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Rolling with the punches: A glimpse into the world of stunt choreography

Taking a look back at some of the most iconic action scenes in movie history, it’s plain to see that many of them involve some degree of stunt work: from the fight sequences in Karate Kid where Daniel LaRusso kicks and punches his way through the members of the Cobra Kai; to the iconic scene in The Matrix when Neo manages to dodge all the bullets fired at him in slow motion. These unforgettable movie scenes all have one thing in common: they are thrilling and action-packed. Taking into account the adrenaline rush they give, their fast-paced stunt sequences and their heart-pounding and death-defying moments, it is no surprise that action films gather so much success in the box office.

In relation to this, there is a whole often-forgotten industry working in the wings. Behind every great action film, there is an even greater stunt choreography team. As part of every film’s production, this team is responsible for creating, visualizing, and executing the stunts that will be used. While actors are more likely to be recognized by the viewers, these stunt teams are usually nothing more to audiences than names that roll up at the end credits of movies.

To bring attention to the teams who work tirelessly behind the scenes, The LaSallian was fortunate enough to have interviewed three professional stunt choreographers on their craft and experiences in the industry.

 

A day in the life

“It’s hard work,” says Sonny Sison, a well-known fight director and stuntman. Having been in the industry for 29 years with various notable productions such as Buy Bust, Olympus Has Fallen, Godzilla, The Hangover III, and Hawaii Five-0 under his belt, he notes that creating fight scenes is not as easy as acting. Directing these performances for the big screen takes careful planning and preparation. “I read the script [and] ask the director what he envisions it to be. If they have a storyboard, [it is] even better. From there, I create a pre-visualization for the scene to use as template for what the actual action can be for principal photography,” he explains.

For Sison, who has worked both in the stunt industry of local films and Hollywood, there is a stark contrast. “Stunts in the Philippines are regarded lowly, which reflects [in] the budget and pay allotted for it. However, on productions I work on, I make sure they are compensated appropriately, even if I have to come out of pocket to pay what the production can’t,” he says. Unfortunately, the shortages in budget of some productions lead to lower quality action sequences.

Riki Benedicto, primarily an actor and stage director, has also found it necessary to add being a stunt choreographer to his repertoire of roles on set. “Most of my plays need fight choreography, so nagstep in ako to do it,” he explains, adding that there aren’t many stunt choreographers in the Philippines, so “if hihintayin ko sila, medyo ma-dedelay ang production.”

(I stepped in to do it. If I were to wait for them, production would be delayed.)

He took no special classes on stunt coordination, instead relying heavily on his childhood judo training, the stage combat lessons he took as an actor, and the action movies he watched in the past.

When creating an action sequence, Benedicto says his dual role as a stunt choreographer and scene director helps in creating action sequences as he visualizes how he wants a scene to unfold on his stage beforehand. His process involves reviewing the text, taking into account the characters’ motivations, and asking the actors how far they want to take a scene. He says getting input from his actors makes fight scenes “more organic”, and all-in-all gives a scene a sense of realism.

Derick Vizcarra, a stunt performer who got his start in the industry back in 2012, says his secret to choreographing action scenes is to “listen to music, and have the potential fight sequence play out in [his] head”. From there, he bounces ideas with his team and visits the location for the shoot to concretize his idea of how a fight should pan out.

 

An industry worth knowing

Beyond the thrills they bring, there’s also an often overlooked sense of artistry behind every fight scene. Choreographers create these sequences from nothing but ideas they’ve thought up in their heads, and bring them to life with creativity and precision—taking into consideration even small details, like what type of martial art would suit a character or how long a scene should pan out.

To aspiring stunt choreographers, Vizcarra suggests a stunt performer to first have a better idea of what the industry entails. “Learn martial arts, gymnastics, acrobatics, vehicle driving, etc. The more you know, the more tools you’ll have in your pocket to develop and create.”

Sison similarly advises, “[It is important to have a] background in some type of physical movement, whether it be martial arts, sports, etc. Take acting classes. That helps to relate what the director wants and how to give motivation to actors beyond just physical movement.” He emphasizes safety, too. Although it is fun to create these scenes, it is important to note that this is still a craft that must be taken seriously.

 

 

Not just for kicks

Despite what some critics may say, fight scenes do so much more than simply pad the runtime of a film or justify a blockbuster’s seemingly excessive budget. Scenes where characters are locked in combat can raise the stakes, further a plot, and draw the audience into whatever action-filled world a movie is trying to create. Without stunt scenes and the people behind them, action movies would lose a lot of what makes watching them an experience.

Vizcarra cites the movie Deadpool as an example, noting, “Without a strong stunt team or stunt sequences behind it, [Deadpool] probably would not have the recognition it has today.” Even Benedicto, who believes in only using action sequences when necessary, concedes to the fact that they “add to the spectacle, for sure”. Integrating action scenes can add a whole new dimension to a story, which is why even films that aren’t strictly action movies have embraced the inclusion of stunt choreography.

This is a field that goes far beyond the fight scenes. Any sequence that is physically grueling or seems to involve actions that surpass the human capacity has a team of stunt performers, choreographers, and coordinators working tirelessly in the background. From Spider-Man shooting out webs and swinging between buildings, to characters in science fiction films floating weightlessly in the vastness of space, these iconic scenes in movies and TV shows would not have been possible without the people who had to dream them up, map them out, and somehow present the impossible as a film’s reality.

By Enrico Peliño

By Nadine Macalalad

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