A young woman is dangling 300-feet off the ground from a rope stretched between two cliff faces, her safety harness broken. She screams as she hangs on for dear life, in the middle of a rock climbing expedition that’s gone seriously wrong.
Her only hope lies in hero Sylvester Stallone, who bravely climbs harness-free along the rope just in time to catch the wrist of the falling girl, hanging on to the full weight of her body with all his might.
This nail-biting moment is the famous opening scene from Cliffhanger (1993).
Of course, you may recall the next moment, when the girl’s hand slips free from Stallone’s grip, and she plunges down horrifically to her death, torturing the morbid imaginations of audiences with her blood-curdling scream.
The girl’s character in the film died; the stunt people who provided all the riveting, edge of your seat action for the scene did not.
Of course, most of that particular scene was filmed using green-screen special effects; but stunt people were indeed there, breathing all the real live-action into that film’s scene and others; including a scene that is often regarded as the most expensive aerial stunt in film history, later on in the movie.
It’s that real live action that many directors favour over CGI, even in today’s digitally enhanced driven film world, because the difference really can be felt by the audience.
As The Amazing Spiderman stunt co-ordinator Andy Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly: “Because there’s something beautiful about seeing something that really is real. Even if you’ve never done that activity, there’s something in the human eye and mind that can spot a real human doing something.”
For the stunt people who work everyday to provide that feeling, everyday could be their last. What drives stuntmen to risk their necks everyday, just to provide stellar entertainment for popcorn munching movie-goers the world over?
Is it the money? Is it the adrenaline rush? Is it because they’re damaged, like Mel Gibson‘s cop character Riggs in Lethal Weapon, and enjoy gambling with their lives? It’s probably any combination of the three.
Whatever it is, these daredevils seem to be seriously underrated and under-recognized for the service that they provide, all in the name of entertainment.
Actor Jason Statham has actually campaigned to give them their own Oscar category, recognizing the dangers and skill involved through his insistence on performing all of his own film stunts. There are other actors out there who have also famously insisted on doing their own stunts, where possible; Tom Cruise, and Daniel Craig to name just a couple.
When it comes to the unbelievably death defying stunts, however, that only a madman would perform–that’s usually when they call in the pros.
You can usually tell which scenes are filmed in front of a green screen, and which ones are the real thing, thanks to these skilled stuntmen. It’s those real scenes that tend to provide a film with cinematic brilliance; often becoming legendary movie moments that stay lodged in people’s minds forever.
Those movie-magic moments don’t come for free. Some of the stunts these artists have performed are simply mind boggling, and have required some serious bankroll to achieve.
These are ten of the most elaborate, and most expensive stunts ever performed in film history.
10. Cliffhanger, aerial rope stunt
Back to Cliffhanger, a 1993 film absolutely chock-full of scenes that required stunt assistance. The most elaborate of them all, and classed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive aerial stunt ever in film history, had fearless British stuntman Simon Crane climbing a rope between two moving airplanes at 15,000 feet– without a safety harness.
The stunt was so dangerous to execute that the film’s own insurance group reportedly refused to insure Crane for the scene. Logistics of the scene involved aerial perfection; if the planes did not maintain a synchronized speed of exactly 150mph, the big DC-9 could have stalled, with disastrous effect; if the planes were going any faster, the wind force would probably tear Crane’s body to pieces.
Extreme cold, and a lack of oxygen added extra hurdles for Crane to endure. Sylvester Stallone, who starred in and co-wrote the big budget movie, reportedly bankrolled the mechanics of the scene and Crane’s paycheque to take the enormous risk– for a whopping total of a million dollars.
All of the effort and death-defying stunts that went into the making of the film clearly paid off; Cliffhanger was a critically acclaimed success that made $250 million at the box office worldwide, earning three Academy Award nominations for Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects.
If there had been a stunt category, as actor Jason Statham has rallied for, Crane would have undoubtedly taken the golden man home for this one!
9. James Bond: The Spy Who Loved me, parachute ski jump
The stunning opening sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) has Roger Moore‘s James Bond fleeing the baddies on skis, eventually jumping off an extreme mountainside to finalize his escape, sailing down with a Union-Jack parachute to the delight of movie audiences.
The entire scene in reality, was the most expensive stunt ever performed at the time, filmed uncut from start to finish with stuntman/alpine expert Rick Sylvester doubling in for 007. With filming taking place from the top of Asgard Peak in Canada’s Baffin island, a small film crew reportedly waited days until the weather conditions were just right for the shoot.
With cameras placed at every angle, Sylvester began his descent, with some cameras losing sight of him after he launched off the cliff face with a 3,000 foot drop. Luckily, one camera managed to follow him the entire way down, straight through to the end of the uncut scene of the famous parachute base-jump.
The former mountaineer stuntman became an icon in the world of alpine ski enthusiasts following the film’s release.
Sylvester was paid what was considered to be a fortune for a stuntman at the time, $30,000, with a bonus upon completing, and surviving, the shot!
8. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, free-climbing
This insane stunt involved the tallest building in the world, a mini replica of that building for practice climbs, and the actual person of Tom Cruise to do both.
The building in question is Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, standing 2,723 feet tall. The scene for the 2011 film required Cruise to climb like a spider on the exterior of the building as his character, Ethan Hunt is supposed to be powering up the glass siding with the use of electronic gloves.
The scene required weeks of planning, with a replica section of the mega-building flown in all the way from Dubai to the film crew’s station in Prague, just for practice runs of the climb.
As for the day of the shoot itself, safety harnesses were all over the place, securing Cruise, crew and cameras; although the crew were all inside, windows were opened especially for the shoot, creating an added risk for all involved from the dizzying 800 ft start point of the stunt.
Everything had to be taken into account, from windy weather risks, to the position of the sun, to the temperature of the glass Tom Cruise would be touching, which could actually burn the actor under direct sunlight. Giant lights measuring 50 feet each were even installed on a rheostat to mimic the sun’s light during filming.
In anticipation of a possible absence of wind, a special 120mph wind machine was custom built for the scene as well, attached to an arm that stuck out the window to help make Cruise’s hair and clothes get whipped around a little more.
With all that going on, plus the price tag to insure the film’s giant movie star, it’s no wonder this film’s budget tapped in at over $150 million.
7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, helicopter chase scene
The heart pounding, fast-paced action sequence in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) that has the T-1000 chasing Sarah and John Connor with Arnold Schwarzeneggar at the wheel of a truck had audiences completely on the edge of their seats. No one had ever seen anything like it before, because no one had been crazy enough to attempt it.
In comes James Cameron, who actually stepped out of his director role and into the role of cameraman and stuntman to capture the scene.
The concept of the night chase scene was reportedly so dangerous to tackle, that the film’s principal camera crew refused to film it, forcing Cameron to take over to get the job done. The chase sequence includes the helicopter flying under a highway overpass, appearing to just clear the bridge by scene’s end.
At the time, the film had the largest budget of any, with a whopping $51 million used on stunts and special effects alone, including this famous helicopter scene.
6. The Dark Knight Rises, aerial hijacking
The opening scene in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was a slick hijack sequence involving two airplanes, a bunch of skydiver stuntmen hanging from cables, and the Scottish Highlands for a backdrop.
The aerial stuntmen play the evil Bane’s (Tom Hardy) worker bees, rappelling from their aircraft and into the CIA’s jet to rescue their big boss, and kidnap a scientist. The entire scene appears seamless; possibly thanks to so much of it being real footage.
To add to the realistic drama, the smaller plane was even replaced with a glider “stunt-double,” specially designed for the wings and tail to snap off, and then plunge thousands of feet to the highland ground below after being cut loose from the larger aircraft; don’t worry, all highlanders and sheep were safely cleared away before the scene was shot!
Although some CGI was at play with the finished product, four stuntmen really were hanging from cables attached to an airplane, which they really did shimmy down, mid-flight, to get onto the second aircraft; all the while with director Chris Nolan watching from a helicopter to make sure the shoot from the Batman instalment was just as he envisioned it.
This kind of large scale stunt action is a trademark of the director, who told the New York Daily News: “Really, your job as director is to ignore the scale of things and just look at the shot that you’re going to put on screen — and how that’s going to further the story.”
Even if that means spending lots of extra big bucks for the scale of those big stunts, that’s how Nolan rolls. The finished product is action-cinematic brilliance.
The Dark Knight Rises reportedly cost a staggering $257.2 million to produce, with this famous stunt and others (including the famous truck-flip that had a live stuntman at the wheel) taking up a good chunk.
5. The Amazing Spiderman: aerial web slinging
When the Spiderman movies came back on the scene with Andrew Garfield in the lead, producers wanted to find a way to make the web slinging stand out from the other movies.
In past Spiderman films, most of the stunning aerial scenes were produced digitally. While the results were great, the producers and stuntmen for The Amazing Spiderman (2012) wanted something fresh, and more realistic than anyone had seen in the movie franchise before.
Thanks to the dedication of director Marc Webb and stunt co-ordinator Andy Armstrong, most of the swinging seen in the film is in fact a real stunt guy wearing the Spidey suit. To make this mission impossible happen, a lot of money and orchestrating was required.
Rigs ranging between 200-300 feet tall were constructed to have the stunt-Spiderman swing from. These machines were required to get the realistic effects desired. Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly: “Imagine there’s a man on the end of a whip and you just sort of flick him out and stop him, and then flick him out and stop him. Then the athlete on the end of the line had to also synchronize his movements with the end of the whip crack. It was a combination of a lot of human skills and mechanical engineering.”
The stunt team reportedly worked for months practicing with the rigs to perfect the swinging scenes. The cost of the rigs and the manpower and time it took to perfect this highly involved stunt helped it play a major role in the film’s $250 million production price-tag.
4. The Matrix Reloaded, freeway chase scene
When actress Carrie-Anne Moss jumps on her bike in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), the insane weaving in and out between cars and near crushes by semi-trucks are breathtaking.
The cost of getting the stunt done might knock the wind out of you as well; an entire section of “prop” highway was constructed especially for the scene, with that chunk of road alone costing $2.5 million. The mile-and-a-half long stretch of highway, fenced in by a 19-foot wall, was built on the runway of a disused naval base in California.
While Moss did some of her own riding on the scene, the majority of the work was done by speed-demon stuntwoman, Debbie Evans Leavitt.
The bike-pro stuntwoman wore very little protection under her slick vinyl suit and took huge risks weaving in and out between speeding cars. Of the scene, she told the Telegraph: “It was the longest motorcycle chase sequence I have been involved in. I also almost got crushed by a lorry when the driver decided to use his trailer brakes after we had done all the timing rehearsals. The back end of the truck hit the wall just in front of my front wheel.”
The chase scene reportedly took three months to shoot, which is in fact longer than it takes to make many entire feature length films. The expense of the stunt along with others, as well as enormous special effects production costs, had the film budget tapping in at over $127 million. At one stage, the film’s producers were said to have feared they would not be able to recover the cost. The film’s star Keanu Reeves reportedly volunteered to give up a portion of his tickets sales share, to the tune of what would amount to $38 million.
Turns out the filmmakers had nothing to fear, with the film proving to be a huge global box-office success; The Matrix Reloaded raked in excess of $735 million worldwide.
At least the filmmakers didn’t have to factor in the dozens of expendable cars that were needed in the chase; General Motors reportedly donated over 300 cars for the scene, all of them trashed by end of shooting!
3. Inception, spinning hallway
Inception (2010) is a film that investigates the inner workings of men’s minds and dreams, which can be physically entered by agents to take or implant thoughts at will. In director Christopher Nolan‘s own mind, something so complex couldn’t possibly be represented with anything less than something palpable to audiences.
Nolan famously prefers to avoid CGI where possible, always favouring the gritty reality that large scale, real-life stunts lend to the film’s overall feeling.
And large-scale was definitely the direction Nolan took with this Inception stunt; an amazing, giant spinning-hallway was designed and constructed to pull off the scenes of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt battling, zero-gravity style, with baddies in the “mind chamber.”
The giant 100-foot-long rotating hallway, built in three sets, was constructed in a series of converted blimp hangars outside London, England; the same set location used by Nolan for some shots in his Batman films. This trippy, jaw-dropping scene alone took a reported 500 crew members and three weeks to complete.
Being filmed by a remote control camera installed on a track within the structure, it took actor Gordon-Levitt most of that time period with stunt coordinators to practice his movements and reactions within the giant spinning chamber; all of this to create the desired effect of walking on walls and fighting in other men’s heads. Confused yet?
With an intricate stunt of this scale, it’s no wonder the budget for this film came in at over $160 million. Apparently no harm done, with the film raking in $800 million worldwide.
2. Iron Man 3, Air Force One rescue
Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man hurtles through the sky in pursuit of the Air Force One’s passengers that have just been sucked out of a gaping hole in the side of the presidential aircraft; swooping up an air hostess, he makes his way towards the others as Air Force One explodes dramatically in the skies above.
This nail-biting, edge of your seat scene from Iron Man 3 (2013) took as much planning and time as you think, involving a group of the best skydivers the world has to offer.
Producers hired a team of Red Bull skydivers to pose as the free-falling civilians, with one of them wearing a red and gold jumpsuit posing as Iron Man, that would be filled in with CG later on. Much of the scene was filmed in real, free-fall live action, with one of the skydiving team even acting as cameraman, a unit mounted to his helmet.
To get the scene just right, the team wore business suits with parachutes hidden beneath, and took the plunge sometimes as many as eight times per day for a whole week to get all of the free-fall action the director wanted for the scene. The resulting human chain made out of 15 skydiving pros dressed in business attire looks like it was created by CGI, but it is genuinely the real thing. So was it worth all the trouble?
Experienced cameraman and skydiver Eric Nash thinks so, telling the Hollywood Reporter of CGI free-fall scenes: ““Even if you do everything right in those kind of shots, they never have that visceral, frenetic camerawork that you get from actual free-fall photography.”
All that live stunt action, accompanied with top of the line CG effects, doesn’t come cheap; At the end of production, Iron Man 3 cost a reported $300 million to produce.
1. Ben-Hur, chariot race
The horse-drawn chariot race in the opening scene of Ben-Hur is as action-packed and intricately engineered as any of today’s blockbuster stunt scenes.
When it was released in 1959, Ben-Hur was far and away the most expensive film of its day, with an unprecedented $4 million budgeted for coordinating the stunt-laden chariot race alone; this was actually one fourth of the film’s entire budget.
The sequence involved mass amounts of planning, training, man hours, and set construction, with the actual chariot arena being built over the course of a few months by more than 1,000 men.
Stunt coordinators led by famed stuntman Yakima Canutt worked with lead actor Charlton Heston and others for months to perfect training with the 82 horses that were brought into Rome all the way from Yugoslavia for the scene.
The filmmakers realized early on in the race shoot that the most effective way to film it would be to have the camera right in the thick of the galloping horses. Thus, surrounded by the thundering horses and carts at all times, the camera cart and its operator was at danger of collision or being flipped at any give time.
Actor Charlton Heston did most of his own four-horse driving in the action sequence, with the stuntman coordinator’s son, Joe Canutt, filling in for the actor some of the time.
Canutt famously almost got himself killed in a scene where he was to jump over a wrecked chariot; missing his Dad’s barks of, “Too fast! Too fast!” Canutt landed too hard, flipping over the front of the chariot, and almost under the trampling horses hooves. Luckily somehow he managed to grab hold of a bar and crawl back into the driver’s seat unharmed; apart from a bloodied chin that required a few stitches!
Thanks to all of the big action and stunt sequences, including the breathtaking chariot race that opens the film, Ben-Hur continues to be one of film history’s most brilliant cinematic achievements.
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