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Smash Hits
Bruce Newman
October 05, 1992
Hollywood's action pix wouldn't be boffo at the box office without the movie industry's greatest athletes: stuntmen
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October 05, 1992

Smash Hits

Hollywood's action pix wouldn't be boffo at the box office without the movie industry's greatest athletes: stuntmen

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To keep pace with the dazzling array of special effects now routinely available to directors, stunt designers like Kramer have had to devise new ways of injecting excitement into movie staples like the car chase. "I love a good car chase, but there's got to be a reason a car flips," Kramer says. "There are some cookie-cutter stuntmen who don't really want to deviate from the norm, and you've seen it a hundred times. I want to hear the audience say, 'How did they do that?' If you're going to build a ramp to do a turnover, why not build it inside another car, cut that car in pieces so that it's just tacked together, then set off a gasoline explosion when the first car goes through it? Now you've got one car turning over and another car disintegrating in a fireball. That is realism."

Kramer got his first big break in 1978 when he was hired to ride a motorcycle 30 feet through the air in one stunt and, in another, lay the cycle down on its side at 45 miles an hour between two tractor-trailers rumbling past in opposite directions. He still has a soft spot for bike jumps, which is how he came to design the most spectacular stunt in Terminator 2, in which a motorcycle jumps through the second-story window of an office building and into a helicopter hovering outside. It might have been possible to do the stunt just as it appeared on the screen, but even the slightest error in speed or trajectory would have resulted in death for stuntman Bob Brown.

Kramer attached a cable to Brown, then sent him roaring through the glass on a Kawasaki 650 made to look like a Kawasaki 1000 police bike. "At 35 feet we snatched him back into a box catcher and let the bike keep going," Kramer says. "Then we went to a soundstage and did another cut, this time shooting the motorcycle and a dummy into a mock-up of the helicopter. Finally we got a cut of the actor jumping and grabbing the helicopter skid. Then we edited it all together."

In another motorcycle jump in T2—this one from an overpass down into a flood-control canal—the cable attached to the stuntman was too big to hide from the camera, so the edited film was sent to George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic studio, where computers were instructed to isolate the color pixels that corresponded to the cable in each frame of film and electronically paint them so they perfectly matched the sky in the background.

The most dangerous, and therefore most seductive, stunt prop is the helicopter. It is seductive because of its extreme maneuverability, and dangerous for the same reason. One of Hollywood's most notorious tragedies—the death of three actors and a stunt pilot in 1982 during the filming of the movie The Twilight Zone—occurred when a helicopter crashed while attempting a stunt. Director John Landis and three others associated with the film, including special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart, were indicted in superior court for involuntary manslaughter. They were acquitted by a jury.

To create a variation on the standard car chase for Terminator 2, Kramer and director James Cameron staged a ground-level dogfight between a helicopter and a police SWAT truck that covered miles of freeway and, at one point, required the chopper to chase the truck under an overpass. "Before you fly a helicopter under an overpass, you drag it through to make sure the rotors fit," Kramer says. Stunt pilot Chuck Tamboro then flew through at almost a hover, and when he was convinced he could negotiate it safely, he came thundering through at 65 miles per hour, his rotors flashing like stilettos.

Kramer has doubled for Schwarzenegger in 10 movies and must train six days a week to approximate His Pumpitude's astonishing build. "I always work out for an hour or more a day, even if I have to get up at four in the morning," Kramer says. "Arnold taught me a lot about discipline. We'll work a 14-hour day on the set, and no matter how tired we are, Arnold and I go to the gym and train."

There is, of course, no training that can adequately prepare you to jump off the tailgate of a speeding truck, backward, and then land on the hood of another truck. That is exactly what Mic Rodgers was doing one afternoon in February on the set of Lethal Weapon 3. During one of the takes of this intricately choreographed stunt, the driver of the chase truck cased off on the throttle almost imperceptibly just as Rodgers was hurling himself into the void. "I couldn't cheat and look back over my shoulder," Rodgers says. "It was a leap of faith. I fired, and in a matter of milliseconds, I knew: This is wrong."

In the finished film Rodgers (as Mel Gibson) can be seen flying onto the truck, then struggling to keep from falling off. Because he is the hero, he is spared an untimely death. Later in the day Rodgers did several takes hanging from the side of the same armored car as it wove in and out of traffic. If he had forgotten the risk involved in this, he was reminded when the truck accidentally rammed a parked stunt car, which ended up nose first in a retaining fence.

The crew was racing to finish its work before the sun descended into nearby Chavez Ravine. In the distant hills that would frame this shot, the huge block-letter HOLLYWOOD sign glittered with what was left of the light. Rodgers had survived another day. As he climbed back onto the truck for the final take, the cameras began to roll, the set quieted, and the director uttered a single thrilling word.

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