The Evolution Of Stunts - Part Five

Over the previous four parts of our Evolution of Stunts, we’ve looked at the rise of cinema in Part One, legendary performers in westerns in Part Two, Biblical-sized blockbusters in Part Three, and the leaps in technology in the ’60s and ’70s in Part Four. As we’ve seen, the increase in technology also resulted in a rise in the number of stunt performers. In this, our final part of our journey through the evolution of stunts we look at the testosterone-heavy movies of the '80s all the way to the special effects covered films of the present day.

The rise of stunt performers in the 1970s continued into the ’80s, and their presence was greatly felt as we enter the golden age of Action Movies! If you were to name your favourite Screen Action Icon from the history of cinema, the chances are they’re from movies which were made during the ’80s.


The 1970s ended with Hal Needham creating his stunt group Stunts Unlimited and directing Burt Reynolds in Hooper. The 1980s started with Needham directing a pilot episode of television serial about stunt performers called… Stunts Unlimited. The show revolved around Hollywood stunt performers being enlisted by the US Military and started a decade of adrenaline-inducing action.

The 1980s were the birth of the high concept film! Any film which could be easily summed up in one sentence. “Hot-shot fighter pilots compete for the number one spot at flight school!” One of the masters of these films were producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. These films would go on to create household names of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Claude Van Damme. In the past, studios believed that for star power to pull in audiences they would need to believe everything they saw on screen was the actor's performance, but with the newfound popularity of stunt performers, they were able to package the star, and stunt performer into something far more powerful: character.

When you refer to Bruce Willis in Die Hard, you call him John Mclane, you have arguments over Rocky or Rambo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger effortlessly played both the good guy and bad guy to equally iconic effect.

These testosterone-fuelled action films also started to blend stunt work with special and visual effects. People would fall from skyscrapers, be blasted back by explosions, and fight invisible aliens.

Martial Arts movies also continued to grow in popularity, and would make a Hollywood star out of Jackie Chan, even though he was hugely popular in Asia and Europe, Jackie Chan only had two major releases in North America as a leading man. Chan’s unique blend of martial arts expertise mixed with a Buster Keaton-esque comedy was starting to gain traction.
After the advent of the Summer Blockbuster in the 1970s with films like Jaws and Star Wars,  there was a demand in Hollywood to reproduce this success every Summer. As he had done with Star Wars, George Lucas and fellow director Steven Spielberg delved into the past to create the future. If Star Wars came from a love of Sci-fi serials, then Indiana Jones was based on the action-adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s. It weaved its old-fashioned narrative with cutting edge film making techniques, to create something instantly familiar and yet new at the same time. It also relied heavily on its stunt performer and made a celebrity out of stunt man Vic Armstrong.

1990 - 2000

Blockbuster film-making blew up in the 1990s. Budgets skyrocketed, the box office was in rude health after the scare of home video, and at the beginning of the decade CGI (computer generated images) started to be used alongside traditional screen action and stunts to create even more breathtaking sequences.

Films successfully integrated this technology alongside more traditional techniques to great effect included Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Matrix, and Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. Audiences were astonished at the blending of computer wizardry and animatronic puppetry in Jurassic Park. If Superman made you believe a man could fly, Jurassic Park made you think it was possible for a T-Rex to come back to life and eat a lawyer sat on the loo.

The Matrix invented Bullet-time, which utilised a rig of cameras set out in a circle that gave the illusion of time slowing down, as the camera whirled around wire assisted martial arts. Titanic recreated history at a huge scale, whilst being completely believable.

This new technology also meant that the screen action could be performed with and against CGI assisted characters such as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and in 1999 actors were acting alongside full CGI characters in Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. We recently sat down with Andreas Petrides, who was the assistant stunt coordinator on The Phantom Menace, as well as the fight arranger, and he talked us through exactly how those scenes came to life. You can find that interview HERE.


2000 - Present Day

The 2000s saw a huge leap in CGI technology. Motion Capture became an art-form unto itself. Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers showed exactly how the perfect blend of acting talent and technology could create a fully believable character.

This progressed over the next 19 years with Avatar, Dawn Of, and War Of The Planet Of The Apes,  Tin Tin, and Alita: Battle Angel all showcasing photorealistic CGI characters. Along the way, we have had many dips into the uncanny valley, where the human mind can tell that what they are watching is fake, and some dead-eyed animation in films like The Polar Express, but when Hollywood gets it right, it is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

As this technology continues to grow, there is always the fear that CGI will replace real-life actors, and stunt performers, but so far this fear has been unfounded. Audiences know when what they are watching is completely CGI. Directors such as Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams realise this and try to do as much as they can practically and in-camera. The success of the John Wick franchise is a testament to how much audiences love watching incredibly skilled performers do what they do best.

CGI is best used as a tool to enhance the performance of a stunt performer or to place them in a situation which would otherwise be too dangerous for them to perform. For now, stunt performers are safe, that is until Disney releases their animatronic stuntmen which you can read about HERE.

There has been a huge change in the world of stunts since the start of cinema. Technology and techniques have evolved to make it safer. The politics have changed so that we can now celebrate individual stunt performers, but one thing has remained the same. It takes a huge amount of skill, talent and dedication to be a stunt performer.

Yes, technology has made it safer, but it is never completely safe. That’s why stunt performers are still needed. They have to be brave enough to risk injury and death all in the name of entertainment and story-telling.

... "and they don't get Oscars?..." I hear you ask?


Want to find out if you’ve got what it takes to be a performer on the big screen? Check out our B.L.A.S.T. British Live Action Stunt Training. 

If this trip through history has inspired you to start your journey into the world of screen action you can find our full course diary HERE!

Created by on