January 28, 2023

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From ‘Wednesday’ to ‘The Woman King’, the stunt ensemble shines

5 min read

Free dives, canoe crashes, barefoot work — audiences saw intense physicality on screen thanks to stunt coordinators. Their work isn’t accomplished through “Jackass”-style brainstorming, but thoughtful planning that allows them to create safe, repeatable, on-budget and — let’s be honest — mind-blowing work. The SAG Awards even have a category — Stunt Ensemble — that recognizes the best work in both film and TV.

“Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler told stunt coordinator Andy Gill that he wanted to make it as realistic as possible because he wanted to keep it real. But underwater work is a whole other animal, which is where stunt coordinator and underwater expert Chris Dennison comes in.

When it comes to planning the car sequence, the coordinators push Matchbox cars around for visualization, but there are no underwater play toys that you have to get the actors underwater to get vibranium, which is the fictional ore from Wakanda, another country.

Dennison used the professionals as “toys” for planning purposes, testing and shooting real-time sequences that had not previously undergone pretreatment.

“When you’re dealing with water, everything is against you,” Dennison says. “Communications are against you, security is against you, time is against you. The whole budget, it’s against you, so you have to be pretty locked in.”

Coogler watched and evaluated what Dennison filmed, a process that the coordinator joked was considering whether he was going to request an aisle or window seat for the flight home if he was not impressed by the director. While Coogler liked what he saw, he asked Dennison to take a notch down on some of the water-fight sequences that Dennison had pitched. Coogler reminded him that it was a Disney movie.

It’s not as simple as going diving in clothing. The sheer pressure of the water pressure against the performers works against the mechanism, so moving the same wire rigging that allows superheroes to fly through the sky below the surface allows for a fluidity of movement that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. For a scene with underwater vibranium, the winch (operated by a NASA operator) pulled the divers through the water to hit their marks. Free divers, a discipline that involves going on a single breath, holding on to people attached to rigs, swimming behind them, and maneuvering their bodies as needed to hit their marks if the cables are not fully functional.

The need to free dive for minutes at a time was borne out because equipment such as scuba tanks would release air bubbles, disrupting the quiet space needed for post-production effects work.

“They’d roll the cameras and then they’d be like, ‘Hey, wait a second, Ryan has a note,'” Dennison says. “I’m like, ‘Ryan, but [they’re underwater] –Make it quick!'”

If holding your breath for a few minutes at a time seems easy, imagine swimming and hitting at the same time; It is a true test of patience. (The world record for the discipline is 24.37 minutes by a Croatian diver – a whole TV show!)

Whether professional free divers or actors working towards doing their own stunts, they all have to rely on coordinators to keep them safe above or below the water.

Thuso Mbedu, who plays Navi in ​​”The Woman King,” trusted the skills of fight and stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez to get him. He remembers telling her: “I’m doing this because I trust you more than I trust myself…[I] Trust me you can’t put me in this position if I’m not safe or if I’m not capable.”

When Hernandez signs on to a project, he begins by evaluating the actors to learn their base level of athleticism. He tries to make training positive with lots of encouragement along the way. Taking and replaying reference videos also helps, so actors have real evidence of improvement.

“The Woman King” setting required another challenge for stuntmen and actors alike: barefoot. This added element was meant to ensure that the area was safe beyond the required clearance during any location shooting. Ants, thorns and other debris can potentially stop production.

When possible, actors wore custom-fit Vibrams, shoes with separate toes that Mbedu called “foot gloves”. They were individually colored to match their individual skin tones, as were the doctor’s gauzes in case of problems during the strictly barefoot scenes.

Mbedu recalls shooting the recruit obstacle course: “[We] Our feet had to be stuck in ice buckets during the take,” she says. “The field was so hot they didn’t want us to get blisters.”

All stunts have a purpose, be it groundwork or subsequent execution. “The Umbrella Academy” stunt coordinator Rick Forsythe uses mirrors in his training space, an area he likens to a dance studio, so actors can learn by imitating a stunt performer’s actions in the mirror. (Think Baby learning her moves in “Dirty Dancing”)

After multiple seasons with the same cast, Forsythe notes that they have improved their skills. “They love doing it because it’s a fun break from dialogue for them,” says Forsythe. “Nothing against dialogue!”

Actors benefit from training as they learn new skills. “Wednesday” actor Joy Sunday (Bianca) praised that second unit director and stunt coordinator Brett Chan and the team “really encouraged my athleticism and mindfulness about my body.”

With all the stunts in the first season, Chan looks back on a canoe scene that took a lot more work than it seemed. In the beginning, “You have to try to make canoes exciting, like, how do you make canoes look exciting?” Chan asked.

Beyond that, the water outside was about 0 degrees, and a canoe had to crash into a buoy. Just getting the actors into the canoe involved a 1:1 ratio of actor-to-safety alongside them, strategically placed divers, sea-doo riders alongside the canoes, and several other supporting crew.

And about that boy? Of course it wasn’t the real thing and was built with safety in mind, but that led to its own complications: the wind blew it around in a way that a real mover wouldn’t. An additional indoor shoot deck using a huge pool 6 to 20-25 feet deep had to be added to the schedule to accommodate the complex nature of the stunt.

Also, hinges are needed to take the canoe apart and the hinges leave gaps for water to come in, so from the moment the canoe hit the water, even with reinforcements, it was already sinking. Add people, and the process is accelerated.

To speed up the dinghy for the crash, it was fitted with a truck that could tow it to the buoy. But pull too fast and it will go down immediately, too slow and well, it was a dull, slow moving canoe. The team had to get it right.

“It was absolute hell,” says Chan, but in the affectionate way of someone admiring their battle scars.

There are undoubtedly plenty of great sequences that the audience can enjoy on screen and while it’s not (all) the visual effects, the stunt department is there to the rescue.

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