Q: How did you get into stunt work?
A: Back in 2001 in a small town in rural Northern California, a ragtag group of us martial artists, gymnasts, and videographers were inspired by the likes of Jackie Chan and wanted to see what it took to bring martial arts to the big screen. With our combined talents we went out and filmed a fight scene. I learned video editing over the weekend, ripped some sound effects from a kung fu movie, and put it online. And there it began. (You can see this first short film online, but you’ll have to hunt for it.)
Q. How do I make it as a stuntman/stuntwoman in Hollywood?
A. First, pick a set of skills. Then there’s a laundry list of stuff one should do: visit places where stunt performers practice, network, learn to shoot practice scenes on your own if you have to, visit sets, audition, network, and master social media. Did I mention network?
Q. What skills should I learn to ace a stunt audition?
A. There’s no surefire way to do it, but know this – in an audition, your credentials don’t matter, so don’t bring your trophy or wear a black belt. The folks who score the best in general auditions show off their kicks and flips first. Have some good hand techniques stored away, but unless the part calls specifically for it, don’t expect boxing to turn heads at an audition. Also train to fall convincingly on a mat, do basic Parkour, perform a few jujitsu moves, swing a sword or staff around (try Wushu, XMA, or Kendo), and choreograph a short fight scene at a moment’s notice. These specs change regularly, though. If you throw them a new concept, they might bite.
Q. There’s no film industry where I live. Can I do stunts here?
A. If you have a camera and some padding, you can do stunts anywhere. Making a living doing stunts is a separate issue. Fortunately, social media and YouTube have given indie filmmakers a huge break. If you’ve got a good idea, work on implementing it. Also, be sure to check out the Stunt World Map to see if there are stunt performers near you. A collaboration might be right around the corner.
Q. What’s your martial arts background?
A. Taekwondo since 2002, Hapkido since 2004, Boxing since 2015, and gymnastics throughout.
Q. I study the martial art of _______. Is it well-suited for stunt work?
A. Martial arts themselves are only tools, so no single art will make or break your chances at being a stunt performer. What’s more important is how one implements them into choreographed fight scenes. If you can convey what the choreographer wants without hurting fellow performers, then you’re doing it right.
Q. I want to learn to fall. How do I train for that?
A. To master falls, learn the proper falling techniques and create a well-rounded exercise routine to prevent injury. Gymnastics, trick martial arts, and springboard diving develop the body’s awareness to prepare it for falling. Judo, Hapkido, and other martial arts teach falls too. Olympic weightlifting and kettlebell training will increase bone density to help with impact.
Q. How can I move faster?
A. Weightlifting develops your fast-twitch muscle fibers, as do plyometric exercises like gymnastics and tricking martial arts. Set your bar high. Mimic the masters like Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan to be fast, though keep in mind practically all Hong Kong films were sped up 10%.
Q. What’s your workout routine?
A. Between shoots, I train daily with a mix of kettlebell exercises, martial arts, and gymnastics. I like to learn one new physical thing every day. And I don’t sit while working.
Q. Doesn’t weightlifting make you stiff?
A. Strengthening both sets of opposing muscles gives them the ability to stretch as well as the strength to go into the fully stretched position. It’s counterintuitive, but true. Read this book on flexibility for more.
Q. Who are your favorite fight choreographers?
A. Clayton Barber for integrating story and fight choreography for which he coined the term Storeo, John Salvitti for coining the term uncooperative choreography and bringing fight choreography back down to earth, Sammo Hung and Larnell Stoval for technicality, Bruce Lee for storytelling, Jackie Chan for character, Jung Doo Hong for grit, Panna Rittikrai for violence.
Q. Where do you draw inspiration from for your choreography?
A. Great action cinema from Hong Kong, America, Korea, Thailand, Japan, and Indonesia offers plenty of inspiration. I also load up on real-life fights from YouTube, be they sport or street. Then when it comes time to choreograph the scene, I imagine the scene from the camera’s point of view. Things start coming naturally then.
Q. What skills should I develop to make my own (action) films?
A. At the very least, learn how to shoot, (choreograph a fight), and edit. Learn Photoshop so you can make promotional artwork, which goes a long way. After Effects will give you a leg-up in the editing world too.
Q. What do you edit on?
A. I’ve used Adobe Premiere for 15 years. I prefer its layout and integration with Photoshop and After Effects. Other filmmakers use Final Cut. It’s a taste thing. If Final Cut is Pepsi, Premiere is Coke. And Coke is better.
Q. What camera do you recommend?
A. GoPro cameras are great for training footage and other shorts where image quality matters less. I used a GoPro for The Kicktionary and Vader Strikes. DSLRs like the Canon T5i (are they already on the T7i? I can’t keep up!) or the GH3 are good for test shoots, though you should get a stabilizer and a wide lens for them. For budget shoots like Rope A Dope, I use a Sony FS100 or an FS700, which look great with a good lens. I’ve used the Alexa and Red Dragon (Rope A Dope 2), and they look fantastic, but they’re harder to move around, so you’ll lose efficiency in your shoot and might need to resort to masters, coverage, and other techniques. Weigh each camera’s costs and benefits depending on the project.
Q. What solvent do you recommend for cleaning the heads on my dual 1-inch tape deck?
A. Consider going digital, pops.
Q. How do you come up with the ideas for your films?
A. I bring a pen and pad everywhere (I use sticky lists). Ideas are flying around everywhere, you just gotta catch them. And d0n’t be afraid of talking about your idea with others. They can improve upon it, or tell you it’s a dud.
Q. I’ve got an idea for a film. How should I write the script?
A. Start with a single-sentence logline. Read Save the Cat for more info.
Q. I tried writing my script, but it’s gotten too muddled and complicated. What should I do?
A. Simplicity is gold. Revisit your logline. And read Save the Cat.
Q. I’m stuck writing Act 2. I’m lost!
A. Imagine the trailer. The fun stuff is Act 2. Also, read Save the Cat.
Q. My hero is boring. Help!
A. The best feature films depict an internal “conversion” of the protagonist through which the audience experiences “catharsis“. The bigger the conversion, the greater the narrative impact. We write to achieve catharsis but are often not willing to convert ourselves, so our protagonist stagnates. Read Save the Cat for some help. René Girard and Eric Gans offer great narrative insight as well.
Q. I’ve got a script. Would you read it for me?
A. I read scripts and give notes at the rate of $120/hour, with a 2-hour minimum.
Q. How do you focus while writing?
A. Write at home, with a half hour “warm up” before locking in, and then write in silence for at least 4 hours without a break. If in a public place, face away from people and listen to white noise or something like Focus@Will. Cool down for 15 minutes and wrap up your thoughts when finished or you’ll become a Final Draft zombie that nobody will enjoy talking to.
Q. What’s your worst injury?
A. Herniated L5 disk with sciatica, busted right rotator cuff from Death Grip, bad left ankle, broken orbital, broken toes, small stuff but nothing I couldn’t walk off. I’ve been lucky.
Q. What’s your favorite martial arts film?
A. Drunken Master 2, but there are too many to list.
Q. How do you maintain your beard?
A. Baking soda with water is a good shampoo, and apple cider vinegar with water is a great conditioner. It’ll keep your skin from drying out and you’ll avoid beardruff. Otherwise, just rinse and avoid soap and shampoo.
Q. How do you deal with trolls?
A. I treat them like adults. Either they go away or become fans.
Q. What’s your secret to social media?
A. Quality Content creates Quality Viewers – Don’t spam people asking them to share your content. If it’s good, they’ll want to share it. Paying third parties for followers will boost your follower numbers, but it won’t help your engagement. 2,000 engaged followers who share and comment are more valuable than 15,000 unengaged followers.
Consistency – People want to know what to expect from you. If you’re getting millions of views for your stunts and you post about your favorite presidential candidate, fans might abandon ship (unless your politics make your brand). Don’t blame them; you’re an artist and you’re accountable.
Platform – Understand the platform you’re using and maximize it within its own realm, and it will respond. Not all platforms are ideal for your content. Twitter is mostly news-related, Pinterest is for design, Vine for comedy and graphics, YouTube for films, Instagraph for images, Snapchat for events, and Facebook for branding. Master the platform, show people you exist on other platforms, and let them find your content on other platforms by themselves. Don’t Tweet about Facebook posts or post YouTube links on Instagram. It will be counter-productive.
Q. Should I start a blog for my action team?
A. Blogs don’t operate like social media. Developing an audience and long-form content is more time-consuming, but in the end can be very rewarding as it gives your readers a chance to escape the throes of social media. I started this website in 1998 as a Hong Kong film review site that specialized in breaking down fight scenes. It was a ton of work that I gave up on eventually, but it’s what built my audience and got me where I am now. However, videos and blogs don’t mix very well and it might feel like oil and water. Consider using a social media platform instead, unless you’ve got a social message that requires the blog form.
Feel free to ask me anything at ask.fm/theericjacobus.