By Carl Kozlowski
There was a time when the ability to perform certain stunts was restricted by the physical limitations of the human body. But that all changed in the past decade or so as the magic of Hong Kong’s wire-work masters has crossed over from cult-film status to the mainstream.
Whether assisting Keanu Reeves as he roared into battle against hundreds of Agent Smith clones in The Matrix Reloaded or enabling Chow Yun Fat to fight from treetops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, stuntman Jim Vickers has wowed audiences and stuntmen by pushing the envelope of action. Vickers has performed stunts for such diverse productions as Warner Bros.’s Angel, ABC’s Alias, and Dreamworks’ Catch Me If You Can, and been the stunt coordinator for the syndicated series She Spies and CBS’s CSI.
Surprisingly, some of his most interesting work has been in coordinating stunts for sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show and Fox’s Wanda At Large. “We’ve done stunts like having a girl run full-speed into a car and a full fire burn just as big gag stuff for Wanda,” he says, referring to the show’s slapstick-loving star, Wanda Sykes. “I also finished a big wire deal on an indie feature called Whiplash where a girl backs into a street, gets hit by a car, thrown into a bus and then the bus throws her into the back window of a parked car, all in one shot.”
Vickers entered the stunt business 15 years ago after earning a fourth degree Black Belt as a martial artist. His first big break came when he was hired to train actors how to stage fight for a Cyndi Lauper-starring film titled Off and Running, in particular teaching the “main bad guy” martial arts and earning an extra slot as the actor’s double.
Since then, Vickers has doubled for such diverse performers as Jim Carrey, Christopher Walken, Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins—the last two during the filming of The Mask of Zorro, in which he devised visually stunning swordfights and battle sequences. While his most impressive feature work to date came in the fight scenes for Equilibrium, which many critics and fans praise as being of Matrix quality despite its far smaller budget, Vickers says that the key to his success is establishing lavish stunt sequences that maintain a firm footing in reality.
“A lot of the old Hong Kong films were suspending reality because people don’t do double and triple backflips off balconies in the real world,” Vickers explains. “I’ll enhance people’s performances but I’m not taking it past the point of disbelief.”
Vickers notes that one big change in the stunt business is the diversity of talents that today’s new stuntpersons display. While in the past they came to the business with a specialty and then learned the business of wire work, air rams, ratchets and accelerators through “the school of hard knocks,” today’s fresh recruits “are already world-class gymnasts, motorcross guys and martial artists. They’re professional athletes as much as any person in any sport. Wire work requires them to be in top shape at all times,” he maintains.
Pointing out the many ways in which wire work is conducted, Vickers mentions possibilities that include linches and ratchets, and wires that can be pulled manually, pneumatically or mechanically. He also says that while human error will always exist in stunt work, the advances in computer-generated effects are making stunt work safer than ever.
“The key is trusting the wire,” he says. “It’s like bungee jumping or skydiving for the first time. You have to trust that the bungee will not snap at a critical time and that the parachute is going to descend properly. There are people in this business in whose hands I’d put my life for wire work, and people that I wouldn’t trust with my life for a second.”
One person who draws a lot of trust from wire workers is Todd Rentchler, who co-owns the climbing gear design firm Climbing Sutra with his wife Desiree. The Las Vegas-based pair devised the flying harnesses and stunt harnesses for the popular Vegas edition of Cirque du Soleil after earning a reputation among climbers in the Red Rocks area on the outskirts of Sin City.
Among the couple’s many innovations: a custom harness for the Strata crane, which allows a Steadicam operator to be flown with a 70-pound camera rig. “When we first became involved in the entertainment stunt industry, we decided we wanted to be the very best and did a lot of research and investment,” Todd explains. “We have a hydraulic pull-testing rig and an ANSI test dummy and so began evaluating the equipment that was out there by tearing it apart and making it stronger.”
Rentchler takes pride in the fact that every piece of equipment he produces carries a physical rating that lets stuntpersons know at what point it will break. He claims that his products are the only ones in the wire-work business that carry such ratings, which he says “are standard in the climbing industry. In the stunt world we have to hold much more than just body weight in order to withstand forces that result accelerating and decelerating people very quickly.”
The most significant advances in harnesses, according to Rentchler, have come with the invention of the artificial fiber Spectra, which is trademarked by Honeywell. Since Spectra fiber is “almost twice as strong as nylon,” the Rentchlers started using their own custom-made fabric, thread and webbing as well as Spectra fibers in their harnesses.
“We had found that many harness manufacturers had used buckles designed for World War II parachutes with patents dating back 60 years, and their buckles left a big lump under the actors’ clothing,” he says. “Using titanium, we designed some of the lowest-profile buckles in the world. They can hide under the Spider Man outfit. Now we’re on to doing stuff that’s so innovative we can’t even talk about it.”
By Carl Kozlowski