Free dives, canoe crashes, barefoot work — the intense physicality audiences behold on screen comes thanks to stunt coordinators. Their work isn’t accomplished with “Jackass”-style harebrained endeavors, but thoughtful planning that allows them to create safe, repeatable, in-budget and — let’s be honest — mind-blowing action. The SAG Awards even has a category — stunt ensemble — that recognizes the best work both in film and TV.
“Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler told stunt coordinator Andy Gill that he wanted to do as many practical ones as possible because he wanted to keep it real. But underwater work is a whole other beast of an endeavor, which is where stunt coordinator and underwater expert Chris Denison came in.
When it comes to planning car sequences, coordinators push matchbox cars around for visualization, but there’s no such underwater play toy that fits when you need to have actors obtain underwater Vibranium, the fictional ore that other countries covet from Wakanda.
Denison used professionals as “toys” for planning purposes, testing and shooting in real time sequences that hadn’t undergone prior previs treatment.
“When you’re working with water, everything’s against you,” says Denison. “Communication’s against you, safety’s against you, time’s against you. The entire budget, it’s against you, so you have to be pretty locked on.”
Coogler watched and evaluated what Denison filmed, a process the coordinator jokes had him considering if he was going to request an aisle or window seat for the flight home if the director wasn’t impressed. While Coogler liked what he saw, he asked Denison to take down a notch on some of the water-fight sequences Denison had pitched. Coogler reminded him this was a Disney film after all.
It’s not as easy as going diving in costume. The sheer pressure of water pushing against performers works against the process, so moving the same wire rigging that allows superheroes to fly through the sky to below the surface allows afluidity of movement that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. For a scene with underwater Vibranium, winches (powered by a NASA operator) pulled the divers through the water to hit their marks. Free divers, a discipline that involves going under on a single breath, held onto those attached to the rigs, swimming behind them and puppeteering their bodies by turning them as needed to hit their marks when the wires couldn’t do the full job.
The necessity of free diving for minutes at a time was borne because equipment like scuba tanks would release air bubbles, disrupting the calm space required for post-production effects work.
“They would roll cameras and then they’re like ‘Hey, wait a second, Ryan’s got a note,’” says Denison. “I’m like, ‘Ryan, but [they’re underwater] — make this quick!’”
If holding one’s breath for minutes at a time sounds easy, then imagine actually swimming and hitting a mark at the same time; it’s a true endurance test. (The discipline’s world record is 24.37 minutes by a Croatian diver — an entire TV show!)
Whether professional free divers or actors working toward doing their own stunts, they all must rely on the coordinators to keep them safe, above or below the water.
Thuso Mbedu, who plays Nawi in “The Woman King,” trusted fight and stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez’s expertise to get her through. She remembers telling him: “I am doing this because I trust you more than I trust myself…[I] trust that you wouldn’t put me in this position if I wasn’t safe, or if I wasn’t capable.”
When Hernandez signs onto a project, he begins by evaluating the actors to learn their base level of athleticism. He strives to make training positive with a lot of encouragement along the way. Taking and replaying reference video helps, too, so there’s tangible proof of the actors’ improvement.
“The Woman King” setting necessitated another challenge for the stunts and actors alike: bare feet. That added element meant ensuring the area was safe beyond the required cleanup that occurs on any location shoot. Ants, thorns and other debris could potentially shut down production.
When possible, actors wore custom fit Vibrams, shoes with individual toes that Mbedu calls a “foot glove.” They were individually dyed to match personal skin tones, as was the medic’s gauze in case of issues during the strictly barefoot scenes.
Mbedu recalls of shooting the recruit obstacle course: “[We] had to get our feet stuck in ice buckets in between takes,” she says. “The ground was so hot they didn’t want us to get blisters.”
All stunts have a purpose, whether in groundwork or subsequent execution. “The Umbrella Academy” stunt coordinator Rick Forsayeth utilizes mirrors in his training space, an area he likens to a dance studio, so that actors can learn by miming a stunt performer’s actions in a mirror. (Think of of Baby learning her moves in “Dirty Dancing.”)
After multiple seasons with the same cast, Forsayeth notes they’ve progressed in their abilities. “They love doing it so much because it’s such a fun break for them outside of dialogue,” says Forsayeth. “Nothing against dialogue!”
Actors benefit from training with the very best as they learn new skills. “Wednesday” actor Joy Sunday (Bianca) appreciates that 2nd unit director and stunt coordinator Brett Chan and team “really encouraged my athleticism and mindfulness about my body.”
With all the stunts in the first season, Chan looks back at a canoe scene as one that took far more work than it seems. To begin with, “you have to try and make canoes exciting, like, how do you make canoes look exciting?” Chan questions.
Beyond that, the water outdoors was about 0 degrees, and a canoe had to crash into a buoy. Just getting the actors into the canoes involved a 1:1 ratio of actor-to-safety alongside them, in addition to divers stationed strategically underwater, Sea-Doo riders alongside the canoes and a slew of other support crew.
And about that buoy? Of course it wasn’t the real thing and was made with safety in mind, but that led to its own complications: the wind blew it around in ways that a real one wouldn’t move. An additional indoor shoot day using a giant pool that ranged in depth from 6 to 20-25 feet had to be added to the schedule to fulfill the complicated nature of the stunt.
Plus, a break apart canoe needs hinges and hinges leave gaps for water to come in, so even with reinforcements from the moment the canoe hit the water, it was already starting to sink. Add people, and the process accelerates.
To get the canoe up to speed for the crash, it was hooked to a truck that could pull it into the buoy. But pull too fast and it would go under immediately, too slow and, well, it was a dull, slow-moving canoe. The team had to get it just right.
“It was complete hell,” says Chan, but in the affectionate way of someone admiring their battle wounds.
No doubt there are lots of great sequences audiences get to enjoy on screen, and when it’s not (all) visual effects, there’s the stunt department to the rescue.