you have at your disposal (locations, favors, vehicles, etc.) you also want to write things in a way that allows your stunt performers to be safe, e.g. make sure their wardrobe allows them to wear protective padding and fire suits, pick locations where you can hide crash mats, etc.; the more dangerous and complex your stunts, the more it’s going to cost. Fire is more impressive at night or in the dark. Always a good idea to check with an expert and see if there’s a cheaper way to portray your stunt, but perhaps more effective – not everything translates to the screen the same way.
    2. If you know where you’re going to shoot, look around for people in the area who can do your stunts – e.g. skate boarders, free runners, pole vaulters, high divers, motocross racers, gymnasts


  1. MAKING IT LOOK GOOD – The Director and Director of Photography can make a big difference in the effectiveness of shooting action. Bigger, Closer, Higher, Faster, Danger, Impact and In-Your-Face can be accentuated or destroyed by camera placement and lens choice. Learn how to maximize that. Keep in mind ACTION is the most inexpensive opportunity to increase the Production Value and Scope of your film! A common cheat these days is to shoot so close to the action that you can’t tell what is really going on. You can’t tell a hit from a miss. For example, in the Daniel Craig version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there is a flashback scene where a girl swings a large oar and completely misses the man, but he still ends up in the water. This is not a low budget film. Ultimately it’s the Director’s fault, but a knowing DP or camera op could have prevented this. By the time it gets to the editor, if the shot is not there, all they can do is cheat, or hope nobody in the audience notices.
  2. PRACTICALS VS CGI – CGI is like stunt fighting, if it’s good you don’t even know it’s a trick, or that it’s there, if not, your movie better be intended to be campy. CGI can save you work or expensive stunts, but it is not the be-all-end-all because we’ve gotten used to the likes of Avatar. With practicals you shoot it from 3 or 4 different angles and shot sizes, and you can cut a complex sequence and even save a poor take. If you’re shooting digital you know on the spot what it looks like. With CGI a simple cutting task becomes one special FX for each shot in the sequence. The moral? Find the right stunt coordinator and the right CGI guy, and ask them how long and how much.
  3. INSURANCE, WHEN AND WHY – Whether it is minimal or maximum stunts or action USE YOUR COMMON SENSE. If your film has dangerous stunts I urge you as Producer, Director or Head of Production to ACQUIRE INSURANCE! If you have no insurance for your film don’t shoot stunts that can result in injury. A simple fight routine can be done safely, running someone over can be cheated easily, shooting people without squibs or explosives can be done safely, etc. WARNING!!! New or inexperienced stunt coordinators and stuntmen CAN BE DANGEROUS in many cases. Their enthusiasm and desire to be a Stuntman etc. has resulted in many deaths, paralysis and permanent injuries not only for the Stunt Performers but in many cases Camera Crews, Extras, and Other Cast Members Etc.. As the responsible party of your production, keep in mind the litigation to which you are exposing yourself and your production.
  4. MINIMUM REQUIREMENT – If you can’t find the right people in the industry,  at least seek out someone with experience or the expertise necessary to make a responsible decision concerning the stunts in your film and the necessary safety precautions and rigging. For example,  athletes, professionals in the field being portrayed, coaches, etc.

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