Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Stunt Action

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Stunt Action

Article excerpt

A record number of stunt people, unsung heroes of "EARTHQUAKE" took dangerous risks to make the film one of the most exciting ever

"EARTHQUAKE" employed the services of 141 stunt people-more than have worked on any single picture at least in the last 10 years, and possibly ever. It's not surprising when you consider that this film was about 75% action and it included people falling out of buildings, and getting crushed under debris and swept away by a flood. It was all done on a very large scale, with no punches pulled to make it as realistic and exciting as possible.

It wasn't easy to find that many stunt people to do all of the various types of stunts required. Stunt people tend to be specialists and some of them do only one kind of stunt-like falling off of horses, for example. All of them have to be in very good shape physically and they have to be mentally alert. Even so, accidents can happen and they do get hurt. In the theatre sequence in this film, a huge sign fell off a building, slid down a pole and pinned a couple of stunt people (a brother and sister team) inside a car. Luckily, they were only slightly hurt. Considering how many stunt people were used on "EARTHQUAKE" and how complex some of the stunts were, we were very fortunate that there weren't more injuries-and more serious ones.

Probably the most challenging sequence, in terms of stunts, was the action staged on the breakaway skyscraper set that was built on Stage 12 at Universal. The set was designed to represent the top five stories of the structure. During the earthquake, the facade breaks away and some of the people trapped on top come running down the fire stairway. They don't realize that the stairway has broken off and, when they reach that point, some of them are carried away by the momentum and can't stop. They fall off and others are pushed off by those behind them.

They had to fall about 40 feet and one of the most difficult stunts to do is to fall from such a height without preparing yourself properly. These people couldn't prepare because they just had to keep right on going. I had two girls and a man doing that stunt. The man fell onto a window, but the girls were just pushed out into space. It was a great shot and it looked very realistic. To prepare for it I had watched films of a New Orleans fire in which women were dropping from the 20th and 30th floors. They were dropping straight down and, obviously they were killed. It was a terrible thing to watch, but our girls managed to duplicate the movements very realistically.

For the sake of safety, we had big 15 by 20-foot airbags spread out everywhere under the set to break the fall of the stunt people who were jumping off. These worked very well, because everyone managed to clear the building all right, but if a jump had fallen short and someone had hit a piece of the metal structure on the way down, it would have been all over. We had no way of protecting the people against such an accident. Incidentally, I understand that these big airbags are starting to be used in fire rescues. They represent an innovation that should save a lot of lives.

The staging of the stunt action for the earthquake scenes that take place out in the street required a lot of very complicated pre-planning. All kinds of heavy objects are falling into the street from above-concrete blocks and pieces of steel and heavy signs-things that could really kill or seriously injure anybody unlucky enough to be directly underneath. …

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