Stunts on a Budget: Basic Tips for Directing Indie Stunts, From the Director of Game of Aces

Are you afraid of attempting stunts on your shoestring budget? Don’t be.

Stunts are exciting to craft, awesome to shoot and when done well, they truly evoke “movie magic” in any film—yes, even your low-budget one. While there is a cost attached to any stunt, a great stunt does not have to break your budget. As an Australian filmmaker working outside of Hollywood, budget limitations have always presented a challenge to me in my career, but creating something from nothing is an incredibly rewarding experience.

Convince Your Producers During Your Writing

The word “can’t” is a word that no director likes to hear, and one that comes up pretty often when conversation turns to stunts. The natural reaction of any producer faced with the prospect of stunts is to see dollar signs. So directors trying to persuade their producers to allow for stunts should keep the ideas small and simple. Show that stunt work can be easy, and move that roadblock out of the way.

Breaking down misconceptions about stunts begins in the writing process. When writing stunts, as I did for my WWII thriller Game of Aces, I focus solely on what the stunt is achieving in relation to the progression of the story. A stunt should be capable of delivering the story element you need, on whatever scale works. This concept forms a baseline from which you can springboard, allowing you to rework that stunt as you move through the pre-production process and the shoot itself.

Bigger is Not Better

Delivering an well-executed stunt on a small scale is just as, if not more, effective than delivering a large stunt that is executed and delivered poorly. I often have to force myself to be flexible: I always want to go big, but inevitably what I want and what I can get will be two very different things. Budgets expand and contract throughout production, and inevitably your stunts will as well. You need to have a plan A, B and C already thought-out to counter the limitations that may arise (for instance, when your two days allotted to shoot a stunt becomes one).

Trust Your Collaborators

As a director, my preconceived idea of how a stunt may work in camera may be completely different to the reality. So work closely with your stunt coordinator and performers. These men and women are awesome, so draw on their experience to figure things out beyond your own ideas. Let them unleash their talents—it will be the best thing you ever do. Stunt performers will throw themselves under a bus for you, they will jump off a bridge for you—literally and figuratively!
Work around them or blend the camera into their performances, as you would with an actor.

Actor Chris Klein in Game of Aces

Actor Chris Klein in Game of Aces

Keep Your Edit in Mind

When directing stunts, my focus first and foremost is the edit. As you know, a firm grasp of the editing style of a scene (or the entire film) is key in dictating things like camera angle and lens choice. Staying close to the actionsometimes being right in the midst of the action—is a handy indie technique that allows for a smaller stunt to look bigger. Precise camera placement makes the difference between simply capturing the stunt and selling it. A stunt as simple as falling to the floor, for instance, can be felt by the audience in so many different ways dependent on how you capture it.

Bigger stunts are, as they say, like eating an elephant; it’s a lot easier to do one bite at a time, especially if you do not have multiple cameras rolling. If I am planning a bigger stunt, I generally go wider with the camera. You can hide a plethora of sins in a wide shot—compositing practical and CGI/VFX becomes more achievable. When you break the shot down into smaller, bite- sized pieces, coordinating smaller stunt elements individually and then combining them into a larger stunt can deliver impressive results.

Effects and Stunts Go Hand-in-Hand

I like to capture as much as possible in camera. I only look to CGI or VFX when there is no other alternative. Practical effects are where stunt work in the indie world starts to get really exciting. I make sure that for every VFX supervisor I have on a project, I have a practical effects supervisor as well. Watching them fight over who can deliver a better result is great! It positively impacts the film and the budget when you get your effects team working with your stunt team.

Safety, always! We are only limited by our imaginations. Ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity can and do negate small budgets, and open a gateway to amazing stunt work. MM

Game of Aces opens in theaters September 2, 2016, courtesy of Synergetic Distribution.

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