For Season 1 of Ryan Murphy’s first responder procedural series 9-1-1, Mark Vanselow took on as much as any stunt coordinator could: an oceanic plane crash, apex predator attacks, bloody motorcycle wrecks and more.
Learning Murphy’s process while working on American Horror Story: Cult, Vanselow went into the producer’s latest series as part of a large team of disaster manufacturers, collaborating closely in bringing each of its visual terrors to the screen.
Joining forces with production designer Jeffrey Mossa, special effects coordinator James Lorimer, fellow stunt coordinator Tim Davison and the artists at FuseFX, Vanselow was able to help bring top-drawer cinematic spectacle to the small screen, judging how each of the series’ myriad stunts should be executed, and what should be realized in post.
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“Everybody’s constantly trying to push the envelope as far as what we can do, but everybody, particularly from Ryan’s team, is always behind, ‘How can we do it safely?’” the stunt coordinator explains. “That takes a lot of rehearsal and pre-planning. A lot of times, we think, ‘Oh, we can do this’—and then when we get into the environments, we’ll have to make a script change, because something can or can’t be done.”
Remarkably, while stunt professionals were on hand throughout Season 1, two of the season’s most harrowing scenes were executed in-camera with actors new to stunt work. When episodes called for a boa constrictor suffocating a young woman—and a malfunctioning rollercoaster leaving patrons hanging over head—Vanselow took on the role of Connie Britton’s 911 dispatcher, Abby Clark, helping his actors navigate their emergencies.
9-1-1 provided opportunities for stunts of all kinds. Going into the project, were there particular moments you were excited to execute?
Yeah, it was a real treat—there were a lot of them. In the pilot episode, the jumping off the crane was a piece of action that we were all really proud of that was fun to execute. The director, Brad Buecker, found that location and really liked it. Then, we worked on the dynamics of how we could have the person jump off of there safely, and build it into the story.
Then, we had the guy getting sprayed off the motorcycle. That took a lot of meetings, to figure out how we were going to shoot it. Pretty much every episode that came along, we all stood back to see what the writers had come up with, and then tried to figure out how we could execute it safely and realistically.
One of Season 1’s standout sequences involves an Indian wedding where the floor caves in, leaving attendees trapped beneath the rubble. What went into executing that?
I had a lot of help with that. I was actually on a different location shooting, and Tim Davison came in and stunt coordinated that section for me, and did an amazing job. We had somewhere between 25 and 30 stunt partygoers, and Jimmy Lorimer created a brilliant effects rig that was able to fall at perfect timing and perfectly level. But that was one of those instances of true stunt work, because there were no wires or cables or that type of thing.
We tested it a couple different times, and then we just had to go with it. We had a bunch of stunt people that pretty much just dropped out of the sky. You can see from the footage in the actual episode that it was pretty dynamic.
The other highlight would have to be Episode 4’s fiery plane crash. What was the process in pulling off that episode?
That was an amazing effort by everybody. You can buy carcasses of planes, so they bought a plane and cut it into sections, and then shipped it out to the location. It arrived on a trailer, and they reassembled those pieces in a lake that they actually built. They dug it out, put a liner in it, and then Jimmy Lorimer and his team created a safe way to hold the fuselage. Then, the different pieces came in and moved, depending on what we needed the plane to do.
It was pretty exciting. It just so happened that it was all during the coldest days of the year, and we shot at night. It was a pretty dynamic piece of equipment we had to work with, and a lot of cold people in the water.
This season, there’s been a lot of work with animals—dogs, tigers and more. In one case, a character has a giant snake wrapped around her neck.
The first time we were able to work with animal trainers was during the snake scene. We spent a lot of time talking about how to safely do that, because that was the actress that actually had the snake around her neck. We had a prop snake as well, but pretty much everything that you see in the final footage is all her with the real snake. We spent a lot of time building trust between the trainers, myself, and the actor. Then, when we got to work with the Dobermans later on, again it was that same team. After a while, you start to really trust that they know what they’re doing, and they were phenomenal.
Then, that same team again brought out the tiger. They had two different tigers that were working that day, and then we had some other insert tigers for after the tiger was tranquilized. That’s really a dynamic situation, when you have a live tiger on set. Everybody—the AD department, [1stAD] Nicole Burke—had to wrangle that and keep everybody safe.
We were in a bunch of different locations. We shot some of that up in Santa Barbara at the actual zoo there without the tigers, and then we were down in Griffith Park with the actual, live tigers.
How did you go about orchestrating the series of brutal car and motorcycle crashes we see throughout the season?
What we’re able to do now with modern technology—that we weren’t able to do, say, 20 years ago—is do a combination of different things as you’re creating those. Whereas in the old days, a person would just strap himself in the car and go as fast as they could. Now, we [use] a mixture of current technologies, and it’s a better way to get the exact shot that we want, and keep everybody safe, and let the audience experience it viscerally.
Again, we worked with Jimmy Lorimer and his team. On the shot with the rebar through the head, I was on a different set, and Tim Davison helped me out on that, as well. We used the same kind of technique in both versions—that one and the scene at the end of the season. You pull the vehicle into the other vehicle with a cable array; sometimes, you’ll pull it with another vehicle so there’s no driver. As you can imagine, you can’t really put a driver in a car when he’s about to get hit with a bunch of rebar. So in that case, you set up the cars and you shoot it in such a way; you do all the lead-ups with all the stunt drivers driving in real dynamically, and then you do the aftermath after we’re done.
For the crash, we actually pulled the truck into the static car, and that gives you that real, dynamic thing and keeps everybody safe. For the motorcycle crash at the end of the season, that was the same kind of situation, but we had a real driver driving the pickup truck, and he actually pulled the other car into himself. It’s a little bit of a physics equation that the effects guys work out, and it’s pretty amazing. By having a driver in the pickup truck, it allows us to keep the shot alive after they hit, and then you can also shoot over his shoulder to see that there’s somebody driving.
In the flashback sequence when Bobby’s apartment complex is burnt to the ground, were you working with real fire?
Yeah, I have a group of fire guys that I’ve worked with for years, and we set that all up. They did a little bit of a burn on Peter Krause’s jacket, and then we had an actual stunt person who did a body burn. Then, we had a couple stunt people that fell through the floor. It sounds odd, but whenever you’re dealing with stunt people on fire, it’s actually a lot of fun. But there’s a lot of potential for injury, so everybody has to be on their toes. There again, we used some techniques that we’ve been using for years, and it came out real nice. It looked real.
What went into the sequence with the roller coaster hanging upside down? While VFX played a role here, you supposedly did have a team of stunt people hanging upside down for an extended period.
The first leg of that was, we found a location out in Scandia, and we shot on the actual roller coaster—but that roller coaster didn’t have a loop in it. We did some of the rescue things where Oliver was walking around on the roller coaster, and he did all of that himself, on location.
That was a really scary situation. I was out there where he was walking, and we had all kinds of safeties in place, but it’s still crawling around on a rollercoaster that’s next to the freeway. It was a little bit hairy. It was about 3:00 in the morning, and that’s when the dew sets in, so everything gets a little bit slick.
Then, Jimmy Lorimer and his team, working with [production designer] Jeff Mossa, they created an effects piece that we could lay in to create the loop. It was basically like if you took a coin and flipped it on edge each time. We would load the actors and the stunt people in it, and then rotate it 180 degrees and hang them in there. The actor that was hanging, we actually had a conversation with him early on and decided not to have a stunt double for him, so that he could do all of his own action, and we spent a lot of time with him in the harness, talking him through it. He did an amazing job up there. It allowed the audience to get right in there with him and feel what he’s going through.
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