Stunt Performers And CGI, Integrity and Life, Art vs. Ethics

Stuntwoman Joi ‘SJ’ Harris was killed in a motorcycle accident last month while filming “Deadpool 2.”  Her death occurred not long after stuntman John Bernecker perished in a fall on the set of “The Walking Dead.” Even though CGI technology would not have saved Harris or Bernecker, their deaths have re-ignited a controversy that began surfacing almost 20 years ago, and it is more bewildering now that it was then. Moreover, it will only get worse.

The question: Does it make sense—and is it ethical—to endanger human beings in filmed stunts when they can be accomplished using computer technology?

Interestingly, a case could be made that movie stunts are safer than ever. Bernecker’s death represented the first stunt-related fatality in the US since 2002 (Harris’s death was in a Canada shoot.) This represents great progress from the wild and woolly days of cinema’s pioneers, when actors like Douglas Fairbanks performed insane stunts for stunned moviegoers, and maniacal directors like D.W. Griffith bullied actors into taking life-threatening risks. For example. in this famous sequence, Lillian Gish waited for actor Richard Barthelmess to rescue her from a real ice flow that was on its way over a real waterfall as a frozen river broke up:

Many actors have died, and in the modern age when few stars are allowed to do dangerous stunts (one exception is Tom Cruise,  who broke his ankle last month roof-jumping on the set of “Mission: Impossible 6”), many stunt performers as well.  From 1980 to 1990, 40 stunt-related deaths occurred in the US. Computer technology has made the stunts safer, but if real people aren’t placing their bodies at risk, movies just aren’t as exciting….or profitable.

“It’s a terribly fine line when it comes to guaranteeing safety, because in reality there is no guarantee,” says Andy Armstrong, who has done stunt coordination for “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Thor,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Total Recall.” “If these stunts were common, you wouldn’t want it in the movie. So you’re invariably asking someone to do something outside the box, which is where it becomes so difficult to regulate.”

Now dramatic improvements in the technology make an ethics examination unavoidable. “When CGI first came about, stunt people thought, ‘that’s the end of our business, everyone’s going to be replaced by computers’,” Armstrong says. “That hasn’t happened, because there’s still a certain authenticity to seeing a real human do something.” Yes, but at what cost? Is that authenticity worth the inevitable deaths of human beings?

Movie artists say yes, and stunt performers don’t want to be put out of business. As with pro football, the beneficiaries of proposals to eliminate the deadly risks in their profession don’t want to be saved.

The technology to replace human stunts isn’t quite there yet. The closer the camera shot has to be, the less convincing CGI is. There is also the unavoidable fact that an audience ‘s belief  that they have watched a living human being (and not a bunch of pixels) perform a spectacular and dangerous stunt makes the movie more immediate and entertaining. This was one reason the chariot race in the “Ben-Hur” remake, with all of its technical wizardry, was a so disappointing. Nothing could equal the moment in the original when a team of live horses leaps over a wrecked chariot, carrying Ben-Hur and his own chariot through the air. *

At what point, if any, is it unethical to risk lives to get the perfect action shot? If CGI can provide 80% of the perfect shot, is that enough to tell the stunt performers to go home? 90%? 95%? Will it be responsible to use human stunt performers if the difference between what they can do and what a programmer can create becomes so small as to be undetectable?

If the human element is removed, will the art have the same integrity? An artisan who worked on recessed statuary in the National Cathedral was asked why he spent days carving the backs of  stone figures in such detail, since their positioning would ensure that no one would ever see that view of them. “Why bother?” an interviewer asked, “Who will know?”

“God will know,” the sculptor relied.

Perhaps a couple of deaths every ten years or so isn’t too much of a price to pay for artistic integrity. On the other hand, we are talking about “Deadpool 2” and “The Walking Dead,” not a cathedral.

This is a tough one.


* The famous moment was in part an accident.

“Joe Canutt was stunt doubling for Charlton Heston as Ben Hur. The stunt called for Joe Canutt to drive his chariot over the wreckage of two others — actually a short ramp placed in his path and blocked from camera sight by one pile of debris. In concept it was a pretty simple stunt, … but in the movie what really happens when Judah Ben-Hur’s chariot jumps over the wreckage of a chariot in its path, Ben-Hur is almost thrown out of his chariot. He hangs on and climbs back aboard to continue the race. While the jump was planned, Joe’s propulsion up and over the chariot front was not.”

10 thoughts on “Stunt Performers And CGI, Integrity and Life, Art vs. Ethics

  1. This is a difficult one: I absolutely love the chariot race scene in Heston’s “Ben-Hur” and dislike digital imagery used to create the illusion of an amazing action shot. On the other hand, I once met the Vietnamese mother who’s son was killed in the making of the “Twilight Zone” movie. Of course a stuntman knowingly puts life and limb at risk so that is a different issue.

  2. What are the ethics of putting your children in the car (or plane or boat) and going for a pleasure drive? We can now recreate so much of the outdoors with video and 4K TVs. See it and experience it as we never could before.

    At some point the human-in-the-loop experience is significant. And significantly better than today’s advanced computer cartooning replacements.


    I have no idea what happened on the Deadpool set, but I did read some talk at reddit that what killed the actor was that in the name of girl power and feminism no one could tell the movie makers she was not qualified. I assume that is idle, groundless, nonsense, but I did see people chatting about it. If true, that would be an ethical problem.


    Back when speed limits were 55 and some groups were lobbying to have the limits raised back to 65, I heard people say that 55 saves lives, and it’s true. Of course 45 saves more lives, 35 more lives still and 5 miles per hour or a horse walk is vastly saver than 55!

  3. This issue could eventually be swallowed by a general reduction in the use of real, live people in movies. there will be more and more robots and digital images, and digitally altered images of real people. At bottom there’s really no reason to pay $20 million to someone who could be generated by a computer.

  4. Just a side note: my maternal grandmother was stunningly beautiful as a young woman. She apparently was offered an expenses-paid trip to Hollywood (from New Hampshire) for a screen test. Her mother refused to let her go (actresses weren’t respectable, after all). According to family lore, which may or may not have any basis in fact, the studio then went with their second choice, Lillian Gish.

    • What a great story!
      I’ve been wanting to have an excuse to post that clip for years. Gish said in an AFI affair that she knew she was getting too close to the falls, and that Barthelmess was having trouble getting to her flow, but she kept hearing the director shouting, “Don’t move! He’s coming! This will be a great shot!!!”

      • Speaking of moral luck… Man, that could have ended worse.

        There have been recent issues with onstage safety in NY. Film actors without a lot of live experience getting hurt and saying it’s just “real.” And of course the experienced stage actors/stage managers who say WTF are y’all DOING to endanger them like this? Not accidents, but choreographed things that are NOT safe. OY.

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