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A stunt performer is a highly trained professional, contracted to perform dangerous scenes in films, television and live shows, often standing in for actors so they do not get hurt.
Films and television often require dangerous scenes to be shot with the maximum level of realism. If an actor is hurt during shooting it could cost the project serious amounts of money, running into the millions in the case of big budget Hollywood movies. Also stunts may require a high level of physical ability. For this reason specialised stunt performers are contracted to perform the dangerous scenes. From a simple fall to a full body burn, car crash or high fall, stunt performers plan and perform the dangerous parts in any production. Stunt performers in the UK are trained to a high level in a number of different physical disciplines.
Stunt performers are paid a fixed daily rate which is set by EQUITY, the Union for Actors and Performers. In addition to the daily base rate, a bonus is paid for each stunt performed. The rate paid for stunts varies according to the risk, thus a full body burn or rolling car crash pays considerably more than a simple trip and fall.
A stunt performer is required to assess and document each stunt prior to execution, discussing it with the stunt coordinator on set. He may then be required to operate as part of a team where the stunt requires apparatus such as mats, ropes and/ or incendiary devices in order to set the stunt up. Finally the stunt performer will perform the stunt, first a number of times in rehearsal and then on camera, possibly a number of times again.
Depending on his speciality, a stunt performer may be required to perform:
- Car crashes
- Fight scenes
- High falls from buildings or other high structures
- Horse riding
- Falling down
- A full or partial burn i.e. being set on fire
In order to work as a stunt performer in the UK, admission to the JSIC stunt register must first be attained. It is highly competitive and highly demanding.
The stunt register is divided into 3 categories:
In order to qualify as a probationary member of the stunt register, a minimum of six skills must be chosen from across six categories and performed (under test conditions or with official documentation) to a pre-determined JSIC standard. No more than two skills can be chosen from any one category and the applicant must also have had 60 days non-stunt experience in front of a camera on a professional production.
The categories are as follows:
- Group A: Fighting – martial arts or western boxing.
- Group B: Falling – trampolining or high diving.
- Group C: Riding and Driving – car racing, horse racing/ jumping, or motorcycle racing.
- Group D: Agility and Strength – gymnastics, rock climbing or mountaineering.
- Group E: Water – swimming or sub aqua.
- Group F: Miscellaneous – any individual skill performed to a very high standard, i.e. national or international level (at JSIC discretion).
The level required for each skill is very high; for example high diving sets out a number of different dives all to be performed from the 10 metre board. Sub Aqua demands the level of PADI dive master or equivalent; meanwhile both boxing and riding skills must come with proof of successful competition results.
The physical skills required to be a stunt performer are laid out in the Qualifications sections of this guide. The following personal attributes would also be of use:
- A safety conscious attitude, since stunt performers are there to make dangerous situations as safe as possible.
- A friendly and approachable manner, as you will frequently be working in new situations.
- Ability to follow instructions closely. Film and TV have a strict hierarchy and stunt performers, while important, are nearer to the bottom.
- Good organisational ability. Paperwork is a big part of the job.
Being a stunt performer is a very dangerous job, which is why the rate of pay and entrance qualifications are so high. You will be working on film and television sets on location or in a studio. As such you could find yourself working outdoors in all weather conditions, in uncomfortable situations such as underwater, down a mine, at the top of a mountain, or in a moving vehicle.
The job is obviously very demanding physically. Performing a stunt is hard enough but performing it multiple times and being asked to change it before repeating it requires a high level of fitness, strength and endurance. Hours can be very long and will conform to a production schedule designed to minimise project expenditure. The stunt team will always be secondary to the main acting unit, so be prepared for early starts, late finishes and working through the night.
In order to make stunts look as visually exciting and realistic as possible, a range of equipment is utilised. Crash mats, pads and fireproof suits keep the stunt performers safe; ropes, air ramps and pulleys send them flying through the air to mimic the effects of explosions. Special stunt vehicles are rigged up to be able to take a tumble and highly trained (and expensive) stunt horses can fall, roll and buck at command.
To qualify as a probationary member of the JSIC stunt register it is necessary to have had 60 days experience in front of the camera on a professional production (as long as it’s not doing stunts). As stunt work requires a measure of acting, any performance experience is very beneficial.
Experience as a walk on actor, or extra is relatively easy to find; there are a number of extras agencies whom you can contact for work.
Employers of stuntmen are film and television production companies. To a lesser extent, live stunt shows also employ stunt performers, sometimes from outside of the stunt register and for lower pay.
A stunt performer may apply for category 2 of the stunt register (Intermediate), after 3 years on probation with 60 days of stunt work and 36 qualifying stunts as laid out by JSIC. After this it takes another 2 years to gain full membership, category 3, and work as a stunt coordinator.
Only with considerable experience and ability will a stunt coordinator be able to rise to the top of the profession as a Stunt Director. In some major motion pictures the stunt director is second only to the main director, responsible for his own entire unit of assistant directors, camera men, performers, lighting technicians, rigging staff and so forth. For example, a big budget movie with a major war scene could have a stunt director in charge of scenes involving hundreds of extras and stunt performers working with explosions, fight sequences, horses and vehicles.
Also known as…
- Stunt man
- Stunt woman
What’s it really like?
Dean Forster, 41, is a JSIC registered stunt performer and stunt coordinator working in the UK. He has been working with stunts for 20 or so years.
What did you do before this job?
I was in the army and I was a Butlins redcoat. My family owned a motorcycle stunt team when I was a youngster and as we travelled the country I picked up skills such as tumbling and acrobatics. Working in Butlins I did a tumbling, acrobatics and fire eating act.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
It’s a million different things. On a day to day basis, if you are doing television you go in about 7-ish, have breakfast, hang round till lunchtime, do your stunt and then go home. If you are in film you do exactly the same but you don’t do the stunt, you just hang around all day. It normally takes two weeks to do a stunt on film and a day to do it on television. On films they have more money to spend, more time and they want to get every single angle perfect
What do you like about the job?
Everything. From getting the phone call for the work through to physically doing it. I love every single part of it. If I won the lottery I would do it free of charge.
What do you dislike about the job?
Nothing really. Apart from not working; I don’t like not working as I get bored very easily. So the only thing I don’t like is not getting a phone call.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Have something else to do as well; don’t rely on stunt work because there are no guarantees.
What job do you think you might do after this role in terms of career progression?
Nothing. I will just stick to what I’m doing; I prefer that. I came into the business to be a stuntman not a coordinator, although as time goes on naturally you begin coordinating but I still love performing.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
A good starting point is gymnastics and martial arts. The qualifications to get on the register are changing all the time, and they are getting harder and harder.
Do you mind us publishing your salary – this is very helpful for job seekers?
It’s a difficult question because you never know. This week I’m earning nothing. Last week I earned an absolute fortune. There’s no such thing as a salary; you’re self-employed. Some people on the stunt register are earning £100 a year, some are earning £100,000.