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COVER STORY : In the Line of Duty : As stunts become more and more spectacular, safety concerns are a top priority. Then why are so many stunt men and women injured, and even killed, on film sets?

FIRST OF TWO PARTS: In Monday's Calendar, the world of the stunt performers, their unofficial creed, the dangers they face.

February 18, 1996|Sharon Bernstein and Robert W. Welkos | Sharon Bernstein and Robert W. Welkos are Times staff writers

His wife later found the letter tucked into a copy of the film's script.

"Actors are inclined to take undue risks with their lives," she said. "They are frightened. Time is money. They don't want to hold production up. They don't want to look silly in front of other people. Roy always wanted to be Mr. Nice Guy. That was always Roy's motto in life."

She accepted a $1.02-million settlement after filing suit against the producers.


No case focused attention on the issue of movie safety more than the deaths in 1982 of actor Vic Morrow and two children on the set of the John Landis segment of "Twilight Zone--The Movie."

The California Legislature held hearings to see if working conditions on movie sets were too dangerous. A top official with the Screen Actors Guild testified that first aid on movie sets was "an industry disgrace."

The film unions reactivated long-dormant safety committees and joined with producers and studio executives to devise guidelines for performing special effects.

But 14 years since the "Twilight Zone" tragedy, Hollywood has been left largely to regulate itself. Although the actors guild asked lawmakers to require such safety measures as nurses on the set and limits on the use of certain pyrotechnics, legislators balked. Some cited fears that the industry would leave California.

Meanwhile, the state's main regulating arm for workplace safety, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or CalOSHA, typically does not play a proactive role in policing safety on movie sets, said Mark Carlson, deputy chief for enforcement. Sets and studios are not routinely inspected, and most sets have been exempted by the Legislature from many state building codes.

Moreover, many of the activities that take place on movie sets fall under the jurisdiction of other agencies. For example, helicopters and airplanes are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Screen Actors Guild stepped into the breach, negotiating into its collective-bargaining agreements the safety requirements it had requested from the Legislature.

The insurance industry has also had an effect. Today, it is standard practice for an insurer to send its own safety experts to a set, studying storyboards and demanding to know who is going to perform the stunts.

An unexpected boost to safety concerns has come from technology.

During the filming of Arnold Schwarzenegger's upcoming film "Eraser," three stunt performers received minor injuries during an explosion scene.

"We felt it would be dangerous to try the shot again," producer Arnold Kopelson said. "We went inside and simulated the shot with a rear-screen projection."

For the film "Jurassic Park," Industrial Light & Magic eliminated the need for a stunt actor in a scene in which a Tyrannosaurus rex devoured a man in a restroom. It was unsafe for a person to be shaken wildly in the manner that director Steven Spielberg wanted. So the company developed a model of the actor in a computer and animated the entire scene.

Computerization, said Jim Morris, president of ILM's Lucas Digital division, "holds the promise of allowing more spectacular stunts for movies more safely."

Digital stunts can also be cheaper.

For example, he said, Robert Zemeckis, the director of "Forrest Gump," wanted to choreograph a scene in which a phalanx of attack helicopters in Vietnam moved in tandem with the movements of two actors on the ground.

"If you'd had to bring in a couple dozen helicopters, pilots, fuel and have this elaborate choreography, it would have been enormously expensive," Morris said. "For us to add the helicopters in digitally . . . it was a fraction of the cost."

In the end, the scene cost $50,000 to $75,000, Morris said, instead of up to $300,000.

In fact, digital stunts are becoming so popular that it's a joke among stunt performers that computers will put them out of business.

"The stuntmen as we know them today are going to be extinct," said stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. "You are going to always need somebody to go through a plate-glass window, but the real big stuff, the hairy stuff, will be long gone."

For the foreseeable future, though, stuntmen and stuntwomen will continue to jump off buildings and walk on airplane wings.

The action genre is vital to the film and television business, especially in the burgeoning foreign markets, where stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger attract hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

Stunts are the bread and butter of these films, and many directors say that even as digital technology continues to advance, audiences will prefer to see real stunts.

Filling that need are the men, women and even children of Hollywood's close-knit stunt community. They love their work, make good money and have a very different view of what is safe than most people do.

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