I thought it might be interesting for filmmaking students and any other interested parties to share some of the details of planning, staging and filming a stunt, as featured recently on BBC One’s Casualty.
This wasn’t a classic epic Casualty stunt – no explosions or decapitations here! – but instead was relatively low key: lead character and legendary nurse Duffy is on her way to work by bus when she spots a young girl stumbling blindly until she runs directly into the side of the bus and is thrown to the floor.
Although this wasn’t a big stunt involving explosions or major loss of limbs it still took a lot of planning and forethought, both technically and creatively. Although the technical aspects of a stunt are interesting in their way, the key consideration from a director’s point of view when it comes to filming anything like this is how the sequence should feel to the audience.
CHOOSING A DIRECTING APPROACH
The first thing to note is that this sequence only took up two paragraphs in the script and was written entirely from the perspective of our lead character Duffy sitting on the bus.
My first decision as director was to shoot both sides of the story – Duffy’s perspective on the bus as scripted, but also the journey of the girl on the path outside. Although it wasn’t scripted in this way, I was keen to get a sense of the two different stories to be able to intercut between the calm routine of Duffy’s bus commute and the chaotic path of the girl. I wanted the audience, like Duffy, to ask themselves Who is that girl? Why does she look so anxious? And eventually Why on earth did she run into the side of a moving bus?
For me, it was the sense of mystery that was the most interesting element of this stunt. As Duffy goes on later in the episode to put the pieces together and uncover the girl’s full story, the moment of shock and the collision itself aren’t as interesting from a story point of view as the mystery of the character’s behaviour.
We could have shot this entirely from the bus from Duffy’s perspective, but I felt it important to see the girl up close – partly because this character goes on to be a major participant in the episode, but also because intercutting between close-ups of the girl’s stumbling path and Duffy happily sitting on the bus turns what would have been a brief moment of shock into a more interesting (though brief) sequence.
From a story point of view, the collision isn’t as important as the inner lives of the characters you’re portraying. How are your characters feeling? What is going through their minds at every moment? Hopefully, by taking this approach – rather than focusing on or getting distracted by spectacle – you can create something which engages an audience.
In order to share my approach of the moments leading up to the collision with the rest of the Casualty filmmaking team I used a pre-visualisation tool called Shot Pro to create a simple animatic of the sequence.
As you can see, a pre-viz tool like this is incredibly helpful as everyone involved can quickly understand the director’s intentions.
Even when the animation, like this one, is very basic, everyone from producers and executives to assistant directors and the camera team, understand what the director is intending to create – only then can the team start to work on figuring out exactly how to pull it off.
After creating this rough animation I wrote a thorough shotlist which was shared with ace producer Seán Gleeson and First AD Dom Wedge, and after many safety meetings and much further preparation and discussions we finally found ourselves one rainy morning in Barry ready to shoot the stunt itself.
As you’d expect, the moment of the actual collision was the element which took the most careful consideration as our brave stunt double performer Chelsea actually had to run into the side of a moving vehicle – no CGI or green screens here!
This took a great deal of care and preparation, and many practise attempts, but thanks to the expertise of our great stunt co-ordinator Tom and a very carefully and safely planned and rehearsed bus route, we shot the moment of collision with two cameras, both inside and outside of the bus.
Everyone is extremely painstaking when it comes to shooting dangerous moments like these and (as you’d expect) a lot of care, attention and time are budgeted to make sure they’re pulled off safely.
This collision, however, wasn’t the biggest challenge of the day – in fact, the moment where Duffy spots the girl running from her window proved to be the most challenging shot to pull off.
This short shot, while simple enough, was extremely time consuming to get right because it involved co-ordinating a moving vehicle with a moving actor, and a carefully timed focus pull from foreground to background. Every missed attempt at co-ordinating the various elements in play required resetting the bus and trying again. It was vital to get this shot in order to tie the two different stories together and establish a sense of geography between the two characters, and in its own way was far more challenging than the stunt itself.
Although we had allowed ourselves an entire day to shoot the stunt it was still a tight squeeze – it’s a truism in filmmaking that you always need more time! – but if we’d had longer to shoot I would gladly have made the scene more suspenseful by elongating the sequence and spending much more time with the girl in the moments leading up to the collision, building a sense of agonising tension in the moments leading up to the collision.
In reality, however, the sequence didn’t require this. As this was a brief, pre-opening credits teaser, the key elements required to tell the story were all in place – girl meets bus. And so the story begins.
Hopefully this article has given some insight into my directing approach and will be useful to anyone out there planning and prepping a scene such as this.
As a final thought, it can’t be overstated just how much filmmaking is a team effort – although it’s simple enough to make decisions and plan an approach, actually making it happen is the difficult part. The cast and crew of Casualty are an exceptional group of people, but I’d like to particularly thank Seán Gleeson, Dominique Wedge, Al Beech, Julian Barber, Rachel Slater, Al Dixon as well as Cathy Shipton and Cora Tsang for being the best in the business and such great collaborators.
You can view the finished version of the sequence below, and if you’d like to watch the whole episode in which this sequence appears, you can watch it on iPlayer here.