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Interview with a Movie Stuntman

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He’s been set on fire, shot, stabbed, he’s fallen off cliffs and roofs, crashed through windows and had a screen fight with James Bond – and he lives to tell the tale! That man is David Cronnelly, stunt man extraordinaire. We caught up with him at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, the UK’s equivalent of Hollywood, on a two week hiatus before beginning work on a new movie ‘Wolfman’, starring Anthony Hopkins and Benito del Torro.

One reason Dave is still alive, and most other stunt performers for that matter, is because of the riggers and engineers, who devise amazing equipment and techniques to make those blockbuster movie scenes so realistic and spectacular, but also as safe as they can be.

Stunt performers and crews are at the centre of action movies doubling for the stars in potentially dangerous or other physically over-demanding situations. This means that not only must they look like movie stars, but they have to be dare-devils specialising in various disciplines such as horse riding or martial arts, and be able to act. Dave explains, “it’s not sufficient just to throw yourself over a cliff to simulate an accident, you have to act out the fall all the way down to hitting the ground”.

So how did Dave – whose list of films is almost endless including titles like Batman, Tomb Raider, Vertical Limits,Titanic, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is not Enough, Die Another Day to name just a few – get into the stunt business?

As a boy, I was very interested in rock climbing, archery and scuba diving and had the ambition to do a parachute jump, which I first achieved in America in 1983. I was also a bit of an innovator, I remember rigging up a buzzer in my bedroom, when I was only 10, which I had extracted from a telephone, and wired it up to the living room door downstairs to warn me when my parents were leaving the room, in case I was looking at books instead of being asleep. With this system, I was convinced that I had invented the first relay, but I was mortified when my father told me that someone had already done it some years before! When I got to 17, I fixed the big-ends on Dad’s Ford Capri, no, not as a revenge, but with the incentive that he would let me drive it afterwards.

Ignited

In fact, it was to be my dad, Gabe (short for Gabriel), who really ignited my interest in becoming a stunt man and rigger. At the time, he was an English History and Spanish teacher and played rugby for London Irish 1st XV. During his rugby fitness training, he had become very friendly with late stunt coordinator Terry Forrestal, who, along with his colleague Martin Grace, invited him, because of his knowledge of history, to work with them on the period drama ‘King David’ starring Richard Gere. They even trained Dad up and helped him qualify for the Equity stunt register.

Subsequently, he went on to double for actors such as Richard Harris in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Great Kandinsky’, and Sean Connery in ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ and ‘Indiana Jones-Raiders of the Lost Ark’. I was determined that I follow in his footsteps and aimed to use my specialist climbing and diving skills to be able to do stunts that others were not necessarily performing. This I did and got onto the Equity Stunt Register in 1988.”

London’s Burning

One of Dave’s first assignments was on London’s Burning in which he had to play a fireman rescuing a truck driver underwater after his truck had crashed into the Docks. His diving skills really came to the fore and so did his mechanical engineering prowess! He used firemens’ standard breathing apparatus in place of scuba gear, having first tested this out at his diving club. This came as a pleasant surprise to real firecrews, who apparently had been unaware that the breathing apparatus would work underwater.

"It is true to say that virtually every stunt requires different innovative engineering to make it work. One piece of kit that is used regularly, however, is what crews call a descender. Dave has designed and built his own, and this was used most recently in the latest Batman movie whenever the hero came down to earth. The cone-shaped mechanism controls the rate at which the cables supporting the stunt performer as he accelerates towards the ground, but then pulls him up abruptly before impact to effect a soft landing. The same piece of kit is used for falls off buildings and mountains when airbags are not possible. Dave also advised on the construction of the Batmobile and helped test the prototype.

Many stunts demand the design and construction of complicated rigs and employ a variety of devices like hydraulic, or air rams, winches, cranes and elevated track-mounted pulley systems as just a few examples. “There is no substitute for experience, rigourous testing and rehearsal to get things right,” Dave says. “By doing stunts yourself you develop an inherent feel for what will work and what doesn’t, you can’t get it out of a book. For example, although you study the technical specifications of materials and equipment very carefully when setting up a stunt, you get to know how far you can or cannot push the boundaries. This doesn’t stop us calling in structural engineers, however, when we need to work out just how far we can go with buildings and other structures.”

Real Buzz

"I get a real buzz out of trying out different ideas to satisfy different stunts and in testing them out. We have to work closely with the film director to discuss the scenes he is trying to create, we then have to devise ways of achieving the requirements and of making them look as realistic as possible, albeit within tight Health and Safety regulations and with insurance in mind, which is seldom easy.”

We asked Dave what were his most difficult stunts to achieve?

That’s a difficult one”, he said, “but probably up there with the most challenging was the Bungy-Ballet in Tomb Raider. When Lara Croft was attacked by mercenaries, this involved a carefully choreographed fight routine in which she had to dispatch her attackers, who were coming at her from all angles, as many as seven a time. Timing was critical and of course we had special effects too. We used crane-tracks to move characters round the set ,with the stunt performers suspended on bungy ropes. This involved careful orchestration of where and when they jumped and what counterbalance mechanisms were needed.”

Time was fast running out for us at Pinewood although we could have talked to Dave for hours, but we did manage to ask him one final question, how does anyone seeking excitement get into the stunt business?

Firstly,” Dave said, “you have to remember stunt work is not all about excitement, it short periods of extreme excitement, punctuated by long periods of waiting around on set to be summoned into action by the director. However, to get into it you must be good at physical activities like gymnastics, springboarding and trampolining, martial arts etc. The minimum requirement is competency in six different sports. You also need basic technical skills to understand the dynamics and behaviour of mechanical devices in different situations. If you want to work in special effects then CAD skills are a pre-requisite along with machining and engineering skills.

“Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has had a big impact in the business,” Dave concluded, “but I don’t think it will ever completely replace the real thing!”.

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