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Sky News Interview – Dangermen in Danger

Vic Armstrong

Movie stunts have been my life for the past forty years. All the same, it was a sheer accident that I got into the business, as it is for most stuntspeople. My father was a racehorse trainer and I wanted to be a steeplechase jockey. When I was seventeen, a stuntman came to borrow one of our horses that was able to jump big fences for a movie called Arabesque. He asked me to come along for the ride, and I ended up doubling for Gregory Peck. For me, there was no going back.

I did my first Bond movie in 1965, and since then I’ve done another six. I did the whole Indiana Jones franchise, Superman, A Bridge Too Far, Return of the Jedi, Blade Runner, Terminator 2 and Empire of the Sun. I’ve doubled for Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Dalton, Malcolm McDowell, Roger Moore, Richard Chamberlain, Harrison Ford, George C Scott, Ryan O’Neal and John Voight.

Any stunt can go wrong, and we always say it’s the little ones that turn round and bite you. I had to fall a hundred feet off a viaduct for one of the Omen films. Once, I jumped off a 340-foot building. I got an Academy Award for inventing the equipment that made that possible. For one of the Indiana Jones movies, I had to jump off a horse onto a moving tank. Difficult, that one: to clear the tank tracks I had to jump about eighteen feet sideways.

You do get anxious. When I was looking down from that viaduct onto the airbag a hundred feet below, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God!’ I could feel my heart pumping, but then, immediately before you do the stunt, there’s always 20 seconds of calm. After that, everything’s OK.

It all depends on getting the planning right. For Mission Impossible, I spent four months calculating and co-ordinating the elements that would make each stunt work. I film dry-runs before we actually shoot, so that, for example, I can work out exactly how powerful to make an explosion. Getting animals trained takes a huge amount of time.

In the old days, I used to carry around an asbestos blanket to do fire stunts. Now we use a gel which is both a coolant and a retardant, and our flame-proof clothing can resist incredibly high temperatures. The airbags we fall into nowadays are a lot more comfortable than the stacks of cardboard boxes with a mattress on top that we used to use.

Today, however, the business is changing faster than ever before. Computer-generated imagery is creating completely new ways of achieving effects. Some of this makes things easier for the stuntman. In the old days, when I was the flying double for Christopher Reeve on Superman, I had to hang from incredibly thin piano-wire, painted blue where it crossed the sky and red where it was in front of a wall. Now, you can be held up by a nice and reliable quarter-inch cable, and a computer just takes it out of the shot.

CGI has helped us do bigger and better stunts, but in other ways it’s proving a real threat to our industry. Computer games have changed kids’ expectations of what they’ll see in the cinema. Some of them expect to be presented with mythical figures performing actions that would be impossible in real life. It’s no longer necessarily enough to see a real, flesh-and-blood human being with the guts to take a deep breath and leap off a building.

Because there’s now so much CGI in the movies, cinema-goers are no longer so impressed by difficult and dangerous real-life stunts. They can no longer sure that some apparently daredevil action hasn’t simply been faked on a computer, so why should they get too excited by it? I’ve done some great stunts, only to find that people have put them down to electronic trickery. Once people are thinking like this, it’s easy for a studio to say there’s no point in bothering with flesh-and-blood dangermen: everything might as well be computer-generated.

However, discerning cinema-goers notice that CGI stunts are never quite right. Explosions, for example, don’t look completely realistic. Even what computers do manage to achieve is often possible only because they’ve been helped out by real stuntspeople. This is because computers don’t automatically know what movements a human body would actually make in a given situation. They have to be shown.

I’m doing a picture with Will Smith in New York in which he’s the last man left alive except for some weird night-creatures who come out and attack him. These creatures are being computer-generated, but I’ve got a whole team of stuntpeople running around in grey leotards with luminous spots on them, simply to record body movements for the computers. This means that, in effect, real people will actually be doing the stunts. Unfortunately, the audience won’t realise this: they’ll give all the credit to the computer programmers.

Stuntpeople still get plenty of work, but a lot of it now is teaching computers what a human being would do in a particular set of circumstances. Some of this stuff can be kept in movement libraries, so real people may not be needed the second time around.

At present, there are more stuntpeople than there’ve ever been. There are hundreds in England alone, which is a world leader in the stunt business, and has provided the stunt work for all the major blockbusters of the past few years. The youngsters train hard, but I fear that in future computers may be going to squeeze some of them out. I still don’t think real stuntmen will ever be completely replaced, but then perhaps I’m the kind of guy who would have said, ‘Television will never catch on’.

Real stuntpeople remain highly competitive in economic terms. Computer generation is immensely expensive. If you buy a brand-new Range Rover, kit it out with stunt equipment and special-effects bombs, stick a stuntman in it and blow it up, you will spend less money than you would doing the same thing on a computer.

In future, the most compelling effects will be achieved by merging the best actuality stunt work with CGI. At present, a lot of directors opt for a completely computer-based approach out of ignorance or laziness, rather than because they want to achieve things that would be impossible in the real world. They know they’ll be able to keep on tweaking their electronic images until kingdom come. If you’re going to do a real stunt, you’ve got to get it right first time, but this can be a useful discipline.

Directors who rely completely on CGI stunts often end up presenting something which alert cinema-goers can tell would have been impossible in real life. There might be a huge car jump, in which the car travels much further than it could ever really have done. A small jump at the beginning and a small landing at the end will actually have been filmed. A computer will have been entrusted with the middle of the trajectory, and the operator will have just got carried away.

In Romancing the Stone, on the other hand, a car goes over a waterfall with four people in it, and the effect is completely stunning. The sequence was based on a real-life stunt, and because cameras had to be positioned in real places, the angles were all convincing. With computer stuff, the angles are often all too obviously quite impossible.

When real people are being used in real space, you’re protected from making gaffes which break the laws of physics. There’s a limit to the speed at which a human being will fall, whatever the height from which he or she drops. If a computer makes somebody appear to fall faster than that, at some level most of us can sense that something’s not right.

One thing that’s particularly unfortunate is that directors can get seduced by CGI’s possibilities into intruding surreal sequences into movies in which they don’t really belong. In Die Another Day, an ice wall collapses and Bond hang-glides across a huge wave created by the collapsed ice wall, in a kind of dream-sequence.

This scene has no connection with real life, and I think it looks awful, even though I directed and co-ordinated that film’s stunts. It completely spoilt the movie for me. I don’t think there’s any place for that kind of thing in Bond movies, which work largely because the situations created are based on things that could actually happen. The ice chase in Die Another Day, for example, was entirely for real, and all the better for it, even though we used CGI to eliminate ramps and other such bits and pieces of equipment.

All too often, directors are doing things because they can do them, not because they ought to be doing them. I acknowledge that things like computer games and Second Life are blurring the distinction between reality and illusion. Nonetheless, there are still distinct categories of fiction that need to be respected for what they are.

The Matrix is a good example of a film that is meant to be surreal and therefore entirely entitled to be so. You know what you’re going to get. I enjoyed that film a hundred per cent, but I don’t like seeing different genres confused. In Charlie’s Angels, we certainly crossed the line a few times with a strange guy chasing the girls who does some surreal things, but in the context of a slightly surreal movie this was OK.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, but I think we know in our guts what’s right and what’s not. Lots of people told me they didn’t like Bond’s hang-gliding in Die Another Day, and lots of people also told me they loved Casino Royale, largely because the stunts were so reality-based. The reviewers agreed, but ultimately it’s the audiences who will decide this issue.

I’m optimistic that all these things will sort themselves out in the end. CGI is a new thing. People are going mad for it, but ultimately common-sense will, I hope, prevail. Meanwhile, I urge directors to think harder about using flesh-and-blood stuntmen before they jump to the conclusion that CGI will do everything they want.

Computers should be a tool, not the be-all and end-all. My youngest son, Scott and my daughter Nina have become a stuntpeople. It may happen that the best they and there generation of stuntpeople can hope for is to work in support of computers. If that’s the way it ends up going, I have to say I’ll be sad.

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