On Tuesday, Movieline.com had an interesting piece about how Hollywood stunt people are lobbying for their own category at the Academy Awards. They feel that their contributions to films deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Until I read the article, this idea had never even crossed my mind, but I have to say I am totally in support of it.
There is definitely precedent for adding another category. Every so often AMPAS adds a new category or modifies an existing category. The most recent addition was Best Animated Feature, which was added in 2001. I think it's fitting that the categories evolve as the film industry evolves. There are two categories for sound (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing) and three categories for short films (Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary) so why not add a new category for stunts?
The people who are against this proposition say that stunts are included in the Visual Effects category, but that's just not true. There is a difference between VISUAL effects and SPECIAL effects. Special effects used to be the industry term for everything that cannot be achieved by normal means (space travel, monsters, etc.) but since the dawn of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), the term special effects has been modified to mean the effects that are created on set and visual effects are the CGI elements added in post-production.
For example, take the burning building sequence in Spiderman where Peter saves the baby. Director Sam Raimi chose to use real fire on set as opposed to adding it digitally in post-production (which saves A LOT of money), so the special effects team had to come up with a way to make it appear as if the building were on fire without actually burning it to the ground. It also had to be completely safe so Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe didn't get burned. So here's what they did: They built a building with an interior shell made of concrete so the building wouldn't catch on fire and then hid serrated pipes in the walls. Gas was pumped through the pipes which were then set on fire, thus creating the illusion that the building was on fire. That's special effects. And since stunt people do all their work on set, the category of Best Visual Effects does not include them.
Just like CGI and special effects, stunt people are an integral part of making action movies. No matter how awesome Hugh Jackman's six-pack is (he might be at, like, a ten-pack by now, but anyway...) there is no way the producers of a $100 million dollar movie are going to let him do all his own stunts. No one wants to be responsible for killing Wolverine, so they have stunt performers do the dangerous stuff. Stunt men and women are trained in everything from karate to gymnastics to scuba-diving to stunt driving, so they know how to perform dangerous stunts without getting hurt.
Another argument against adding a stunt category is that stunt people, much like magicians, don't want their secrets revealed. If they do their job right, an audience shouldn't be able to tell when it's the actor and when it's a stunt person. I think this is a ridiculous argument because the same can be said for CGI. If CGI is done well, the audience shouldn't even know it's there. Bad visual effects can distract movie-goers, so the best visual effects are the invisible ones. (Christopher Nolan is a master at this.)
If AMPAS adds a stunt category, there still remains one question: Should the category be Best Stunt Coordinator, which would be an award that encompasses all the movie's stunts, or should the category be Best Stunt, which would highlight just one spectacular stunt? I think the award should be given to the Stunt Coordinator because that would be awarding the stunt team as a whole. It would be really difficult to choose just one stunt. Think about it: most action sequences are a combination of dozens of stunts anyway. It's rare that a stunt stands alone. Awarding an Oscar to one stunt would be like giving an Oscar to one costume.
If you want a really good look at how the stunt coordinator and stunt performers work, I would recommend watching the documentary about the stunts in The Lord of Rings: The Two Towers. If you own the extended editions it's on the fourth disc. It's a really great in-depth look at how hard they work. It's also kind of mind-blowing to watch human beings throw themselves off 30-foot-tall walls and jump up smiling.
Click here for the Movieline article.