From martial arts to wire work, TV's ever-more startling stunts have viewers pressing rewind for one more look.
Stunt coordinators from three series — CBS's Supergirl (now moving to the CW), AMC's Into the Badlands and Netflix's Daredevil — shared with emmy's Kathleen O'Steen the multi-stage planning of a one-two punch.
The Pro: John P. Medlen, Jr., stunt coordinator and second-unit director
The Premise: After keeping her powers a secret for 12 years, Superman's cousin, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), decides to embrace her stupendous abilities as Supergirl.
The Process: "We work a lot with Melissa Benoist's stunt double, Shauna Duggins — she has a lot of abilities, including aerial work.
It varies per episode how many stunts we'll incorporate: it's usually up to three action sequences. I start by coming up with a plan, then break it down and rehearse it. Then I put together a previs [or, previsualization], meaning we film the stunt so everyone can see how it will look. I always try to design a fight as if it were meant for a feature film, even if we can't accomplish all of it.
"Supergirl is new at being a superhero, so we don't make her very skilled. But she's learning. I really enjoy the aerial battles. There was one aerial fight inside a warehouse where she was battling Astra [Laura Benanti], and it reminded me of watching performances in Cirque du Soleil.
"Since Supergirl flies, we have to do a lot of wire work. Depending on where the scene is set, it will be accomplished with a harness, using numerous rigging points.
If it's outside, we'll bring in cranes to supply those rigging points. "If Supergirl gets punched by a villain, we would have her fly backwards and then stop midair. That would be accomplished with two Pettibone cranes pulling her up and backwards; the stunt performer would also be attached to guide lines, usually manned by four to six guys on the ground.
They can slow her down using those guide wires. If we need her to fly in an arc, we would need one guy with guide wires to her left, one to her right and one in front to maneuver her. It can get very complicated."
Into the Badlands
The Pro: Stephen Fung, executive producer and fight director
The Premise: A warrior (Daniel Wu) and a teenage boy (Aramis Knight) journey through a dangerous feudal land together seeking enlightenment.
The Process: “Before we started shooting, we spent a month and a half putting the actors through fight boot camp. Besides Daniel Wu [who plays Sunny], the actors had no experience in martial arts. I work with martial-arts coordinator Master Dee Dee to map out the choreography of each fight. The action has an arc, and we have a high body count in each episode.
“Shooting martial arts is a little different. First, we have to find stunt performers with special sets of skills. We brought seven guys over from Hong Kong and China. We always want to see how well they do with swords, back flips, wire work. Daniel has been doing martial arts since he was 13, so he performs most of his own stunts.
“We average two fights per episode and we want to make sure the fights won’t be similar — a fight with or without weapons, a fight in the forest or a fight in the rain, for instance. This first season we choreographed fights that were more grounded [as opposed to aerial].
“The rain fight [for episode one] took eight days to shoot. Because it takes so much time to shoot one of these fights, it’s hard on the performers and stunt people.
But we consider this level of stunts such a breakthrough for TV — we want to create the most stylistic fight possible. In the rain fight, we had the actors wearing hats with the water dripping off. We want to dazzle our audience. And we’ve left room for the characters to grow in the next season. The fights will be less grounded — it will be more Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style.”
The Pro: Philip J. Silvera, stunt coordinator
The Premise: Blinded as a boy, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) fights injustice by day as a lawyer and by night as the superhero Daredevil in New York City's Hell's Kitchen.
The Process: "Daredevil has a history of knowing many different martial arts, yet his fighting style pays homage to his boxer father. We do between two and four fight sequences per episode, and the fights always revolve around the character that is involved.
When Daredevil hits someone, they aren't killed — they get back up. But when Frank Castle [Jon Bernthal], the Punisher, hits someone, they don't get back up.
"The stunts require very specific martial arts. The stuntperson for Charlie Cox is Chris Brewster; he's a martial-arts tricker [combining kicks with flips and twists], which again relates to the character. Daredevil has always had a sense for acrobatics.
"We use between 10 and 20 stunt performers per episode. When we start a new scene, first I take some time by myself to think about the fight and block out the beats. Then we start mapping the fight out in meetings, talking concept and emotion of the scene.
Charlie is extremely involved: when he started on the show, he didn't have much martial-arts training — he'd boxed a bit. But we're constantly teaching him, and he has enough of a physical background so he can pick things up.
"We imbue our show with a sense of realism and practicality. It's dirty and gritty — we don't do wire work. When we enhance the fighting [with surrealism], it's probably by 10 percent. For us, it's never about trying to do a bigger fight sequence, but rather about telling the story as uniquely as we can.
Daredevil is still figuring himself out, coming to terms with being a hero. In season two he's more confident, but he's still on his journey."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2016
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