Stunt performers compete with CGI for jobs

By Alicia Canales

 (Courtesy of)

Bridgett Riley believes humans cannot be entirely replaced in stunts. (Courtesy of Bridgett Riley)

It’s no surprise that the movie industry has evolved over the years. Silent films turned into surround-sound features. Digital replaced film. And with the increased use of special effects, computer generated images (CGI) are enhancing physical performances.

“Yeah, a lot of us are like, ‘Do we still have a job? Do we still have an industry?’” said Bridgett “Baby doll” Riley, a stunt woman with a 20-year stunt career. “But you can’t replace a human. You just can’t.”

Computer generated images are digital graphics that enhance a film production. They work alongside special effects in creating scenes that are otherwise nearly impossible to film. Some examples of CGI include having people look like they are flying or creating a large crowd by multiplying a few people.

Riley, a 39-year-old former five-time world kickboxing champion, said she notices the difference with CGI and it takes her out of the movie. She prefers organic stunts, like when she fought 18 men in a narrow prison cell for “Watchmen.”

However, she said special effects are like stuntmen’s “brothers” because both sides need trust involving timing and coordinated actions. She said an example is when stunt performers need to have faith that the people working with special effects will blow up the glass at exactly the right time the stunt performer “crashes” through so he or she is not hurt.

Hugh Aodh O’Brien, 48, has been in the stunt industry for 28 years. O’Brien, treasurer of the Stuntmen’s Association, said he specialized in motorcycles and car crashes at the beginning of his career. This includes a time where he rode a car on fire off a 180-foot pipe ramp jump for “In the Shadows.” He’s also been set on fire more than 130 times.

Now O’Brien works more with rigging and wire systems, either as a performer or stunt coordinator. O’Brien said he thinks computer generated images present an upside and a downside for the stunt industry, but it’s a matter of finding the balance.

Caption goes here. (Courtesy of)

Hugh Aodh O’Brien says computer generated images have pros and cons. (Courtesy of Hugh Aodh O’Brien)

“In some ways, the computer has made the stunt safer, because we can have more safety systems, we have more control over the body, and then erase those controls and safety systems in the computer to make it look more dangerous than it might really be,” O’Brien said.

The safety features with computer generated images can affect a stunt person’s salary. O’Brien said a stunt adjustment fee is taken into account on top of a base contract for stunt work. The fee is tied to factors such as skill level, danger to life and limb, amount of times and more. A stunt where technology reduces the risk means less money for the stunt person.

However, O’Brien said CGI can generate more work as well. What might once have been a single-shot stunt could take more days to film. For example, a stunt person used to jump off a 120 foot building one time. Now, one day may have the stunt actor jumping off a 20 foot building, with the camera crew shooting from a lower angle to make it look higher. Then the next day could be focused on shooting the landing. Computer generated images will make it look like the stunt person is still jumping off a 120-foot building. The stunt actor will be paid for those two days instead of a one-time shot.

Grant Jewett, 37, has been in the industry for 13 years in many productions such as “Revolution” and “The Dark Knight.” He said stunt performers have adapted to the increased use of visual effects instead of fighting it.

“We’re embracing and trying to partner with visual effects as a tool to do things that are sometimes impossible, or do things that are faster to do or easier on the budget,” Jewett said. “It’s not an us-versus-them kind of thing.”

O’Brien said the stunt industry is more competitive now because, in addition to more uses of CGI, audiences are more aware of the job and how fun it can be.

“There are very few people who dream of doing something as a kid and actually getting to do that job as an adult,” O’Brien said. “And the reality of the job is better than the imagined job was as a kid.”

For aspiring stunt performers, Riley said it’s good to make connections with people in the industry, as well as having a stunts, live theater or serious athletic background. Though it may seem obvious, Riley said it’s important to do a good job when filming.

“That’s the key because bad news travels quick, and it’s an unforgiving businesses,” Riley said. “You have to know what you’re doing.”

Jewett said he thinks learning from a mentor like he did is the best way to become a stunt person. He said contacting legitimate film workers and asking questions is a good way to learn about the business.

“You can get in other ways, but they tend to make a couple bucks and get chewed up and spit out,” Jewett said.

O’Brien advises having a specific skill set because most stunt performers are an ex-professional or current professional at something. He also said it’s important to realize stunts are not about just being beaten up.

Stunt performers must act well because they have a character to play before dying, usually. O’Brien also suggests learning the overall production process to understand the art of storytelling better.

“If all you can do is fall down, you’re going to have a limited career,” O’Brien said. “It’s learning about the entire process, not just stunts.”