Thursday, 13 August 2015

Stunts: The Argument for Academy Recognition

The Oscars are the highlight of the film calendar for many, this blogger included, and brings out all of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood for one night. On this night, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences present awards for the best of the best in every category in film making for the year. But are they missing one of the most crucial, demanding, and creative aspects of film making in the contemporary world?

Stunt work is by no means a small part of film making, just look at that list of names under 'Stunts' in the credits of the next blockbuster you see. Every time a car crashes, a fight breaks out, or someone jumps the gap between two buildings, there was a stunt person behind it and a stunt coordinator behind them. It is also not a new development in film making. The works of Buster Keaton are littered with jaw dropping stunts way before the days of CGI or stringent safety rules. So if stunt work has been so fundamental to cinema since its inception, why is it not recognised at the Academy level that everything else in film is?

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

The debate around an Oscar for stunt work has been around for a while, spearheaded mostly by stunt coordinator Jack Gill. For almost 25 years Gill has presented his case to the Board of Governors of the Academy and gets turned down year after year. He doesn't even mind if the award is part of the televised ceremony or not, he just wants recognition for the 'life and blood'1 that he and his colleagues put into their work. After all, their work is evident in almost every film ever. If it is fair for Academy voters to vote for things they do not even understand (see sound editing and mixing2), it seems fitting that they should also vote for something that is so obvious throughout all of cinema. Many films only get their recognition in technical departments, including some of the greatest (Fight Club, The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Prestige, Die Hard), and these days the technical departments can be a defining feature in making the film great (Gravity, Birdman, The Tree of Life). Stunt work is no different.

Colin Firth and stunt double Rick English on
 the set of Kingsman: The Secret Service

Richard Corliss claimed that Fast Five was the first great 'posthuman' film3. Essentially, it is not the human characters or performers that make the film great, but the stunts; the stunt work has more personality than Vin Diesel's Dom and the story put together. It is an interesting point of view; with the seventh instalment of the franchise destroying the world's box office and crushing the previous film's worldwide gross (by almost $1 billion), there can be no disputing the franchise's success4. And whilst they do not have an Oscar nomination between them, they do have multiple Taurus Awards (the awards for cinematic stunt work) as well as nominations from the Screen Actors Guild for stunt work. Considering Furious 7 is the fifth highest grossing film of all time and is likely to rake in a few Taurus nominations, is it not worthy of Academy notice? Are the Transformers films really more worthy of a gold statuette on their counter5?

Fast and Furious 6

Of course, the Transformers franchise earned academy recognition by being exemplary in two or three areas (sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects) and it would be demeaning to eliminate them because they were poor films in general. So it seems unfair to ignore the Fast and Furious franchise and similar films because their main appeal lies in excellency of stunt work especially considering their huge success with fans and critics alike. In the same way Michael Bay has expertly utilised visual effects in his films, Moritz and Diesel have incorporated stunts in theirs; they should not be ignored.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Admittedly, it is getting harder and harder to turn a blind eye to the excellence of stunt work. This year's Mad Max: Fury Road could be used as Gill's portfolio for why stunt work should be recognised by the Academy. The film, which was in essence a two hour car chase, filled its run-time with Chinese pole work on the back of moving cars, meticulously timed motorcycle jumps, and explosive chases with a huge oil tanker. It was also received extremely highly by all of the critics (racking up 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% on Metacritic). Mad Max appears at the same time as many other films associated with the current resurgence of 'practical effects' which is leading films  today to make their stunt choreography bigger, better, and more real; Tom Cruise really is hanging off that plane in the recent Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation6. With the quality of films like Mad Max, Furious 7, and Mission: Impossible 5 being at least somewhat defined by the quality of their stunt work, it is becoming impossible to claim that it is only a minor aspect of today's film making.

Polecats in Mad Max: Fury Road

It is not just the big set pieces that demonstrate stunt work's value to cinema; sky diving, fight sequences, and even rolling down hills require intricate planning and design to make them a reality. These stunts are also more likely to transcend genre too; perfectly choreographed fights, for example, have been utilised in all genres. Look at the comedy violence of Jackie Chan or of The World's Endto the fist fights in Skyfall, to the ultra-violent ways of the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service or Tarantino's filmsTarantino may keep winning Oscars7 for writing but the people who bring his brutal screenplays to life are being forgotten. But not their work. Mike Smith, a veteran stunt man and now stunt co-ordinator points out the absurdity:
'Here’s how ridiculous this is: They give an Oscar for Makeup and Hair, but when there is advertising to get the movies sold they are not showing the makeup and hair, they are showing the action shots. They are trying to get people to come in and sit in your theatre'8.
It's almost plagiarism. Stunt coordinators design the stunt, stunt men and women perform it, the director puts it in the trailer, the trailer brings the audience in, the film gets praised for being successful but the people who made it successful, that risk their life and limb for their art, are left behind. Those guys that flipped a truck in The Dark Knight, the polecats in Mad Max, the stunt double for Harrison Ford who clambers around a truck in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, their work is featured in the trailers for the films but their name is not up in lights. Why?

Harrison Ford and stunt double Vic Armstrong.
The writing reads: Vic - If you learn to talk I'm in deep trouble! 

Stunt work is driven by a stunt team's passion. Passion for the work they do, but also for the films they help make. The sort of passion that can bring George Miller close to tears9, the sort of passion that leads you to carry on despite injuries (Keaton broke his neck doing the water tower stunt in Sherlock Jr.10, Jackie Chan has broken nearly everything in his body over his career11), the sort of passion that encourages you to keep going in the face of rejection from the Academy for 25 years when other proposed categories stopped after one try (looking at you Best Casting and Best Title Design). That sort of passion needs acknowledgement. If dance direction had its own Academy Award when dance films were peaking in the 30s, shouldn't a category that has been out-doing itself for decades finally, finally get the recognition it deserves?

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Are there any particular films that you think deserve an Oscar for stunt work? Or should individual stunts be nominated? Let the discussion commence.

Some references:

2: and
5: Seven oscar nominations between them - three Best Sound Mixing, two Best Sound Editing, two Best Visual Effects.
7: Five nominations - three Best Original Screenplay and two Best Director with two wins for writing.