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. Continue reading