Fire Stunts and Special Skills – Action with Don Shanks

Written by | B-Roll

Don shares how a fire stunt is done on set and talks about stage combat and special skills on your resume.

I often see movies and TV shows where a character is on fire. How is that done? – Colton J., Seattle, WA

Right now they can do it all kinds of ways. Originally, what we would do, is we would have special underwear. Nomex or Cabon X – it’s what the firefighters use, and it’s what racecar drivers use – and then we put on a gel that keeps you from burning. Then you have certain accelerants that make different fires.

In high school I was heavily involved in the theater. In fact, I was given the title of “Stage Combat Master” because I was the one who staged all the fights for the performances, even if I wasn’t in the show. Now I’ve been out of high school for a few years and I keep thinking about how much I enjoyed not only the performing arts, but the time I spent with actors one on one, working on getting their fight scenes down for the show. Can my knowledge of staging fight scenes for the stage, translate into stunts for film? – Mike H., Reno NV

I was trained basically for theater. I taught stage combat. You have to learn your audience. If you’re playing for theater, you’re playing to the back row. So, sometimes you have to learn to make it more intimate. Last year, I worked with Ballet West, and we had sixteen fighters on stage while we had another thirty people around us, and that all had to be choreographed so that no one got hurt and so we were doing it to the music. To the cadence. Every fight was different. Dance is probably the closest thing to fighting. So, if you know your audience, you can translate it for film – if you’re doing a fight scene and your back is to the camera, and they can’t see what they’re doing, you’re not doing it right. You have to learn how to stage it so the camera will see what you want it to see.

I’m an actor in my twenties and I need to beef up the special skills section on my resume. Seriously, it’s looking weak and “can use chopsticks” (isn’t that special). Do you recommend I take some stunt classes so I have a little bit of that knowledge under my belt? Are there any skills you recommend that I should learn? – Kayla T., GA

It would be good to take a gymnastics class, a martial arts class, and a fencing class. The stunt schools will give you some practicality. How to use an air ram etc., but in all truthfulness, they are not going to let you start out doing those stunts. It’s better to learn doing some of the smaller stuff and work your way up. Due to the fact that everybody wants to go in and roll a car, they’re not going to let you do that. You have to learn how to hit your marks. When I roll a car, I can put a dime down and say my hood is going to go there so the camera knows.

Remember that people are going to check you out. If you say you can do something on your resume, I’ll call up the stunt coordinator on a project and find out if you actually can. Never lie on your resume.

– Don Shanks

Don Shanks has fans from incredibly diverse sources, but primarily from the horror genre, with roles as Michael Myers in Halloween V and the I Know What You Did Last Summer sequels, and from his role as Nakoma, Grizzly Adams’ sidekick. Don has appeared in several dozen films, and is a renown film stunt coordinator and stuntman. His credits in stunts in stunts include High School Musical 2 and 3(where he began a training routine for Zac Efron), The Crow and Indian Runner to name just a few.

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Last modified: October 5, 2017

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