Stunt coordinators can be one of the most useful and important roles on a film set. However many directors - especially first timers - don’t fully understand what they do. Even experienced filmmakers may not realize the difference a good stunt coordinator can make.
To cut through the confusion and learn more about what an experienced stunt coordinator can do for your film, we’ve put together a helpful guide. And we went right to the horse’s mouth to get our information.
Who better to walk us through the ins and outs than stunt coordinator Ryan Sturz?
With nearly thirty years in the business and credits ranging from Chip ‘n Dale to Blumhouse’s Into the Dark to Childish Gambino’s This Is America video, Ryan has first-hand experience with every aspect of a stunt coordinator’s job.
These highly skilled crew members usually have years of experience performing movie stunts. This gives them an understanding of how to make stunts look good on camera while keeping the performers safe.
They’re in charge of all the hiring and firing in the stunt department, but Ryan sees the job as much more than that of an administrative department head.
“I feel sometimes the coordinator is looked at as a technician, rather than a contributor to the filmmaking or the storytelling process. And I think that if a director can rely on a stunt coordinator for their storytelling abilities [...] the final product or movie could be well served.”
This is because every decision stunt coordinators make helps tell the film’s story. What are stunts if not external representations of the emotional journey the characters are going through?
How and why action happens on screen is just as important as what action occurs on screen. A weak punch doesn’t tell the same story as a well-placed uppercut; nor does a slick gun battle tell the same story as a desperate firefight.
Of course, these decisions are made in conjunction with the director, but top-notch stunt coordinators bring their own style to movie stunts - just like cinematographers bring their own style to the look of a film.
The stunt coordinator’s job begins the moment they receive the script for a film. Before they can start to think creatively or even begin to hire players, they have to analyze what the movie’s stunts entail. According to Ryan:
“A lot of times when I do a first reading, I don't even read the dialogue. I just read the action. And I'll mark physically with a marker or a pen everything that I can that I think constitutes a stunt.”
This work results in a stunt coordinator’s “breakdown,” or a list of all the movie’s stunts. (Searching for a sample script breakdown? Look no further.) The breakdown gives stunt coordinators a sense of how to approach the work creatively, as well as who they might need to hire.
The stunt coordinator then places calls to the specifically trained movie stunt performers who can lend their expertise to the movie’s stunts (more on that below).
While that is happening, the stunt coordinator is also attending location scouts and tech scouts to gain a full understanding of the limitations (or advantages!) of each location where stunts will take place.
For instance, if Ryan is prepping movie stunts for a Western:
“If we have a guy doing a running dismount - he has to come in hot, shoot his pistol in the air, jump off [his horse], and deliver a line. During the tech scout or the location scout, I can say to the director ‘You know what, if with this particular shot, it would be better for us if the horse could come in from that direction, as opposed to from this direction.’”
And this is where a stunt coordinator’s storytelling skills are essential. They need to understand the narrative purpose of the director’s shots so that their suggestions can be additive (or at least not conflicting).
In other words, the coordinator needs to keep in mind why the horse in the example above might need to come in from one direction or the other for the sake of the story. Their tweaks and suggestions should play into that story unless there’s a safety issue that needs to be addressed.
If a major issue does arise, a good stunt coordinator with a strong understanding of story can make suggestions. A great stunt coordinator will create a safer shooting situation without changing the nature of what’s happening on screen.
In some cases, it’s obvious.
Other times, the needs of the film won’t come into focus until the stunt coordinator has a conversation with the director. For instance:
“‘Annie trips.’ Is that a stunt or how do you see that? And the director will tell me what he sees there. You know, whether it's just like a little physical trip or whether it's: ‘She trips and face plants and the coffee goes splattering all over the place.’"
While it’s not as dramatic as an explosion, a fall like that can still be dangerous. Burns, cuts, falling poorly. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong.
If the coffee needs to go splattering, the stunt coordinator will not only be responsible for hiring the stunt performer taking the fall - they’ll also reach out to props, costumes, and camera to prepare them for breaking glass and flying liquids.
Even if the action is simple, stunt coordinators will discuss how to best shoot the fall in a way that gives the director the visuals they need while keeping the actor safe.
In this example, maybe the wide shot of this trip employs a stunt performer to take the hard fall to the ground, but the close up is framed so the actor can drop onto a hidden safety pad from a height of just a few inches.
“As early as possible,” says Ryan.
This gives the stunt coordinator a long (read: cost-effective!) lead time to hire their team, prepare for stunts, and scout locations. It also gives them a chance to dive deep on what is and is not a stunt in your script.
Because when it comes to the question of “what are stunts?”, the answers aren’t always clear.
“There are very definitive rules about what constitutes a stunt when it comes to stunt driving. SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) has written all that out: car brakes, traction, the wheels, all that stuff. That doesn't really work for acting because you know, you can stage a slap in 10 different ways depending on what the story is.”
The last thing you want is to lose valuable time on set over a miscommunication about what an actor is comfortable doing or what they thought would be performed by a trained professional.
For the safety of the cast and crew, you should have a stunt coordinator for any movie stunts that have any element of danger or harm. These could include fist fights and car chases, but also:
- Jumps from heights of more than a few feet
- Horseback riding
– Accidental falls (tripping, fainting, injuries)
– Violent intimate scenes
– Physical comedy bits/gags
Ryan admits that these conversations aren’t always easy.
“Sometimes I have to fight to say ‘Okay, this constitutes a stunt,’ and I'm getting pushback from the producers because they don't want to pay for that. And other times it's no problem at all. Everybody agrees: ‘Okay, this is a stunt. We need stunt doubles and rehearsal time.’”
Ultimately, the conversation about what’s safe enough for your cast to do themselves will need to involve the cast members, the stunt coordinator, and the assistant director (who is the last word in safety on set).
Bringing a stunt coordinator in early also gives them time to help make decisions regarding the budget for your film’s stunts. These costs often stretch beyond the immediate price of stunt players and into other departments.
A good stunt coordinator will know from experience how stunts might affect departments such as props and production design. Will a fight involve breaking glass? Props will need to provide the breakable windows or bottles that will be used.
Large stunts might require walls that can be broken through, ceilings that collapse, or other architectural elements that the production design team will need to be aware of.
Will multiple versions of a set need to be built? Will a stunt require an element of the set that can break and be re-set for another take?
Many stunts also require special safety equipment, and that equipment isn’t free.
Something as simple as a trip or a fall could involve stunt mats on the ground or pads hidden beneath a performer’s costume. Those pads cost money to rent, and if the performer’s costume needs to be altered to seamlessly hide padding, there could be additional costs for tailoring.
From there, the equipment only gets more specialized and expensive. Rigging for wire stunts, harnesses for safety, or specially equipped cars for crashes - these all fall under the purview of the stunt coordinator (or the teams who report to them).
Ultimately, it’s up to you to collaborate with your stunt coordinator to achieve what you want to see on screen. Use the technical expertise of an experienced stunt coordinator to define stunts that suit your vision.
For instance, if your film is a heightened, operatic, action movie and you want to see a shoot-out in the style of John Woo - tell your stunt coordinator. Give them visual references.
They will act as your translator to go from department to department and figure out how to get you the level of sparks and debris (and doves) that you are imagining.
Or maybe you’re directing a grounded thriller and no one in the world of your film has ever been chased on foot before. Tell the stunt coordinator: nothing fancy. No parkour, no crazy dives. They will work with the talent and stunt team to make sure the foot chase looks desperate and raw.
These are the moments where your vision and your stunt coordinator’s expertise will come together to create something powerful and new that will bring audiences to the edge of their seats.
By applying the lessons Ryan shared with us to your production, you’re well on your way to making sure your film’s stunts leave a lasting impression.
To learn more about other roles on set, take a look at our Guide to Film Crew Positions. Or, to learn about how the world of stunts has been affected by advances in technology, check out our article on virtual production.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
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