Driving in the movies is often done by a stunt driver. They will do car chases, action scenes, precision driving and anytime a vehicle is involved in an impact or explosion. Stunt drivers sometimes start out as racing drivers but it’s not essential.
What does a stunt driver do?
A stunt driver is a precision driver of a specific vehicle on a movie or TV set. The vehicle could be anything from a 50cc scooter through to a large dump truck. Stunt drivers also might be called on to drive a boat, submarine, snowmobile or motorised beer cooler! Some stunt drivers specialise in one type of vehicle, e.g. just motorbikes, while others may have extensive experience driving industrial vehicles such as forklift trucks, wheeled cranes and road rollers.
Why do we have stunt drivers?
- Time is money: Stunts can take a lot of preparation and specialist knowledge. Having a high-paid actor wait around for a stunt to be set up costs the studio a lot of money. It can take a day to set up for a stunt that only lasts ten seconds. A stunt double can be used who is a fraction of the cost of a big-name actor and is more likely to get the stunt right the first time.
- Driving skills: Many stunts involve split-second timing, advanced vehicle control and extreme physical demands. To drive a car or ride a motorbike at high speed through narrow streets, or to hit a ramp at exactly the right speed and angle all take skills that have to be honed through practice. An actor doesn’t necessarily have (or want to have) these skills. Stunt drivers often need to drive faster than they would in real life situations because vehicles look slower when filmed.
- Insurance: the less risk there is to the main actor, the cheaper the insurance for the film; the insurance policy might even prevent the actor from doing some stunts.
- Expertise: most stunt drivers are also adept mechanics and engineers and can help rig a stunt.
- Consistency: a stunt driver will be expert enough to make consistent consecutive runs driving the same way in order for the director to get multiple takes with excellent continuity.
- Expense: cars used in movies and TV are expensive. Frequently, supercars, hypercars and even one-off prototypes worth millions of dollars are used and any damage to these can run into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A stunt driver has to be accurate with the driving and respectful of the vehicles.
Becoming a stunt driver: your personal traits
- Calmness and concentration: when a stunt is executed properly, there is very little danger to the stunt driver, but the driver still must be able to execute the stunt cleanly and perfectly, even under a lot of pressure. Mindfulness meditation and relentless practice help with this.
- Team player: stunt drivers never work alone. There will be a stunt crew that helps create the whole scene, and the stunt driver is ultimately working in the broader production team. The director and stunt coordinator will decide where you drive so you have to know when and how to follow instructions.
- Detail-orientated: keeping a stunt safe means paying minute attention to every detail. Stunt drivers have been seriously injured and killed in the past through overlooking details.
Stunt driver health and appearance
Often a stunt driver is picked based on how similar they look to the person they will be doubling for. Obviously, quite a lot can be done with makeup and wigs, and often all that’s seen is a fleeting glimpse of the stunt driver in the scene. However, what you need to take from this is that it’s difficult for you to stunt double a skinny person if you are very overweight, whereas it’s easy the other way around by using prosthetics.
Stunt drivers should be very fit and healthy. The physical demands of the job can be quite high. Some jobs require long work hours. If the vehicle is involved in impacts this can be painful.
There is always a small risk that something can go wrong that’s out of the stunt driver’s control such as when stuntwoman Olivia Jackson was critically injured while riding a motorbike on the set of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Stunt performers often don’t wear helmets, especially in America, and death can occur, such as on the set for Deadpool 2.
The earnings can be very variable, from virtually nothing to six figures.
Stunt drivers that have other regular gigs, like being a racing driver, can miss out on big-money films if schedules clash.
Big impacts can cause bruising, even when executed perfectly.
What driving skills do you need to know?
The first requirement is to be able to drive. There are a number of standard moves you will need to master to be a useful stunt driver.
7 Important car stunts to master
- Driving on two wheels (‘skiing’)
- Flips and barrel rolls
- Handbrake turns
5 Important motorbike stunts to master
- Wheelies (rear and nose wheel)
- Jumps of various kinds including moving the bike around during the jump
- Riding in unusual positions, e.g. facing backwards
- Riding on extremely rough ground, e.g. up and down stairs.
How to learn to be a stunt driver
- Get as many valid driver’s licences as you can, e.g. you should at least have a car licence, but it helps if you can ride a motorbike, drive a truck (and other types of heavy vehicles) and pilot a boat. You may not technically need the licences to drive if it’s on a closed set, but you may do if it’s on an open road (e.g. for moving vehicles between sets) or for insurance purposes.
- You must be able to drive using a manual gearbox
- Know at least some basic mechanics and engineering. You should be familiar with roll cages and other strengthening methods that are used for vehicles.
- Know common vehicles (brands and models) and the different types of vehicles
- It helps if you have a specific skill such as dirt bike racing, truck racing, drifting, etc – motorsport can be a way in.
- Other stunt skills can be advantageous as you will be more versatile on-set.
- Approach existing stunt crews and see if they have any openings. If you can contribute to the crew in other ways, this will help.
- Socialise and communicate with film industry personnel. Build your own profile. Make sure you’re on LinkedIn and have a showreel of what you’ve done.
- There are opportunities outside of films, such as live shows, TV shows and TV commercials, teaching others to be a stunt driver and choreographing stunt driving scenes.
- Find a stunt school in your local area and see if they do a course.
- Some countries may require you to belong to an acting union if you are working on TV or films.