What Exactly is a Stuntman? – Action with Don Shanks

Written by | B-Roll

Don Shanks, stunt performer and coordinator, answers your questions about the job!

“What exactly is a stuntman?” – John B., Atlanta, GA

A stunt person is anyone who steps on a set to shoot any action that would be construed to be too dangerous for the actors in the film. This encompasses anything from fight scenes to scenes that require a more specialized skill, such as skiing or car racing.

“Do you need to belong to a union to be a stuntman?” – David L., Lexington, KY

There is no definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question—the conditions of the production of the film will dictate that answer. For example, if you are doing stunts on a student film, a non-union independent film or a film being made under the SAG-AFTRA, ultra-low budget agreement, you do not need to belong to a union. If you are doing stunts on a SAG-AFTRA film (from the modified low-budget agreement on up) in a right-to-work state, you do not have to belong to a union—especially the first time you work. However, if you continue to work as stunt person in a right-to-work state, I heavily encourage you to join SAG-AFTRA. If you are working in a NON-right-to-work state (like California) on a SAG-AFTRA project that is also from the modified low-budget agreement on up, you must belong to SAG-AFTRA.

“At what point in filming does a stuntman come in – how far will producers let actors go in doing their own stunts?: – Jake H., Springfield, MO

I’d like to think that film producers are such great humanitarians that they care deeply about the safety of their actors and therefore bring in stunt people as soon as they are needed, but truth be told, it is more often a question of insurance and keeping the lead actor able to work in front of the camera. Losing a lead actor to weeks of recuperation due to an injury on the set can make a horrible financial impact on the film – and sometimes, close it down indefinitely. So stunt people are brought in as soon as something is getting ready to be shot that can be construed as dangerous to the actor. Certain actors, however, have it in their contracts that they will do the majority of their own stunts. Imagine the safety precautions taken by the stunt coordinator in those cases!

“I am a martial artist and recently tried to get a small part in a martial arts film being done here. They told me that all of the day players were going to be dancers and gymnasts – and not real martial artists. Why?” – Corey O., Tucson, AZ

A major part of becoming an expert in certain things – and most certainly in martial arts, is that there is a certain protocol to be followed. I worked on a martial arts film that was being produced and directed by the producer/director team of Enter the Dragon. Obviously, not novices. They had world renown leads and a team of stunt people/martial artists from Hong Kong who virtually defied gravity, but all of the locals hired to be in the fight scenes were, in fact, dancers and gymnasts, as you said, and not martial artists. When a fight scene is shot, it is divided into dozens of quick shots. So one shot may be the beginning of a kick – and the camera cuts. A martial artist may have a hard time breaking out of the protocol of a kick, whereas a dancer or gymnast will simply take
the direction to do the simple move that is needed for that shot. When pieced together, it looks like that dancer or gymnast is an accomplished martial artist. That’s the beauty of working with a professional director and editor.

– 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: August 13, 2017

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