In an effort to support you in your dreams to be in the movies, the TomCruise.com team has previously compiled guides for many movie & TV industry vocations, including actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, film editors and visual effects artists, and we are pleased to add our aspiring stuntmen guide to the series. We have gathered the most useful information, tools and resources we could find to help you launch your career as a stunt performer.
As always, the TomCruise.com team welcomes your comments, feedback and suggestions. If you have experience in this field and can direct us to any additional information or resources, we’d love to hear it so we can add them to the guide. Please use the hashtag #aspiring2actwritedirect in all your social media responses about these guides.
The Guide for Aspiring Stuntmen includes:
Here’s what the TomCruise.com team has included for you in this guide:
- A description of what a stuntman does, including the risks, typical skills, glossary of common stunt terms and the different titles for stunt performers
- Books written by industry experts about a career as a professional stunt performer
- Publications available online or in print to learn more about the entertainment industry, including insider information for stunt performers
- Colleges offering training specifically for aspiring stunt performers
- Professional training programs run by industry groups
- Unions, groups and associations for professional stunt performers
Do you feel the need for speed like ‘Maverick,’ Tom Cruise’s ‘Top Gun’ character? Does jumping out of a plane, crashing through a window or running down a street while on fire sounds like fun to you? If a good burst of adrenaline gets you going, you might want to consider a career as a stuntman.
Known as stunt performers within the entertainment industry, these men and women rarely have the same day twice. One day a stunt performer may be racing down a highway, while the next day he may be dueling swords on a sinking ship, so it is important that these individuals are in top physical shape, mentally prepared to deal with stressful situations, have been fully trained in the appropriate equipment and know how to avoid injury.
Although some lead actors and actress perform their own stunts, there is always someone behind the scenes who has spent weeks or even months prior to filming choreographing the scene, training the performers and testing the action sequence to ensure all of the stunts are as safe as they could possibly be. That behind-the-scenes person is either a stunt performer or a stunt coordinator.
During an interview regarding his responsibilities as the stunt coordinator on ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,’ Simon Crane told IGN that each stunt was mapped out, designed and tested up to three months prior to filming, regardless of whether or not Angelina Jolie was the one performing the stunts. After that successful collaboration, Crane continued working as the stunt coordinator on several Angelina Jolie films, including ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,’ and ‘The Tourist.’
The skills necessary to successfully perform many stunts often require an extremely high level of training, sometimes even a professional level of expertise. In fact, to join the British Joint Industry Stunt Committee’s (JISC) Stunt Register, members must achieve a high standard of proficiency in at least six sporting disciplines, including fighting, falling, riding and driving, agility and strength, water and one other miscellaneous sport, such as fencing. Although the United States does not have such rigorous standards to become a professional stunt performer, it is an extremely competitive business to break into.
For an insider’s glimpse into her life as a stuntwoman, watch as Tammie Baird gives ‘Today’ host, Lester Holt, a look into the stunt world.
Despite how easy it may look on screen, stunts are dangerous work. Even if a lead actor has the ability and desire to do his own stunts, the film or television production’s insurance company may consider the stunt too dangerous for the actor to do and require the use of a stunt performer for continued insurance coverage.
In a 2009 interview with the British publication, ‘Daily Mail,’ professional stunt coordinator and performer, Steve Truglia, noted that “it is a huge team effort to make a great movie and everyone plays their part.” As an example, Truglia explained that an action sequence involving an actor holding onto the hood of a car during a car chase could become very expensive very quickly because dummy cars would have to be made, stunt performers would be used for some or all of the stunt work and then in post production, visual effects artists would need to edit out all the wires and harnesses that secured the actors during filming. Visual effects artists would also weave together the close-up scenes of the actors with the wider views of the chase sequence, creating a seamless action-packed sequence for the audience.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt
It is important to keep in mind that even with years of training, you could still be hurt or even killed in this profession and it is not only the stunt performers in jeopardy. In 1982, adult actor Vic Morrow as well as child actors, Myca Dinh Lee and Renee Chen, were killed while filming a helicopter scene for the ‘The Twilight Zone’ movie and in 1989, director H.B. Halicki was killed by a falling water tower while filming ‘Gone in 60 Seconds II.’
According to University of Illinois at Chicago studies of stunt injuries and fatalities by Michael McCann, Ph.D., C.I.H., there were 37 fatalities on film or television sets between 1980 and 1989, with 24 of those deaths involving helicopters. A study by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) revealed 4,998 SAG members were injured from 1982 to 1986 on motion picture and television locations, mostly due to stunts.
Technological advances in computer-g enerated imagery (CGI) often result in a safer working environment for stunt performers by using visual effects to create stunning action sequences, such as the fight sequence, ‘bullet time,’ in ‘The Matrix.’ However, the more stunts that are generated through CGI, the less opportunities there are for professional stunt performers.
Typical Skills of Stunt Performers:
Stunt expert, James Lew, has worked on numerous films (‘Big Trouble In Little China,’ ‘Hot Shots Part Deux’) in a variety of capacities, including as a martial arts expert, stunt coordinator, fight coordinator, martial arts coordinator and associate producer but he knows how competitive the stunt world is. During an interview with ‘AskMen,’ Lew explained that, “there are a tremendous amount of men and women that are either in the business or aspiring to become stuntmen. The stunt jobs available do not come close to matching the supply of work stuntmen. But if you’re a world-class gymnast or a champion martial artist, it could be your calling. The best approach is to have the proper training. However, there are some stunt schools, although no official ones.”
Professional stunt people are capable of performing one or more skills at an expert and/or instructor level but in this competitive field, most professional stunt performers have mastered several skills. In fact, the British JISC Stunt Register requires its members to have a high level of ability in at least six skill areas. While American stunt performers are not required to have a specific set or number of skills, the British JISC Stunt Register requirements provides a useful guideline for the most common skills in the field.
- Fighting – A superior or expert level in combat, boxing or a martial art.
- Falling – An ability to fall from a variety of heights, including falling from three stories and above and/or a high level of ability using trampolines.
- Riding and Driving – A high level of experience as precision driver with motorcycles and/or cars and/or superior horseback riding skills.
- Agility and Strength – Superior gymnastics skills and/or expert ability in rock climbing.
- Water – Advanced ability in scuba diving/underwater work and/or advanced swimming skills.
- Miscellaneous Sport – A superior skill level in a relevant sport, such as tumbling, wirework or fencing.
Watch as ‘Telegraph’ reporter, Iain Gray, learns how to be a stunt driver.
Many industries develop their own jargon and stunt performers are no different. While some of the stunt terms may be familiar to a lay audience, the TomCruise.com team has provided a list with the definitions of some of the most common terms.
- Tumbling –An ability to perform a variety of gymnastics without the use of any specialized equipment, such as somersaults, handsprings, shoulder rolls, break falls and dive rolls. Learning how to roll and fall safely from a variety of positions is one of the most important skills for a stunt performer.
- Air Ram – A device that uses hydraulics and compressed air to catapult a performer into the air when he steps onto the device. Generally used to simulate the effect of an explosion, a performer will be propelled through the air with some momentum, flying forwards, backwards or into a somersault.
- High Falls –An ability to safely fall from three stories or higher, including landing on an air bag or a box catcher, knowledge of the appropriate use of tarps and ropes as well as the ability to perform a variety of falls, such as back falls, twisting falls, headers and step outs.
- Swordplay – The skillful use of swords, foils or blades in combat, as in fencing or choreographed fight scenes. Swordplay may occur in a variety of locations, including on land, on ship or on horseback.
- Horsework – An ability to ride horses skillfully and safely while performing a variety of stunts, such as falling off a horse, jumping onto a horse and engaging in swordplay.
- Wirework – An ability to effectively use rigs, harnesses and vests to perform aerial stunts, such as flying or falling action sequences.
Like professional athletes, stunt performers have only a few years to establish themselves in their field, with their early 20s through their early 40s generally considered to be their peak performance years, baring any serious injury. Therefore, it is extremely important for a stunt performer to network and build a positive reputation within the industry as early as possible, so he can make the contacts that will help him transition into other profitable roles as he ages. To achieve longevity in the field, stunt performers should try to establish themselves as a stunt coordinator or a second unit director as quickly as possible, ideally by their 40s.
Unless you are extremely connected within the entertainment industry or have an unusual but highly desirable stunt ability, breaking into the stunt world is extremely completive. Many stunt performers start out as movie or television extras to gain experience and make connections within the industry before they move into professional stunt work. This list includes the most common titles and roles for a career in stunts.
- Extra (background performer)– An individual who appears in a background scene in a television show or movie in a non-speaking role, most often in a crowd shot or a busy street/restaurant scene. Commonly referred to as a background performer in the entertainment industry, these roles generally do not require any acting experience but offer an opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge about the entertainment industry as well as make valuable connections to help break into a career as a professional stunt performer.
- Stunt Performer (stuntman/stuntwoman/stunt double) - A highly trained and skilled individual who performs action sequences for film, television, commercials or theatre. Stunt performers receive a salary, usually appear in the film or television credits and are generally required to be a member of a entertainment industry labor union, such as SAG, AFTRA and/or Equity. This individual temporarily replaces an actor or actress during filming when a stunt or action sequence is too dangerous for the actor to perform. To prevent a potential production delay resulting from an injury to an actor, especially the lead actor, the production’s insurance company may require the use of a stunt performer to ensure the project will be completed on time.
- Stunt Driver – An individual who maneuvers a vehicle, usually a car, with precision and skill, often at very high speeds, while filming action sequences for television, film or commercials. According to a CNN Money interview with professional stunt driver, Hubie Kerns, it is better if stunt drivers are less than 6 feet tall so that their head is less likely to hit the car roof during a stunt. Kerns also explained that since stunt drivers frequently double for young actors, it is extremely helpful to be fit and look young.
- Stunt Rigger – An individual who understands the mechanics of stunt equipment and may also be an experienced stunt performer. With safety as the main priority, stunt riggers perform a variety of tasks, such as arranging landing pads for falls, positioning wires and harnesses as well as the set up, testing and teardown of any necessary stunt equipment on set.
- Stunt Coordinator – The head of the stunt department who works closely with the director to create the action sequences described in the script or suggest alternative stunt scenarios. The stunt coordinator designs the desired stunts, hires the stunt crew, secures the necessary equipment and oversees the safety of the stunt set as well as manages the budget allocated for the stunt department. The stunt coordinator also works directly with the actors and stunt crew involved in all stunt-related scenes. This is the person you want to impress when you are breaking into the business and this is the role you want to fill as you progress in the field.
- Second Unit Director – An individual who oversees a small crew that is responsible for filming supplemental footage, such as scenery, crowd shots or stunts. To save time, the second unit director can film scenes of stunt performers in action as well as exterior shots of the scenes while the lead director works in another location filming close-ups of the lead actors and interior shots of the same scenes. The scenes shot by the two separate crews will be edited together during post-production. Although a second-unit director may have experience in stunt work, his responsibility is to film the stunt scene, while the stunt coordinator is responsible for the actual stunts.
Professional stunt performers may live lives full of physical activity but everyone needs to rest sometime. While taking some downtime, why not curl up with a good book written by an expert in the field? Written by industry leaders, these books are just a small sampling of what is available in bookstores, online or in your local library about the professional stunt world. Whether you are beginning your career or looking to expand your knowledge of the field, these books provide an insider perspective into the stunt world.
So You Wanna Be a Stuntman: The Official Stuntman’s Guidebook Written by professional stuntman, Mark Aisbett, the guide features insider information on how to break into the entertainment industry and become a successful stunt performer, including tips to launch your stunt career, realistic salary information and secrets to getting hired in this competitive field.
The Full Burn: On the Set, at the Bar, Behind the Wheel, and Over the Edge with Hollywood Stuntmen Hollywood stuntman, Kevin Conley, describes the physical skills, knowledge and challenges of working as a professional stuntman. In addition to his own experiences, Conley interviews several members of this daredevil community, providing a realistic and humorous view of the trials and tribulations of the profession as well as the sense of camaraderie that is often found in the stunt world.
Fight Choreography: The Art of Non-Verbal Dialogue If you ever wanted to know how to create a quality cinematic fight scene, including the historical and technical elements of combat, martial arts expert, John Kreng, breaks it all down for you. Written by someone who seems to have done it all and lived to tell the tale, Kreng has worked a stuntman, a stunt coordinator, a fight choreographer, a stand-up comedian, an author, an actor and a video game designer/producer.
Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life Hal Needham’s autobiography tells the story of his life as a Hollywood stuntman-turned-director through anecdotes and insider stories. After breaking into show business as a stuntman in the 1950s, Needham worked with many of the biggest names in the industry, including John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Dustin Hoffman and Burt Reynolds. Later in his career, Needham went on to direct some of the most financially successful movies of the 1970s and 1980s, such as ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and ‘Cannonball Run.’
In order to break into the stunt business, you need to know about the latest casting calls and keep up the latest industry news. Although the best way to learn about stunt jobs and opportunities in the tight-knit community of stunt performers is through referrals or recommendations from stunt coordinators and directors, there are a few entertainment industry trades that specialize in posting current calling calls, projects in development and industry news.
Back Stage – The comprehensive publication covers film, television and theatre, offering advice, resources and tips for every field in the industry. Available in print and online, the insider’s guide to the entertainment industry also provides a database of current auditions and casting calls. Updated frequently, the casting database is searchable by keywords, such as “stunt” or “extra,” allowing performers to pinpoint specific opportunities in their field of interest.
Variety – Available in print or online, the publication covers events, award ceremonies, projects in development, movie reviews and the latest news in film, television and related digital arts. A staple for anyone working in the entertainment industry, the publication has been providing insider information since 1905.
There is no university degree or technical certification is required to work in the field in the United States but training to become a professional stunt performer requires years of practice. Although there are numerous schools and training centers around the world to help you master the most desirable skills for professional stunt work, there is no school or training program that can guarantee employment in the field.
While the TomCruise.com team has provided information and links to several established stunt schools, we could not possibly include every one. Fortunately, there are numerous martial arts, gymnastics and scuba training centers located throughout the U.S. Aside from a few exceptions, the majority of the stunt schools on our list offer training in multiple skill areas rather than specializing in a specific ability, such as gymnastics, horseback riding or advanced scuba diving certification.
XMA Based in North Hollywood, the Extreme Martial Arts facility offers adult classes and private training sessions as well as classes and summer day camps for children. Founded by McKenzie Satterthwaite and Mike Chat, who ran the number one ranked junior martial arts competitive team and the first international sport karate training camps, XMA is the training facility for several professional stunt performers and coordinators currently working in the field.
LA Stunt Training Center The Los Angeles facility offers professional stunt training for film and television for all levels of ability, from novices trying to break into the business to experienced stunt performers looking to master new skills. Training sessions are usually held on an active film and television soundstage and are taught by experienced stunt performers and coordinators.
Film Fighting LA The Los Angeles facility specializes in martial arts training with an emphasis on movement and fighting styles, including the European-Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration periods. In addition to training with hand-made, steel- and aluminum-bladed swords as well as other weaponry, students learn how to perform realistic falls and use a stunt crash pad. Sword master and fight/stunt coordinator, Robert Goodwin brings his many years of experience as a stunt coordinator to classes in combat styles and weaponry.
Academy of Theatrical Combat Run by Dan Speaker and Jan Bryant (‘Master and Commander,’ ‘Hook’ and ‘Army of Darkness’), the Burbank, CA facility offers a professional training program as well as offers project-specific training sessions for film casts. Although no experience is required, the professional training program is for stunt performers and actors who are committed mastering their theatrical combat skills through regular training. Taught by sword masters and industry professionals, the class meets twice a week and participation in the program is by invitation only. Those who wish to join the professional training program must first participate in an Academy Introductory Seminar or request an audition.
Swordplay Fencing Studio Founded in 1992, owner and sword master Tim Weske offers training sessions in Olympic-style fencing (foil, epee and sabre) as well as theatrical combat weapons for film and television. Classes are available in both his Burbank and Granada Hills, CA studios. Aside from potentially pursuing a career as a professional stunt performer, several of the program’s fencers compete on the United States Fencing Association (USFA) circuit. Training is available for students at least six years old and range from beginner to advanced skill levels.
Australian Stunt Academy – Based in Queensland, the Australian stunt school offers an intensive 10-day course in Hollywood, California for individuals who already have some experience or training in stunt work, such as tumbling, high falls and staged fighting. The advanced Hollywood course focuses on further developing a student’s skills in swordplay, horse work, high falls and wirework as well as the proper use of decelerators. Additional courses for a variety of stunt skills are available at their training facility on the Gold Coast of Australia.
London Stunt School Since 1997, the British stunt school has been offering a series of classes and training sessions designed for individuals who aspire to be professional stunt performers. Industry professionals teach the classes, so students can ask questions and receive a realistic view of the life of a stunt performer. In addition to classes in high explosives, high falling, stair falling, stunt driving, fire stunts, diving, adult gymnastics, film combat and special effects, students will receive photographs and video of themselves that can be used in a professional reel.
Art of Combat With bases in Lansing, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, New York, New York, Eugene, Oregon, Edinburgh, Scotland and Sydney, Australia, the international stunt school offers combat training around the world. Classes and workshops are available for beginning through advanced skill levels for a variety of weapon training and combat styles.
Ring of Steel Action Theatre Since 1989, the educational organization has been dedicated to the development and promotion of the art of stunt work and the portrayal of staged violence. Keeping the focus on safety and effectiveness, the organization offers classes in swordplay and basic combat skills as well as in-house workshops. In addition to summer camps and programs, students and members have the opportunity to perform in public at a variety of events, such as Renaissance festivals, Celtic fairs and Sci-Fi/Fantasy conventions.
As we have mentioned, a university degree is not required to be a professional stunt performer but you will need to be prepared to spend several years and quite a bit of your own money to receive the proper training and master the variety of skills used in stunt work.
Despite the lack of formal degrees available for stunt work, there are a few vocational programs and college organizations that offer training in staged combat and stunt performances.
The Ring of Steel Action Theatre: Ithaca A chapter of the Ann Arbor, MI Ring of Steel Action Theatre, the theatrical stunt club was formed in 2003 to “bring the art of stage violence” to Ithaca College and Cornell University students as well as to the community at large through lessons and performances. All skill levels are welcome as students and members learn basic fencing techniques before advancing to steel swords and hand-to-hand combat training.
The International Stunt School According to the official website, the vocational school “is recognized and licensed by the State of Washington and the Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board as a legitimate professional stunt training facility that adheres to those rules set forth for Vocational Schools: (RCW) 28C.10 and (WAC) 490-105.” The school features an intensive three-week session focusing on basic stunt work commonly used in film production, such as precision driving, wire work, fire burn, falls, combat and martial arts.
Like actors, stunt performers can join labor unions and professional organizations make valuable contacts within the industry as well as receive assistance negotiating employment contracts, attain health benefits and ensure safe working conditions.
Screen Actors Guild (SAG) – Founded in 1933, the labor union represents film performers, including stunt performers. Similar to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), SAG serves and protects its members by setting the industry standards for working conditions, compensation and employment benefits. To qualify for membership in the Screen Actors Guild, a performer must work on a SAG film in a principle (speaking) role, meet background entry requirements or fulfill the necessary requirements for ‘Taft Hartley’ status. In addition to workshops, resources and an annual awards ceremony for their members, SAG has also established a National Stunt & Safety Committee. Comprised primarily of stunt performers, the National Stunt & Safety Committee was formed to specifically focus on the interests, wages and working conditions of stunt performers as well as to explore methods that would improve the safety of all performers on set.
The national labor union represents performers, journalists and artists working specifically in the television and radio industries, including related digital programming. Commonly known as AFTRA, the labor union establishes the industry standards for compensation, working conditions and benefits and works in concert with the Screen Actors Guild to represent the interests of its members. Membership is available to performers, recording artists and broadcasters working in any one of AFTRA’s jurisdictions.
Actors’ Equity Association (“AEA” or “Equity”) Founded in 1913, the U.S. labor union represents actors and stage managers working in live theatre. The union represents the interests of live performers, sets the minimum standards for pay, organizes health benefits and pension plans for its members. Members may also have access to exclusive auditions and casting calls for union represented stage plays or musical theater. Although the union is commonly called, ‘Equity’ within the U.S., it should not to be confused with the British entertainment industry union, Equity.
Stuntmen’s Association – Founded in 1961 by stunt coordinators, stuntmen and second unit directors, membership is by invitation only and applicants must be a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild.
V10 Women Stunt Professionals – An association comprised of professional stuntwomen. Membership is by invitation only.
Society of American Fight Directors – The non-profit organization promotes the safety and excellence of stage combat and membership is open to anyone interested in staged combat, such as professional stunt performers, actors, directors, historians and video game industry professionals.
Whew! We’re exhausted just writing about becoming a stuntman!
This is definitely not a career for the faint of heart and as we’ve discussed, it takes years of training, mental toughness and a big commitment to become a stuntman. If you think you have what it takes or if you are already working in the field, the TomCruise.com team would love to hear from you. Feel free to share your story in the comments section below or use the hashtag #aspiring2actwritedirect in your social media response. We might even add your contribution to the post!
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