Skills I Seek In Stunt People

Someone asked me what I look for in a stunt people when casting for our films. I gave him more than an ear-full, which may have been unwarranted but made me realize it could make an interesting post, because the answers weren’t as broad as some would think.

  1. Not Telegraphing
    If I’m doing a kick to the head, and his block comes up too early (usually because he’s just drilled the moves of the fight into a choreographed move set, like a kata) then the audience sees my kick coming too soon. So he’s telegraphed my kick, and I look slower. Telegraphing a move itself means making it obvious to the audience that a move (i.e. a kick) is coming. If a telegraphed kick manages to hit me, then I’m slower than the audience. Subconsciously they’ll think they’re better, and they’re technically right. Not good. Study pro boxing matches for good examples of how professionals avoid telegraphing their moves.

  2. Move Speed
    I say “Move Speed” because 20 weak punches thrown rapidly in the span of 8 seconds looks worse than 10 fast, crisp moves thrown in the same time period. Martial artists of any caliber often have a problem doing a move at 100% speed on camera and they end up slowing down to “sparring” speed. I have no idea why this is, but it’s annoying and I avoid stunt guys who have that issue. If they can do 10 crisp moves at 100% speed, then it’s just a matter of muscle memory to get that up to 20 moves. This requires less effort than trying to teach them how to do their moves better. I leave that part to martial art instructors, which I am not.

  3. Bone Density
    Because they will bruise after we clash limbs at the same spot 60 times.

  4. Idling
    When a stuntman is “waiting” in the middle of a fight, a number of annoying things sometimes happen.

    Glare– Stuntman opens his eyes wide and puts his chin out while he waits for hit to connect, signaling to the audience that a hit is coming and reducing the impact. His mouth might make an “o” shape too.

    Flaily Arms – Stuntman moves his arms wildly like windmills. It cheapens the movement on camera, since no meaningful sound could be derived from flaily arms. The problem with this is that stuntmen look at their own flaily arms and think they’ve done a great job at keeping the action moving, but a director sees it as cheapening the value of the fight as a whole. The problem can be alleviated with choreography that fills more space, but I take the view that stunt guys are better off just reducing their movement.

    Twitching – Stuntman is ready to block a move too soon, but instead of telegraphing, stuntman raises his arms to blocking position rapidly multiple times until the attack comes. Same result as flaily arms but more linear (fills fight with less flow-y nonsense and more jittery nonsense, if that makes sense…).

  5. Kicking the Block
    Stuntman can kick a block at 100% power without blasting through it and breaking the actor’s arm or, if the actor fails to block at all, his head. Martial artists are taught to punch past the block, or chop past the board. That’s all good for breaking wood and bones. Not good for film.

  6. Contact Line Accuracy
    The contact line is the spot you have to hit so it looks like you smacked the actor, without actually smacking him. Draw a line from the camera lens to the actor’s face, and extend to infinity past his face. Pretend that line is a super-tight bungee cord and hit it accordingly. Wide angle lenses will make it harder to hit the line, but your move will be faster. If the camera is constantly moving and the contact line changes, keep imagining the line moving around so you don’t miss it at the end of a long shot. Hit the line and don’t slip too far past it.

  7. Adaptive Muscle Memory (AMM)
    This one’s critical. AMM is the ability to quickly modify what you’ve learned your entire life, adapt it for the camera, and work it into a fast series of moves. Most people can’t remember a series of 20 moves, let alone 1 very new & weird thing in that series. It requires the kind of muscle memory that is able to flush itself dry within one minute and remember an entirely new move like it’s something you’ve known your entire life, while still remembering everything else in the choreography. After practicing the choreography, the move stops feeling weird and become a natural reaction whatever the other person is doing. Within 20 minutes, you’ll forget it entirely so you can “free up parking spots” for the next moves.

    You’d think dancers would be better at this, but I’ve noticed no correlation. My cursory understanding is that dancing is more like flow. Fighting is reaction. While dancers do react to music or other dancers, it’s a slow reaction that builds on itself and targets a different part of the brain. Fight choreography is mostly reaction with 10% flow just to make sure the next move comes. A fight that flows too much becomes dance and stops being fight, so dancing skills are not very transferable. That’s not to say dancers can’t have this, but the skills don’t overlap much. AMM is just rare.

  8. Uniqueness
    I’ve never been a fan of everyone knowing the same moves, and The Stunt People have a wide variety of styles. Fights are more interesting when the audience can see new things, evidenced by audience excitement when a unique fighter enters the MMA circuit. I like when a stunt person has something unique to offer. It gives me as a choreographer something to play with and inspires the rest of the team.

Aside from that, the usual: good martial arts, good falls (if applicable), not injury-prone, able to work 20+ hours, takes direction, can think on the spot, etc.