Monday, March 28, 2011

When Stunts Don't Distract From, But Actually Enhance, A Story...

Times they are ever changing, right? Especially within mediums that can greatly utilize new technology, it is more and more common for so-called “smaller” projects to impart big-scale techniques. With each new piece of technology to make it easier and more affordable, more and more can embrace new story-telling methods accordingly. This is perhaps best evident in television, where the evolution of stunt sequences have gone from simple fisticuffs to full-on in-flight fights thanks to the aid of wire work, computer generation, and of course, top notch stunt coordinators. Gone are the days when one’s imagination is limited by the confines of a small 4x3 box in one’s living room; nowadays the stunts that play out there (albeit it usually in 16x9 now) easily rival anything you might see on a cinematic scale.

Stunt work in television is rarely used as a device simply to wow an audience. Since a television series is on week after week, the simple “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” entertainment of watching someone run from an exploding building or fall from a window is an easy gimmick or marketing tool employed to pique the more adrenaline-fueled attention spans, but it cannot sustain that audience if there is nothing deeper under the high-octane surface. The true beauty of stunts on television, therefore, is when they are used as plot devices to get an integral character not only from one physical place to another but also from emotion to emotion.

After four years, the stars of NBC’s Chuck like to joke that it “pretty much” is second nature to them to take on their action sequences and stunt work. Series star Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah Walker) admitted that having a background in physicality certainly helped her take on the role, which more often than not has her shooting guns and chasing bad guys while running in high-heeled boots (in fact the production has taken to outfitting said boots with an extra rubber ball on the end of her spike heels for safety, silence, and to avoid having to repair the actual heel with each new episode).

“I think I’ve always been comfortable with the physical side of it because I grew up very active. I was a dancer; I did a lot of rock-climbing; and it all [lends itself]. The more I do it, the easier it comes, and it takes a shorter amount of time now,” Strahovski shared.

But what is most impressive about the stunt work on Chuck is not the lengths to which its actors can shove off their doubles and actually stretch themselves but instead how every action scene is centered on an intensely emotional and poignant moment for the series’ titular hero, and as the years have gone on, they have evolved as he has.

Chuck Bartowski started out a lovable man-child, a nerdy goofball who seemed more intent to screw around with his life than take on anything that would require him to be serious for more than five-minute intervals. Once he was programmed to have the Intersect in his brain, he became a lean, mean, fighting machine who could literally look at any object, scan it, and know immediately how to use it to the best of his ability. But in the beginning he was full of more shock and awe at the scenarios he found himself in than anything else, and that meant the man behind the myth, Zachary Levi, had to perform precise, machine-like motions with his body while maintaining a quite literal wide-eyed wonderment about his face.

Being in over his head in the beginning allowed Chuck to have epiphanies of sorts during what would otherwise seem to be the most inopportune of times. It allows the audience to project their greatest superhero desires onto the screen in their own home. Chuck seemed to start off as a pretty regular guy-next-door, but he channeled his potential and rose to great heights. As he has grown and matured and gotten more comfortable with his lifestyle, he has demonstrated the ability to have deep and meaningful conversations while delivering kung fu blows. Chuck doesn’t simply showcase style or technique to be flashy; it uses the stunts to create “interesting busy work” for an actor to take on while delivering important dialogue.

Some television shows use stunts as catalysts to provoke emotional moments, even if the breakthroughs don’t happen until after the action is over but before the heart stops pounding. The CW’s Nikita and Supernatural probably do these best, as nothing seems to clear the heads better of those characters than kicking a little ass.

In Nikita, the combination of hand-to-hand and gun play proves an effective and (sometimes literally) killer hybrid. Deep attention to detail is placed onto each movement from each actor so that even with varying levels of prior training, they all come off as believable opposition for each other. Nikita’s core cast trains with fight coordinators and stuntmen and women for up to six hours a day for the bigger, more involved choreography.

For series star Maggie Q, some of this work comes a bit more easily than usual. After all, she has a background in Asian cinema, where there just aren’t enough resources to wait for an actor to be “comfortable” to get the shot. She had to learn to think and move quickly, then, and that immediately reactionary response lends itself perfectly to the way Nikita fights.

But it is also because of her work ethic. She often goes into rehearsal on her scheduled days off to make sure she not only nails her movements but also her chemistry with her fight partner. After all, when physical combat is involved even a small misstep can end up in a big mishap.

“With stunt guys, you can punch them in the face because it’s, you know, just part of work,” Maggie Q explained just before Nikita was set to premiere, when actors were still rehearsing with separate stunt coordinators to save time. “[The other actor] went through the choreography with my stunt double. I went through it with someone else. They brought us together and I thought we would be fine but he was a massive guy and when he didn’t duck as quickly as I had planned, I hit him.”

Nikita leads the pack these days when it comes to the amount of stunt work the actual actors in the series perform compared to their doubles or more specialized stunt performers. Admittedly situations like the one above are why some productions are still reluctant to follow suit. With stunt doubles taking over, production for those sequences can be done with the second unit, an additional team of talent both in front of and behind the camera who can shoot simultaneously with the first unit, name stars. Doubling up keeps a production on schedule and keeps its main actors out of harm’s way, even if it isn’t necessarily any cheaper. But having the actual familiar faces that fans have come to know and love take on as much of the physicality and really own each and every sequence protects the integrity of the story.

Sometimes it’s still just not possible for them to do it all, though. On shows like the aforementioned Supernatural or ABC’s No Ordinary Family-- both of which enhance many of their stunt sequences with FX like wire work, CGI, trick photography, and acting against tennis balls-- extra performers are often hired for having unique and detailed specialties and experience, and other details still get filled in later, in post. Since new software has emerged in the last few years to allow even the at-home, amateur cinematographer an affordable way to show a house burning down, a person flying across a room, or a giant gaping hole left in the Earth after a massive explosion or natural disaster, a lot more can be accomplished within a moderate budget. This literally opens up the world of story telling to not only new devices but new worlds, as well. No Ordinary Family often features one of its stars (Julie Benz) turning into a blur as she runs across cities to retrieve something special from a lab across the country. Benz runs along a green screen (or during one potentially hazardous occasion, on a semi-closed down freeway in Los Angeles), and the blurring streets and fields and desert roads get filled in as her backdrop later. Supernatural has been able to literally send characters to hell (and soon heaven) and back by utilizing a half-practical rig/half green-screen CGI concoction. Production finds the right field and shoots its actors falling onto a mattress on one plate and then layers it with another plate in post, replacing the mattress with a fiery abyss meant to represent the underworld.

Still the more seasoned an actor gets with stunts, the more he or she is so inclined to actually perform them, even when they are dicey or visually complex. Southland’s Ben McKenzie, who admitted he was in “quite a few TV fights” in his day on his previous project The O.C. has been eager to prove he can handle the intensity ever since landing his new gig.

McKenzie gets to partake in a little bit of everything with Southland-- vehicle chases, foot-pursuits, on-the-ground scuffling, and in one extremely memorable scene in the third season finale, an actual leap across rooftops. It is the kind of action that only a pure adrenaline high would justify, and McKenzie admitted that even simply acting in the scene put him in the mentality to just want to go for it. He managed to convince his producers, director, and stunt coordinator Chic Daniel to allow him to perform the dangerous action himself.

“There was no netting or anything below but there was a wire about 130 feet up so there was a crane-- a 150 foot crane-- that had a wire attached to it that was hooked to my back and a couple of guys on a pulley,” McKenzie offered some insight into how such a specific stunt can be pulled off with a relative layman at the helm. “There was no one, you know, pushing me over or catching me on the other side but there was a pulley there was a wire on my back so I was safe. Even doing that was a bit of a battle with the Warner Brothers safety officers who were none to pleased that an actor would actually do this but it was actually a hell of a lot of fun!”

Southland is shot in the verite style, as if the viewers are simply a passenger along for the ride, so any action seen, however minor on the page, is that much more amplified due to the voyeur effect. Though those are the exception, not the rule, these days, the stunt work therefore becomes that much more heightened and must therefore be that much more impressive in order to be "bought" by the mainstream audience who is used to a little more flash and sizzle. The world these characters live in is not coated with a glossy Hollywood sheen unlike some of the others; stakes are greater because the typical "happily ever after" safety net is not implied, nor expected.

For that reason,
Southland could potentially come under even greater scrutiny when debating how “real” a television program looks. After all, many of the viewers actually know the world in which it takes place; they live and work on the Los Angeles streets that the show films such harrowing stunts. They may not be intentionally looking for a slip up, but they can easily catch them-- especially when considering the pressure of delivering poignant, powerful stories week after week. Employing Daniel, a member of the LAPD himself, as their stunt coordinator certainly helps alleviate the pressure a bit, but it is not often enough to have a knowledgeable consultant on the team: the powers that be also have to be sure to listen to their recommendations. A film like Black Swan can ask its lead actresses to learn stylized dance techniques for months leading up to the start of production, but a television series that does not have the luxury of so much prep time isn’t so lucky.

“We don’t run down the street 12 times; we might run down the street three times maybe but usually we run down it once or twice,” McKenzie pointed out how Daniel helps Southland keep the stunts look and feel as fresh and “in the moment” as possible.

“We need to go quickly; we need to go fast; it fits the aesthetic of the show. It’s very natural…we just get in the rotation and we suit up and we roll. And the brilliant thing about the show is that the cameras that we use allow us to go with this sort of breakneck speed, and if the actor shows up prepared, which we all do there, isn’t a lot of sort of fussing around and arguing over script changes…The DP puts the camera on his shoulder or on one of his camera operators and we roll and we only do it a couple of times and that allows you to keep your energy very high. And I think it shows on the screen.”

Southland also uses actual off-duty officers to portray other uniforms to act alongside their main cast and drive that realism home even more. But the true beauty about any and all of these shows is that though you inevitably have to suspend a bit of disbelief when stunts are involved, they all manage to marry the exact right combination of elements to not only capture your attention but make you feel the gravity of each and every situation. Fight sequences and stunt work in general are often dark and downright (literally) dirty, but they can have a grace to them, as well-- making them more like a vicarious, vivacious dance. And for the best in the business you no longer even have to look outside your own home!

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