2011-03-29

How to become a Stunt Commando

As most of you have already seen on Facebook, last week I attended Rick Seaman's stunt driving school. Just as expected, it was a blast!
First things first, this was by leaps and bounds the best-organized driving school I ever attended, and I've been to a few. Logistics, organization, and professionalism were at the highest level. Every single student had a car (front- and rear-wheel drive). If your car misbehaved, there were multiple spares on site, delivered to you within a minute or so to ensure you did not miss out any practice time.
There were only five students, and each of us got issued a radio, as did all the instructors and crew, so that you always knew what was going on, could hear suggestions instructors were sharing with you and others, and could ask for help if you had a blowout, what with all the sliding and burnouts. There were more school staff than students, but remarkably, they all mostly stayed out of our cars.
Before every practice session, we'd meet at the table where Rick or one of the other instructors would explain the physics of each maneuver we learned, and how to make it all work. Then we'd get into our cars and go at it. Only if you couldn't master the trick after a certain number of attempts and suggestions from the instructors, would one of them jump into your car and watch you drive, then explain what you should do different. I needed a few of such interventions, and was amazed at how effective the knowledge transfer was.
Our cars were mostly old Chevy Caprices in various colours, and mine was Orange. During practice sessions, Rick would announce on the radio "Action Orange" and I knew it was time to shine.
We practiced precision skid stops, 45, 90, 180, 270, and 360 spins, 90-degree skid turns and 360-turns with a drive-off at the end. Moonshine turns were fun too. That's basically a 180-degree skid turn using your emergency brake.[1] The J-turn, where you floor it in reverse, then yank the car around in a violent 180-spin and slam it in forward gear to speed out gave me most trouble. I did it right once, and could not replicate it no matter how hard I tried. My "Ms. Smooth-Hands" driving style was definitely not helping here at all.

Here you can see me successfully perform a 360 turn. If you are interested in more videos (courtesy Jason, who was very kind to take video of my driving):
  • 90 degree skid-turn
  • 90-degree spin with a stop
  • 45-degree slide
  • After practicing each maneuver a number of times, we had to pass a test, where we had to deliver a "money shot"--i.e. a perfect execution of the stunt, so you get your money--for each direction, left, and right. On the third day, Rick said that the 180-spin test will be a game called "Stunt Commando," and that whoever got to do two "money shots," got to become a "card-carrying, walking the walk, talking the talk, etc. etc. STUNT COMMANDO!" All the instructors chimed in for that last bit, and we all had a great time. Even if the test is just a game, it's still a bit stressful, so this little bit of lightness did us all good.
    One of the most interesting things about the weekend was my first up and personal encounter with movie people. Beside Jason and myself, the other three students and all instructors were actual stunt people, with experience on a movie set. They had quite a different approach to what the desired outcome of a given trick should be. While competitive motorsports drivers tend to concentrate on speed and moderate precision (i.e. don't hit any cones and corner workers), in movie business, drivers have to perform on crowded sets, often surrounded by expensive equipment, and precision is taken to a whole new level.
    If a director tells you to spin the car and put the rear license plate within the focus depth of a camera, you could be expected to work within a 20-centimeter margin. Even more impressive are stunts involving hitting people with your car. I sure don't think I have the guts to do that.
    And yet, stunties talked about falls, full-body hits on walls or pavement, fire burns (that's when the person is lit on fire), and crashes like it's nothing out of ordinary. And I guess for them it's the everyday routine, while I sat there with big eyes and listened to the stories.
    Dante, a stuntie from Atlanta, showed this video to me, and that totally blew my mind at how dangerous and involved some of the motion picture stunts can be.

    Amusingly, talking to the fellow students, it seemed that they were just as impressed by Jason's and my track and autocrossing adventures, as we were by their stunts. To each their own I guess.
    1. I would like to note that "emergency brake" is quite a misnomer, "parking brake" is probably a more accurate term, which would cover both foot- and hand-operated secondary brakes. But having used the term "e-brake" for three days in the context of the school, I will stick to it.