Behind the scenes with stunt performers

A new photo series by art director Gem Fletcher and photographer David Ryle explores the world of stunt performers

“David has always loved the album art for Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish you were here’ so we have been hunting for an interesting fire project for a couple of years,” says Gem Fletcher. The classic Hipgnosis cover memorably featured Hollywood stuntmen Ronnie Rondell and Danny Rogers shaking hands on a backlot, with Rondell catching fire. In true Hipgnosis style, it was all done for real (as photographer Aubrey Powell told CR in this look through his archive).

“When we started looking into stunt work, we were both fascinated by the physical and psychological challenges demanded by the performer,” Fletcher says. “From its inception as a professional skill in the early 1900s, stunt performers have risked their lives to create a seemingly impossible action which only lasts on screen for a few seconds. While intense and violent on first look, surreal and poetic moments punctuate the process.”

For the series, Fletcher says she and Ryle “focused on crafting an immersive and textural exploration. Visually, the process is rich in contrast and contradiction. The tension between precise safety procedures and the unruly nature of fire, cold gel and the overwhelming heat, the tender preparation process and the violent action. Together these elements create a dynamic emotional journey that plays to the senses.”

The shoot took place at the European Stunt School in Denmark, founded by Jacob Sebastian Malm. Malm found his way into stunts through his father who worked in a studio where they edited film trailers. At a young age, he was already aware of stunt work. “I started as a stuntman, physical stunts like getting hit by cars, rolling down the stairs and fire stunts. I did that for many years,” he told Fletcher. “Then I found more interest in working as a coordinator, having the overall responsibility for the job and designing the stunts around the director or the script. The most challenging part of my job is bringing the results to the table but with safety at the forefront. Obviously, all stunts are dangerous; it’s more of a calculated risk we work with so things can go wrong.”

There is a handful of people who come from the outside who have no prior experience and just want the experience of being on fire

Though CGI has had an impact, Malm says that there is still a demand for in-cmaera stunt work. Fire stunts are a particular area of expertise for him. “People come from all over the place to train for the fire stunts, some experienced stunt people, some just starting out,” he says. “We get actors, actresses and fire artists. There is also a handful of people who come from the outside who have no prior experience and just want the experience of being on fire.”

The hardest thing I think is standing there just before with all those drenched clothes and thinking that someone is going to put you on fire. I started having second thoughts, but I did it. When you are set alight, you are just in this bubble focused on doing the right thing. I just kept telling myself, ‘do the moves, don’t breathe, just do it.’ I was really shocked that I did it.” Ellen, Employee at Swedish Water Board, Sweden

The preparation and process for creating fire stunts are time and labour intensive, not to mention expensive. A full body burn requires two hours prep for ten seconds of action. It’s physically and psychologically demanding on the stunt performer requiring absolute focus and mental control. “For a full body burn, you are covered in ice cold gel, protective clothing, soaked in ice cold gel and your body is starting to freeze when you put that on,” Malm says. “You get a two-layered hood which takes away your senses; you can’t open your eyes, you can’t hear anything so your really disoriented. When everyone is prepped in the right way, they always say ‘I didn’t even feel anything, I didn’t even notice the flames’.”

Gem Fletcher is a photographic and film art director and a regular contributor to CR. See more of photographer David Ryle’s work here