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Risky Business

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Every shoot carries its risks, but ‘stuntys’ working in Australia are kept as safe as possible by a rigorous training and grading system, writes Karol Foyle

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Kyle Gardiner performing a stunt during the making of Fool's Gold

From being blown up to being hit by a car, a stunt performer’s role is to make the impossible possible, to create movie magic, safely and without being seen.

“Everyone thinks it’s putting yourself at risk or in harm’s way every day, and to some degree that is what we do, but it’s a calculated risk,” says stunt coordinator and National Stunt Committee member Kyle Gardiner. “You do everything you can to minimise the risk, whether that is thorough training or experience. Sometimes it’s by saying no to things that just aren’t possible.”

It’s not just those outside the industry who misunderstand what stunt performers do. Stunt performer and National Stunt Committee member Ingrid Kleinig often has to remind directors that stunt performers are actually acting.

“Sometimes people don’t understand that I do this for a living,” says Kleinig. “If you do something on the weekend, a belly flop for example, you are going to be sore for the week, but I have to turn up for work and do something very similar, with high impact, every day. I have to know my boundaries for repeatable action and that is something that directors who haven’t worked with stunts don’t get. They think it’s all fun and we can go home bruised and battered.”

It’s a sentiment that veteran stunt coordinator Darko Tuskan agrees with. Since its inception, Tuskan has been a member of Equity’s National Stunt Committee. It’s part of his role to train and grade stunt performers, to ensure that Australian “stuntys” improve their skill levels, and to reinforce safety standards across the industry. Without it, Tuskan believes accidents would be more prevalent on set.

“Each performer should know not to go beyond their level of skill, otherwise accidents can occur,” says Tuskan.

“Australia has one of the best stunt grading systems in place. The procedures give us a higher standard and calibre of stunt performers.  When others see our protocol, even those from the US, they see straight away that there is a system and that stunts can’t be done by just anyone.”

Tuskan believes that it is every stunt performer’s responsibility to continue their training throughout their career, not just for their own safety but also for their fellow performers.

“Even for the guys who have been around for eight to 10 years, if they are unsure of how to do a simple stunt, I should not have to go through that with them on set.

“They need to know their own abilities before they are on set, and that is why we have training. Otherwise it costs the production for me to train on set and it makes it more dangerous if they are trying it for the first time, not knowing their limits.

“The best person for any stunt job is the person who knows their body control and knows how to do it with precision. Close is not good enough because it can affect the other stunt performers on set in a negative way. It’s a range of skills they need to develop and continue to develop, even if they think they know all there is.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Equity Magazine

As stunt coordinators, Tuskan and Gardiner work with directors, to hear what they are after and to explain and coordinate what is possible, especially in terms of safety.

“Our expertise is why we are hired, because they are relying on our experience to tell them that it’s not a safe way to do things,” says Gardiner. “There are many ways to shoot things and to make it safe, whether it be one shot or interaction with many shots.”

Unlike actors, a stunt performer’s role is to be almost unnoticeable and often they are the only ones who can recognise themselves on screen. Stuntys are quite happy letting the lead actor steal the scene, even if their family might not be.

“You always know (on screen) when it is something that you have done, especially when the scene is coming up” says Gardiner. “But it’s funny with my mum and dad saying ‘Oh we did not see you’ and I think, well that is kind of the point, that you don’t notice me.”
Kleinig agrees. She prefers the accolades on the day rather than at the movie premier weeks or months after production has finished.

“I am totally happy with not being seen,” say Kleinig.  “I think we get the best job on set. After you do a good stunt the whole set erupts and you get the glory on the day.”

“Now that they can digitally replace you face, the director is no longer telling you to hide your face in the scene. It’s such a different world to when I started, because previously you learnt a second sense of hiding your face and not being seen. It can be hard not to do that.”
Kleinig also enjoys shattering the misconceptions that a female stunt performer can’t be the best person for a particular stunt, even when the stunt actor’s gender is never apparent.

“I definitely had to prove that I was tough, especially being a female and not being a particularly tough looking female. You do have to earn your stripes. I am often underestimated, but less so these days, although in the early days quite a lot. Interestingly, I find that I have to prove myself a lot with driving jobs because there is a mentality that girls cannot drive. I do a lot of driving work and I still get it. It’s really funny that people don’t expect to see a female precision driver.”

Assumptions based on gender, age or physical size are precisely why Tuskan believes the grading system works, because it ensures a director knows the skill levels of the stunt actors they employ.

 “It’s a range of skills they need to develop and continue to develop, because it’s a forever changing industry. The training and grading is about maintaining a level of integrity across the industry.”

“The training also helps me as a coordinator, to understand where performers have their best skills and where they have their downfalls. Everyone has a different feel and perspective, something to offer and something to improve.”

Kleinig agrees, saying the training keeps her on her toes, ready to expect the unexpected.

 “Each stunt request is completely different,” she says. “I always imagine the process of the stunt but I don’t envisage the details, because it is always different from what you imagine. That’s where the training helps. If you have your heart set on one thing and you have no flexibility to change, that’s where the danger occurs.

“I have only ever been injured in training because that is where I am testing the boundaries. You do not want to be doing that on set. Off set is where you learn where the boundaries are and what not to cross on set."

Karol Foyle is a journalist with the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

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