Faking a Big Fall

with Chuck Peters

Visual special effects have risen to new levels becoming a mixture that’s part art and part computer science, but complicated composite effects can be costly and time consuming. Luckily some of the most effective special effects can cost next to nothing and provide effective results. Let’s take a look at a basic stunt that is useful for just about any action movie: a big fall.

Your video calls for a scene where your hero chases a suspect across a rooftop, when suddenly, the bad guy loses his footing and falls several stories for a trip to the morgue. Although your actors are thoroughly dedicated (and well insured) they would prefer not to go through the real thing, so you’ll have to find another way. You could try to use blue screen, computer-based effects technology and fake sets like they do in Hollywood, but you’re probably on a tight budget and don’t likely have access to a giant blue screen. You need to keep it simple.

Falls and other sight stunts have to utilize the power of suggestion to be effective. Remember the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho and the shower scene where actress Janet Leigh is knifed to death? If you review that scene, you’ll notice that you never see a knife or an actual stabbing. You see the shadow of a man with his hand raised over his head, hear the shower running, see the curtain ripped back, hear screams and then see blood (actually chocolate syrup in black and white) mingling with water and spiraling down the drain. Cleverly, Hitchcock used editing and the power of suggestion to create one of the most memorable horror scenes in all of moviedom. The power of suggestion uses the viewer’s mind to "fill in the blanks" between one event or action and another. To create your falling stunt there are really only a few ways you can go.

OPTION #1 – Hire a Stuntman

You could recruit a professional stunt person to actually fall off the roof of a building onto a mattress or into a large air bag, but this option really isn’t practical for most of us. And (for the record) Videomaker doesn’t recommend that anyone untrained try this. Surely there must be a better way.

OPTION #2 – Substitute a Dummy

You have filmed your actors running across the roof and now the suspect is at the edge of the roof. Stop your camera and substitute a fully dressed dummy made from stiff (starched) cloth. The more human-looking you can make this dummy appear, the better. A wig, makeup and the same clothes as the actor can all help to achieve a more believable fall. It also helps to ensure the dummy has some weight to it (at least 25 pounds) and that most of the weight is distributed in the torso, with some also placed in the hands and feet. By putting the weight here, the dummy will fall in spread eagle position that makes for a more believable visual effect without limbs flapping in the breeze.

Shoot multiple angles from the ground, and again from above as the dummy falls. The multiple angles will let you cut between shots during the editing process to suggest a longer fall and to provide some interesting perspectives for your viewers.

Now that your dummy is in flight it’s time to bring him back down to earth. Before the dummy hits the ground, cut to the live actor who jumps to the ground from a stand just a few feet up.

In all honesty, none of these "dummy" techniques work particularly well and it is likely that your audience will detect the dummy. It’ll work to great effect for a humorous gag and is very fun to shoot, so we’d recommend you give it a go, but don’t expect it to look realistic.

OPTION #3 – Imply the Fall with Clever Editing

The easiest, and arguably the most effective approach to creating a falling effect, may be to simply imply the fall without showing it at all. Stuntmen aren’t cheap or easy to find in most parts of the country and mannequins tend to look stiff and unrealistic when falling through the air (they don’t flail around like a real person would). But, remember, you don’t have to show the action on the screen if you can make it take place in the mind of the viewer, like Hitchcock did in Psycho. Let’s take another look at our sequence.

A low-angle shot places the actor on the top of the building. (A steeper shot will make the building appear taller.) A shaky, handheld, closeup of the actor’s face adds to the feeling of instability. Cut to a shaky point of view shot over the side of the building and then back to the face of your fearful actor as he wobbles and falls out of the frame. Cut to a terrified reaction shot of the actor who had been in pursuit. He looks down as if over the side of the building as a shriek is heard. The scream rapidly grows softer, implying that the distance between the falling actor and the rooftop observer is growing greater. Crossfade the sound of the scream into the sound of a wailing siren, then to a shot of the hero and a few police officers looking on as the medics wheel the sheet-covered body from the scene.

Sometimes what you don’t show can be more powerful than what you do. This is especially true when amateur special effects might detract from an otherwise powerful or exciting scene. With good pre- production planning, tight framing, convincing actors and careful editing, you can make your viewers believe that a character in your video has fallen from a great height without breaking a bone, or the bank.

Slow motion can be an effective way to add suspense and time to something that just a few seconds of actual time. The last scene of the movie Die Hard is a great example of slow motion adding drama to a fall.

[Sidebar:Closing Shot]
You might end the sequence with a wide-angle shot from the roof looking down on the body spread out on the ground. This reinforces the height and the gravity of the event for the viewer without the need for a gruesome closeup. Views from above are often used to imply death.

[Sidebar: Sell it with Sound]
Viewers believe what they hear. Create a convincing thud by positioning a microphone near the floor and dropping a five pound bag of flour near it. Edit the thud into your sequence to add impact to your impact.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

Related Content