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A New Risk in the World of Film Stunts

Actors who make a living performing dangerous scenes face a career hazard: computers that let filmmakers do amazing things.

September 02, 2003|Richard Verrier and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

In the rough-and-tumble stunt world, Terry Leonard is a legend.

People still talk about how he managed to crawl under a moving truck, doubling for Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Or the time he stood in for Michael Douglas in "Romancing the Stone" and nearly killed himself driving a car off an 80-foot waterfall outside of Durango, Mexico.

From riding horses in the John Wayne movie "The Train Robbers" to directing stunts in "2 Fast 2 Furious," the burly 62-year-old has done it all, and made a pretty comfortable living doing so.

But Leonard, who competes in rodeos in his spare time and typically sports a Stetson and spurs, has mixed feelings about his son's decision to follow in his cowboy boots.

"I'm very concerned about the sort of career my son is going to have," said Leonard, as he picked over a plate of biscuits and gravy at a restaurant near his ranch home in Agua Dulce. "There could be a time when all the stunt work is done on computers."

Leonard is no Luddite. He knows that the growing use of digital technology is a boon to the industry, drawing audiences with the kind of death-defying scenes that no stuntman could ever perform. But at the same time, the ability to create stunts on a computer screen clouds the future of a community already struggling from the effects of runaway movie production and fierce competition for jobs. If that's not enough, makers of movies such as "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and the "Lord of the Rings" series increasingly are turning to actors to perform tasks that traditionally were handled by stuntmen.

"They're all worried their way of life is going to go," said director and writer John Milius, who has been involved in stunt-heavy projects from "Apocalypse Now" to "Clear and Present Danger." "They're right....To a large extent they're going to be a casualty."

Some say that's an exaggeration. The Screen Actors Guild and the loose-knit associations that represent the industry's 6,600 stuntmen and stuntwomen do not keep track of how much stunt work may be lost to digital technology. But they say their members continue to play a critical role in movie making today and point out that, in some cases, the trend toward digitally enhanced special effects has helped create more work for stuntmen and stuntwomen.

That said, most agree that the burgeoning technology will one day have the potential to replace much of the work that stuntmen and stuntwomen traditionally do. What's happening to the stunt community, industry leaders say, is merely another reflection of the digital change that's transforming every inch of Hollywood.

The shift to digital equipment is nearly complete inside the editing rooms. The switch to digital projectors is slowly underway and promises to one day make film obsolete. On sets, everyone from designers to cinematographers is scrambling to adapt to the changes brought about by the use of digital camera systems.

Yet unlike these crews, the stunt community is among the first to feel digital's sharp bite while working in front of the camera.

"I see myself as a relic," said Max Kleven, 69, a veteran of the business and second unit director for "Spider-Man" and "What Lies Beneath." "These digitally enhanced movies are making a fortune."

Several factors are driving the trend: The declining cost of digital equipment that can erase unsightly wires that might be hanging in the background of a shot, rising insurance rates to cover live-action stunts, and the popularity of computer-generated imagery among the teenage moviegoers so coveted by studio executives.

The biggest attraction for filmmakers is the ability to create scenes that defy the laws of physics outright.

In "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," digital animators spent weeks taking detailed electronic scans of the faces and bodies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kristanna Loken, the actors who play assassins from the future. The team used the data to build virtual models of them.

For a scene in which Schwarzenegger and Loken battle one another in a small bathroom, blasting through doors and walls in the process, the production crew used a real crane to destroy a real bathroom -- and then dropped the virtual actors into the footage after the fact.

Leonard himself employed digital techniques in a scene he set up in "2 Fast 2 Furious," in which one car appears to rocket over another as they fly off a bridge. In fact, the cars were filmed separately. The car that flies overhead was digitally inserted to make it look as if both vehicles were in the same sequence. That saved considerable time and expense and also eliminated the need for a much more dangerous stunt.

"The thing about computer-generated imagery is that it helps our business and it hurts our business," Leonard said. "It's a double-edged sword."

Today the technology is so powerful, it's often invisible -- giving filmmakers more incentive than ever to use virtual stunts in place of the real thing.

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