A stunt is an unusual and difficult physical feat or an act requiring a special skill, performed for artistic purposes usually on television, theatre, or cinema. Stunts are a feature of many action films. Before computer generated imagery special effects, these effects were limited to the use of models, false perspective and other in-camera effects, unless the creator could find someone willing to jump from car to car or hang from the edge of a skyscraper: the stunt performer or stunt double.
One of the most-frequently used practical stunts is stage combat. Although contact is normally avoided, many elements of stage combat, such as sword fighting, martial arts, and acrobatics required contact between performers in order to facilitate the creation of a particular effect, such as noise or physical interaction. Stunt performances are highly choreographed and may be rigorously rehearsed for hours, days and sometimes weeks before a performance. Seasoned professionals will commonly treat a performance as if they have never done it before, since the risks in stunt work are high, every move and position must be correct to reduce risk of injury from accidents. Examples of practical effects include tripping and falling down, high jumps, extreme sporting moves, acrobatics and high diving, spins, gainer falls, "suicide backflips," and other martial arts stunts.
A physical stunt is usually performed with help of mechanics. For example, if the plot requires the hero to jump to a high place, the film crew could put the actor in a special harness, and use aircraft high tension wire to pull him up. Piano wire is sometimes used to fly objects, but an actor is never suspended from it as it is brittle and can break under shock impacts. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) is a kung-fu film that was heavily reliant on wire stunts.
Performers of vehicular stunts require extensive training and may employ specially adapted vehicles. Stunts can be as simple as a handbrake turn, also known as the bootleg turn, or as advanced as car chases, jumps and crashes involving dozens of vehicles. Rémy Julienne is a well known pioneering automotive stunt performer and coordinator. Another well known vehicular stunt specialist is Englishman Ian Walton, who was the helicopter stunt pilot and stunt designer for many 1980s films, notably the Bond film Never Say Never Again. A Guiness Book of World Records holder stunt driver, Bobby Ore, performed in numerous movies and events and holds a World Record for longest distance driven on two wheels in a London double decker bus (810 feet). Streetbike stunts, also known as "stunting" gained widespread popularity in the early 2000s and continues to grow. It is based on wheelies but now goes much further than that.
In the late 20th century stunt men were placed in dangerous situations less and less as filmmakers turned to relatively inexpensive (and much safer) computer graphics effects using harnesses, fans, blue- or green screens, and a huge array of other devices and digital effects. The Matrix (1999) is an example for a film that extensively "enhanced" real stunts through CGI post production. The Lord of the Rings film series and the Star Wars prequel films often display stunts that are entirely computer generated. Examples of computer-generated effects include face replacement and the gig known as "wire removal".
Reality competition television shows such as Fear Factor and Going Straight have required contestants to complete stunts to win prize money.
Films such as Hooper and The Stunt Man and the 1980s television show The Fall Guy sought to raise the profile of the stunt performer and debunk the myth that film stars perform all their own stunts. Noted stunt coordinators Hal Needham, Craig R. Baxley, and Vic Armstrong went on to direct the action films The Cannonball Run, Action Jackson, and Joshua Tree. Vic Armstrong became the first stuntman to win both an Academy Award (for developing a descender rig as a safe alternative to airbags) and a BAFTA award (for lifetime achievement in film). But the status of stuntmen in Hollywood is still low; despite the fact that few films of any genre or type could be made without them, stunt performers are still seen as working mainly in action films. Repeated campaigns for a "Best Stunts" Academy Award have been rejected.
In 2001, the first "World Stunt Awards" were presented in Los Angeles by actor Alec Baldwin. The event had A-list stars presenting the statues to Hollywood's unsung heroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger was presented with the first "Lifetime Achievement" award. He presented the awards in 2001. The awards show hands out eight awards: Best Fight, Best Fire Stunt, Best High Work, Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Man, Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Woman, Best Speciality Stunt, Best Work with a Vehicle and Best Stunt Coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director.
In past Hollywood films it was common for men to double for women and White American stunt performers to double for African-American performers. Veteran stunt man Dave Sharpe, a man of shorter than average height, often doubled for women in film serials of the 1930s and '40s. It is now against union rules for stunt performers to double an actor of a different gender or race unless the stunt is so dangerous that there are no other volunteers, for example when B.J. Worth doubled for the black Jamaican actress Grace Jones who parachuted off the Eiffel Tower in A View to a Kill. The rise of action heroines like Angelina Jolie and African-American stars like Will Smith has offered wider opportunities for stunt performers from diverse backgrounds.
A backlash against dangerous stunts following the fatal 42 foot backward fall of Sonya Davis off a building on the set of Vampire in Brooklyn, coinciding with developments in computer-generated imagery (CGI) that make such stunts unnecessary threatens to reduce stunt performers to the status of body doubles. And yet a backlash against films that resemble video games could lead to a resurrection in pure stuntwork. Films such as The Matrix and Mission: Impossible II have shown how CGI and stunts can be integrated for maximum effect. But—if for no other reason than safety—it is doubtful that the records established by Hooper and Sharky's Machine will be broken anytime soon. A new subgenre of eastern martial arts films exists which emphasize the actors performing their own stunts, deliberately using wide angles and unbroken shots to show each stunt in its entirety. Examples of actors doing their own stunts include Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa.