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How to Capture Professional-Grade Stunts Safely with a Long Lens

Safety is the first concern when dealing with stunts on set. Let’s look at various ways to pull off a professional-grade stunt via a long lens.

Stunts are an integral part of cinema and have been right from its inception. Early Nickelodeon shorts such as “Catch the Kid” and “Johnny’s Run” featured slapstick stunts that captivated audiences, leading to the amazing stunt innovations of Harold Lloyd’s immortal Safety Last!, including the famous hanging-from-the-clock-tower stunt.

However, the history of stunts in movies has been marred by injuries and deaths of stunt performers (and sometimes even camera crews). Lloyd himself suffered numerous injuries and burns throughout his career, even with the primitive camera tricks they used to distance him from danger.

As cameras and optics evolved, filmmakers found innovative ways to make stunts safer and sell better. The most used and useful of these is via a long lens, which continues to be a cheap and effective way for filmmakers — of all levels and budgets — to sell stunts right up to present day.

A Long Way from Danger

Long lenses (for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll say any lens greater than 100mm long) reduce the field of view of the camera, but also compress space. The longer the lens, the more compression they create.

20mm Lens

This scene is shot with a 20mm lens.

Imagine two people, one standing six feet in front of the other. On a wide lens (a 20mm), the difference between them is magnified. The person farther away will appear to be much smaller than the one closer. But on a 100mm lens, the two people are almost the same size. On a 300mm lens, it’s hard to tell which is in front of the other, because the space between them is compressed.

200mm Lens

Same exact shot (as above) with a 200mm lens.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how the closer person could pretend to throw a punch, even though their fist is going to miss by four feet. And, on a long lens, it’ll appear as though contact was made.

This method has been used for decades to have non-stunt people perform what looks like stunts, even though there’s no danger of contact between the actors. As long as the “punchee” sells the contact and a sound effect is added in post, the impact seems frighteningly real.

Artifact Compression

Long lenses add “Compression of Space,” a technical term meaning that reducing the distance between objects, as well as the thickness of the object itself, decreases the farther the object is from the camera.

Filmmakers use this for a variety of reasons, including creating physiological claustrophobia by making the walls appear closer and making a character seem part of their environment. It’s also used extensively by beauty photographers to make faces appear more appealing, by shortening long features and compressing the face.

Don’t Look Back in Anger

The second most-used application for long lensing is between an actor and the background. For decades, it became a standard in action films for the hero to walk away from an explosion, unaffected by the chaos behind him. It looks dangerous, until you realize that the actor is several hundred feet from the fire, and the camera a few hundred feet beyond him.

Another less cliché use is in chase and traffic scenes. A long lens will make the actor appear as though they’re about to get run over, whereas on set, they have plenty of time to get out of the way.

The other benefit is that the camera is a long way from the action, so there’s little chance that the camera crew is at risk or that they’ll be in the shots of other cameras covering the same scene.

Michael Douglas in Black Rain
Very often, chase scenes like the one from Black Rain (above) are covered in a triangle setup. Two cameras, usually with long zoom lenses (like Angénieux) in front of and behind the action, with a more typical hand-held setup to the side. This allows filmmakers to cover each take from multiple angles and get the most amount of footage per take.

Self Distancing

Shooting on long lenses is an easy way to capture normal actions and make them appear as dangerous stunts. It’s a good technique to learn and practice, because, ultimately, a director’s first duty is making sure everyone — stunt performers, actors, and camera crew — gets home safely at the end of the day.

For additional resources on how to stay safe on set, as well as lens selections, check out these inspiring articles:

Cover image via Paramount Pictures.