It's that time again, the time when BUZ sits down with an industry pro to tell us how it really is. To celebrate the release of Tomorrowland: A World Beyond from Walt Disney Pictures UK we were privileged enough to spend some time with Robert Alonzo who took the action in this epic sci-fi feature and turned it into choreographed gold as stunt coordinator on set. Find out what goes in to building a stunt when your surroundings aren't there... as well as choreographing young and upcoming talent alongside Hollywood veterans.
BUZ: How do you go about becoming a stunt coordinator and what does that entail?
RA: Everyone’s path to become a stunt coordinator can vary from person to person. The usual path is by first becoming a stunt performer with an expertise in some form whether it be riding motorcycles, driving, gymnastics, martial arts, horses, skydiving, rock climbing, rigging, circus performer, military background, etc.
After gaining experience performing and observing how a variety of skills are utilized to achieve certain action sequences, a good stunt performer usually trains outside of their field of expertise to expand their knowledge of stunts and safety in various other disciplines. The more well rounded a stunt performer is, the more valuable an asset he/she can be to any production. This multi-faceted approach as a stunt performer also helps to get to know the experts in their different fields of expertise and can all upon their respective services when transitioning from stunt performer to stunt coordinator.
This transition usually comes after several years in the industry to enable a stunt coordinator to draw from their own personal experiences performing and observing other performers execute action sequences safely. There is something that you just can’t teach and that is experience. However, the role of a stunt coordinator is not merely knowing how to keep things safe, but also to contribute to the action design from concept to execution. This not only deals with specific choreography that coincides with the director’s vision but also has to fit into the limitations of the production budget, scheduling, and logistics of various locations.
BUZ: You've worked on a number of TV shows and big budget films, which would you say provided the most challenge and why?
RA: They are both challenging in different ways.
Both Film and TV have goals of appealing to mass audiences, but the execution of how to attract their audiences is completely different. Film usually only has an average of 2 hours to reach their audiences and get their story across successfully so the storytelling process is incredibly detailed and the prep time to achieve that vision takes more time with intricate production design, creative set builds, and stunt interaction with those sets and/or exotic locations.
Also the format at which Film is viewed is on a much grander scale than TV so the action is usually bigger and more visual. When you watch a movie in a theater, the sense of escape is much more heightened because the purpose of the content is to have a shared experience with fellow moviegoers seeing everything on a big screen with the best sound available. That being said, Films are always trying to be on the cutting edge of cool and innovative because you are essentially given more time to prep.
This usually translates into more dangerous stunts and much longer sequences. This also means you could possibly be traveling to exotic locations and working in places that may have a different language, culture, work ethic, equipment, infrastructure, etcetera; and you have to find ways to achieve your goals with these possible limitations. The major challenge in Film is always pushing the envelope of exciting and thrilling action but maintaining an environment that is safe and repeatable, while also satisfying the director's appetite. And usually their appetite is pretty big.
TV on the other hand has to produce their product very fast, but they get to develop the story over a season of episodes. The pilot is usually where it’s closest to being like a feature because the director and producers want to pull out all stops in the hopes the show will get picked up. But after that, episodic TV becomes extremely fast paced and you are usually prepping an episode while simultaneously shooting one. Because of this quick turnaround, the action is more watered down and requires quick planning and design that services reusable sets and locations that are usually close to where the stages are located.
The challenge in TV is that you try and be as creative as possible knowing you only have a limited prep and shooting time to achieve the scripted action. This limited time frame doesn’t enable an action sequence to be shot over a period of weeks but more like 1-3 days out of an 8 day shooting schedule.
With that in mind, a stunt coordinator on a TV show has to produce quality action in more of a conveyor belt fashion, while a feature stunt coordinator has to produce action that is grandiose and detailed.
BUZ: Have you ever been presented with a stunt you just would not attempt for a production?
RA: Not yet. I always try and find ways to achieve the scripted action with a combination of practical and CG elements if something is too dangerous. I think it’s important to use the today’s technology to enhance our work, but not to take away from the reality of the action.
BUZ: In Tomorrowland, a very much action driven adventure, how difficult was it to prepare a stunt sequence, when taking into account sets, special effect design and the other pieces that go into building a scene?
RA: I’d say Tomorrowland was one of the most challenging movies I’ve ever worked on not only because the appetite for the action was so big, but the locations were spread throughout Canada, US, Europe, and the Bahamas.
The weather wasn’t always cooperative either. But mainly one of the most challenging aspects of this film was the fact that most of the action involved children. That meant training some of the cast 3-4 months in advance and continuing the training while shooting. Fortunately, I was able to meet and work with Brad, the storyboard artists, the Pre-vis team, and the VFX team early on to maintain a good work flow from concept to execution.
During prep in Vancouver, I would also work very closely with the Art Department/Construction and SPFX to ensure we were on the same page when it came to safe performer and set/mechanical interaction.
We would also have meetings daily to make sure everyone is updated on each department’s progress to enable sufficient rehearsal times and to ensure we are updated of script or departmental changes or delays as soon as they happen. These meetings were so helpful in keeping everybody in sync.
An example of a couple challenging sequences were the first failed jetpack sequence as young Frank crashed through the corn fields and later on in the movie when young Frank falls off the tower and grabs his jetpack as he’s falling to the ground in Tomorrowland. These sequences were some of the most prepped and rehearsed scenes in the movie because the goal was to get as much action in camera as possible while shooting a 10 year old boy who had never done stunts in his life, nor had the experience of flying or ever being in a harness.
Moreover, he was initially scared of heights. Because all these factors presented themselves as we were early on in production, I had to devise a plan that would take several months of planning that included the use of a location solely for testing, several cranes, locations scouts and specs that were measured to provide accurate and safe distances for a performer and camera synced flying rig, and a rig that employed the use of an open air mobile wind tunnel. There are several other sequences in the movie that were extremely challenging
but these are the first that come to mind because of how much planning it took from all the departments from Locations to Transportation to H/MU/Wardrobe to VFX to Props to SPFX and of course Stunts. We had such a great team.
BUZ: Raffey Cassidy has some of the hardest sequences to do on film. How much of her own stunts did she do and if it was all of them, how long did it take to get all those kick-ass sequences rehearsed and filmed?
RA: Raffey was incredible to work with! She was such a sponge and tirelessly eager. I’d say she did around 90% of her own stunts. She was amazing. Not only did we teach her martial arts, gymnastics, how to ride a wire, how to drive a car, but we also taught her how to do her own fire burn.
She was fearless, tough as nails and she loved all the training. I first met Raffey at the Disney Burbank production office after I was told she was probably going to be cast as Athena, but they wanted to make sure she was physically capable of handling such a physical role. I put her through a quick 30 minute evaluation to check her aptitude on picking up movement and by the end off the session, I was convinced she would make Athena come to life. I told Brad and the producers that they were very lucky to have her. She then had to go back to England for a couple months.
That meant I had to get her training started immediately in Manchester so I could give her a head start before she came to us in Vancouver. I found a couple different instructors that were local to her and discussed with them in detail the regimen I needed her to maintain in order for a smooth transition once I got to train her in Vancouver. The plan had her training in traditional martial arts 3 times a week and gymnastics 2 times a week so she can develop her strength, conditioning and have a base of knowledge so we didn’t have to start from scratch. Once she got to Vancouver, we continued her training in more detail focusing on stances, range, distance, and timing. We also worked on acrobatic movement, wire work, and sprinting drills to make sure she looked heroic through and through.
However, one of the biggest challenges of her training was getting her to transition from a sweet and friendly 11 year old girl who loved the training so much she smiled with every punch and kick, to a fighting machine that displayed the intention and the power of an adult. This was difficult because she, of course, had never been in a fight nor would she ever want to hurt anyone. I had to let her know that the power of her character isn’t only seen in the impact of her hits but in the intensity of her eyes and face; and that they were all interrelated.
Then to give her something to relate to, I asked her to picture someone trying to hurt one of her four other siblings and that she had to protect them. I then put her through drills where she had to hit focus pads and yell as loud as she can with every move, “Leave! My! Sister! Alone!” I felt her energy come through the pads as she did each kick, punch, knee and elbow, and saw the protective nature in her face make that transition and I got goosebumps knowing that she understood.
She even broke boards in her training so she could understand her own power. All together it took about 5 months of months of training before she did her first fight scene, then continued her training throughout shooting to maintain what she had learned. Raffey was fantastic!
BUZ: With the world of Tomorrowland being so outrageously cool. How did that impact on the way stunts were executed?
RA: The world of Tomorrowland didn’t necessarily affect the way that stunts were executed, but the vision of how Brad wanted the action to be portrayed definitely weighed heavily on our final execution. This meant working closely with Claudio Miranda and Tom Peitzman to make sure we were able to be effective with each shot.
Brad has such a creative mind and visually sees things in a way that challenge just about every department because some of the ideas were so far out there that we had to try new things to achieve the look he wanted. It was like shooting live action animation with real people. An interesting blend of filmmaking that makes him and this movie so unique.
Once we all collaboratively figured out how to achieve each sequence, we each set out on our own paths and gelled once cameras started rolling.
BUZ: What's next for you? Back to film or TV or is there something else on the horizon?
RA: I’m currently working on the Doug Liman/Tom Cruise film, Mena, after finishing up directing 2nd Unit and Stunt Coordinating Deadpool.
After that there are some interesting projects that I’m hoping to be a part of, one of which will hopefully be leading to a directing gig, as that is my ultimate goal. I am truly passionate about storytelling and can’t wait for the time when I’ll be able to lead a team with a vision of my own. If things go as planned, I’ll be looking at my horizon through a viewfinder.
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond is available on Disney Blu-ray TM & DVD Now!