Stunt master Garrett Warren took his lumps on ‘Avatar,’ ‘Iron Man 2’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’
Still recovering from “Avatar“? Garrett Warren can relate. The stunt coordinator for the film is now a self-proclaimed expert in the tricky art of banshee riding, and he’s also an in-demand man in Hollywood with credits on some of the biggest upcoming releases, including “Iron Man 2,” “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Our Yvonne Villarreal caught up with the 21st century fall guy to get the lowdown on his rough-and-tumble trade.
YV: How did you get involved in “Avatar“? It’s a pretty huge deal, right?
GW: You have no idea. Where do I start? I remember I met Jim [Cameron] on “Beowulf” back in 2005, when he was starting this whole idea. After “Beowulf” was finished, I had a chance to pitch some ideas to him. I got a whole bunch of stunt guys together, and I rented a sound stage and a whole lot of equipment, and I pretty much just threw a whole bunch of ideas at him. Even though I hadn’t had a chance to read the whole script, I had a chance to find out some ideas of the movie. I threw my best guess out there, let’s say, of some of the things that were going on. He’d look at it and say, “Yeah, this is good. This is good. This is no good. This is no good.” But in the end, he finally said, “This is good stuff. It’d be great to have you on board.” That’s how I got on the project.
YV: Talk about your experience working on the film.
GW: When you read the script, you’re dumbfounded. I thought it was incredible. I didn’t know exactly where to start. So I figured I’d start from Page 1 [laughs]. He left it up to me to try and design a new way to shoot zero-G weightlessness in outer space — which is how the movie starts. We wound up getting an apparatus which is called a spinning ring, and we wound up using it with different kinds of rigging techniques — sometimes flying it by wires, sometimes sticking it on the end of a metal arm like a yolk and a parallelogram — so that we were able to really create what would look like weightlessness in outer space. It’s somewhat of a difficult process to go through to actually get on that Vomit Comet. We first ended up doing that zero-G plane that flies out of Burbank. Also, you only have a certain amount of time where you can film it, and you only have a certain amount of space. Jim didn’t want to be limited with his space because in the movie you see there are hundreds of people on this huge space shuttle, and you want to be able to have as realistic of a set as possible and have all these people floating weightless on your set so … it’s the first time it’s ever been done and performed this way. That’s why it was so groundbreaking. We had this ring that someone could move 360 degrees in all directions. We could fly them up, down and around — that’s what helped give us that feel of what weightlessness in outer space looks like.
YV: So was there a lot of collaboration between you and Jim?
GW: That was probably one of the best things about the movie. I’ve worked with an awful lot of directors. I worked on “Alice in Wonderland,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Beowulf” … they’re all very good. One thing is for certain, Jim has a definite idea in his mind, and a lot of times he’ll sit there and say, “I definitely want it to look like this. I want this kind of movement.” But he’ll also say, “Play around with it, and give me some of your ideas.” Anytime we did any action, it would start with his concept, then it would go to us rehearsing the concept and coming up with other ways of doing it — we had variations of the concept — then we’d go back to him, and he would decide what he liked and didn’t like.
YV: Looking back, what was your favorite stunt sequence?
GW: That’s really difficult. There are so many that were really good sequences. I have to admit one of my favorite stunts was, at one point, our two heroes Neytiri [Zoe Saldana] and Jake [Sam Worthington], jump off of this tree branch probably about 300 feet in the air. They plummet to the ground and they use these huge, oversized leaves to help slow their speed down so they don’t kill themselves when they hit the ground. Well, when they first came to me and said, “How are we going to do this?” I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I said we could create — because we had limited height in what we called the volume (Jim set up this big, huge motion capture volume on this stage), our height was only 12 feet tall. So I had to make someone fall hundreds of feet in a 12-foot distance. So we used a technique called “stitching.” We would make someone fall a certain distance and then figure out what his last position was and start him at that position at the top of the fall again and keep on doing it X amount of times. … We wound up, actually, in the end deciding that we needed more distance and wound up going to another building that was 80 feet tall and creating what we called the “elevator shaft.” The “elevator shaft” was this huge, tall structure where we would put these oversized pieces of PVC tubing to represent the structures of the leaves so that when our stunt people would fall down and grab them, it would be the exact same thing as falling down and grabbing a leaf. It was probably my most favorite part of the movie. There’s also the final fight scene in that movie that — to me — is not only epic but one of the better fight scenes that I’ve done in my lifetime.
YV: And what was it like to work with Cameron on his big follow-up to “Titanic”?
GW: There’s one part in my experience with Jim that was typical of what it was like to work with him. At one point, Jake needs to jump on the back of this creature and try to stab Quaritch [portrayed by Stephen Lang]. We worked out how he was going to climb on the side of it and stab him, but Jim came over and was like, “No, you can’t stand there. There’s a big huge exhaust and you could burn yourself.” And I kept going, “OK. I never knew that.” And he would be like, “Yeah, because I made it up. It has to have an exhaust somewhere, right? This is probably the most logical place an exhaust should go, right?” I’d say, “Yeah, I agree with you.” So he’d be like, “Well, we’ll put it here so you can’t stand here.” That was pretty much the way the whole movie went. It was flying on banshees. Flying on leaping objects. Riding what’s called a Thanator. All these creatures were in Jim’s mind.
YV: So he was good at expressing what was in his imagination?
GW: You pretty much have to try and fail. He gives you his ideas; he gives you some drawings and some animations and he says, “This is what it’s going to look like. I’m not really sure where we’ll find a place to put your foot, let’s say, when we’re doing the banshee. We’ll have to find a place.” He would talk to us about this clavicle that they would have which is right by where they would breathe. And we’re all looking at each other like “This is ridiculous.” I mean, this is a made-up creature, but in Jim’s mind it was absolutely real. He’d be like, “It breathes right here, it has four eyes, a clavicle right here.” He knew the anatomy of these creatures. It was crazy and so fun. He knew what blood type the creature was. He knew them like the back of his hand. And now so do we. I’m now one of the foremost experts on flying a banshee. We would have brainstorming sessions that would consist of Jim and a Sharpie and a piece of paper. Sometimes he’d have a model or drawing. Sometimes he’d sit there … we’d have a whole lot of equipment — stuff we actually invented and came up with while we were doing this movie — and he’d look at the stuff and say, “It’s sort of like that piece of equipment over there combined with that piece of equipment.” We’d go and grab it and try and secure it as safely as possible, and then I would get on it and he’d say, “Where do you find your balance at?” And then he’d get on. A lot of times, people would come over and say, “How long is this going to take?” and Jim would say, “It could take three minutes or it could take three hours.” That was my favorite part. He was creating and inventing all of these new things. The equipment we came up with was never going to be used in this way again. I never would have imagined we could simulate this stuff with just some speed rails, pads and wood to create these flying machines. But we did. If there is one thing I could tell you, Jim is dangerous with tape. He can create a skyscraper, anything he wants with some duct tape.
YV: What’s it like for you now that people can finally see the vision realized on the screen?
GW: I can’t tell you how fun it is to watch everyone’s faces as they gasp or cringe in their seats or clap and stand up and cheer when all of a sudden Neytiri pulls out that arrow for the last time. You will not get a better feeling as a stunt coordinator as you do when you’re sitting in the audience and you see the people go through those emotions. It’s been a huge part of my life. It was like a family member. It will always be a part of me. I worked on it for four years. I would liken it to “Star Wars” — I think it has that impact, if not stronger in our day and age. It has such a great message. I’ve worked on so many movies — whether it be “A Christmas Carol” or “Iron Man 2” — this movie is unlike anything else out there. All of those movies are great movies. But this movie … does a lot more than take you through an entertaining experience; it somewhat alters your consciousness. It alters your being. It makes you want to go home and take care of the planet. I’ll never be able to fathom what it’s like to live on that planet [Pandora], but I came as close as possible. You can expect something you never ever could dream up in your whole life. Jim does such a good job of defining every little detail and letting you become involved that you feel you’re a part of the experience.
VY: You mentioned you worked on “Alice in Wonderland.” Tell me a little bit about what audiences can expect?
GW: Oh, well that’s where I get in trouble. Wait until you guys see it. It will blow your mind away. It’s amazing. The trailers don’t do it justice. It’s that good. It’s one of my most favorite movies. You’ll see something that was only in your imagination come to life. Only your dream state and yet so tangible that you feel that maybe you did go through the experience.
YV: Can you talk about the technology used?
GW: We used some motion capture in “Alice in Wonderland,” but we wound up using a Moven [MVN] suit — that suit transfers information from the user to the computer via Bluetooth. All the reflective dots that you see on people in, say, “Avatar” … those are by cameras all around the performer. Well, this suit actually doesn’t have cameras. It actually has little gyroscopes on each joint and that, when it moves, transfers all that movement into the computer. It was completely different than what I was used to on “Avatar.” The other thing that Jim did in “Avatar” that I was incredibly impressed with was when we captured the facial expressions … he created this little camera boom that will not only capture the facial expressions but was also very safe. … We would be running through tree branches and vines and that lens: If that boom on your head got caught on any branches, it would put your neck out of place, and that would make an actor or actress have to take some time off. We didn’t know how we would do it. He came up with this breakaway boom. If it was to get caught, it would just snap off to the side of the performer. It wouldn’t snap his neck off.
YV: And you worked on “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” What can you reveal about that?
GW: Tintin was an amazing movie to work on as well. Once again, I’m not allowed to say anything on that movie either. But I can tell you that it’s an incredible story. It’s not just a great experience, it’s an incredible story. Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg — two incredible storytellers. And the acting is superb.
YV: On “Iron Man 2,” you’re Mickey Rourke’s stunt double?
GW: Again … I can’t say too much. I learned my lesson. You don’t get better acting than say Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke. You don’t. These guys work together so well. It’s such a fun and exciting movie. You can’t go away without feeling good.
YV: And there’s lots of whipping, right?
GW: Lots and lots of whipping.
YV: I think I know what your answer will be, but I’m going to ask it anyway: What can you tell me about “The Losers”?
GW: That has a special place in my heart, actually. Zoe Saldana was the one who got me on that movie. We were shooting “Avatar,” at the time and she came to me saying there was a movie she wanted to be in called “The Losers.” The people weren’t sure whether or not she could handle action. She felt so heartbroken because they weren’t able to see the stuff she was doing on “Avatar.” It was all top secret. She was such an action machine, but nobody knew it yet. I suggested we take a weekend to put together a video to help get her the job. I helped shoot this promotional video for her to show that she could do action. We had her shooting guns, wielding swords, knife work. … It was unbelievable. She was unreal. She got the part. And then she suggested they use me as their stunt coordinator. I actually was on our re-shoots of “Avatar” when I got the call from Sylvain White, the director for “The Losers.” He wanted it to be not only like the comic book but somewhat more visceral. It’s an amazingly real yet superbly comical look at these black ops special agents. And I loved the dichotomy. He was thinking the “Bourne” films and “24,” and yet he wanted to have comedy involved. We met. And he hired me. It’s all live action, 100%. There is some amazing action in that movie. You will be blown away. People will think, “Wow, that had to be CG.” No. Nothing was CG. We did everything. For real. I dropped actors and actresses on wires. I threw people through doors and windows. And Zoe … she’s a wrecking machine. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to work on that movie.
YV: You seem to be the expert on blending motion capture with live action.
GW: I enjoy blending the two. It’s such an open field and your imagination is your tool. The sky’s the limit. It’s like dropping a hundred feet onto leaves. How are you going to do that in a 12-foot building? It’s my job to come up with that solution, and I love that. It’s really easy for me to get a guy out there a hundred feet, put him on a wire and just drop him and hopefully it works out perfectly. Whereas, when you’re in a computer stage with height limitations, it takes a lot more work. It takes weeks of rehearsal and preparation. It’s very challenging. And I love it. I love being challenged. I love being able to bring out the emotion and reality of this unknown fantasy.
YV: So how difficult is it to capture the essence of movement and emotion in the motion capture world?
GW: Fortunately, for me, the computer does a really good job of capturing the body. When we first started off doing the movement in “Avatar,” Jim came to me and was like, “I want them to move like two-legged cat-like creatures that can jump like lemurs,” I was like, “Wow.” I did a whole audition process. It took me an awfully long time — this was even before we started filming. I went through people of Cirque de Soleil. I went through dancers. I went through gymnasts. Through stunt professionals. I went through every person out there that might have some movement I wanted to see. I went through martial artists. I wanted to see any type of movement that was not only interesting but that could lend itself to this movie. In a live-action movie, we’d be able to get a person, paint them blue, and when they’d move, you’d say, “Oh, that’s cool.” When you’re on a motion-capture stage, you’re not confined by height or weight. The sky’s the limit. You can have a short person or a tall person performing the movements. A person of any ethnicity, any hair color — as long as there’s movement. That’s the great thing about motion capture, you can get the best movement for that scene instead of having to be confined by what will match the actor or the actress.
YV: Does it make a difference for you in how you coordinate everything?
GW: “Beowulf” was my induction into this world. It was somewhat difficult at first because it’s not like you can just have a guy out there who gets hit in the face. I had to account for the space around the person. Like, say, Jim Carrey when he’s playing the Ghost of Christmas Present and he’s this tall, huge monstrous creature versus this normal-sized person. We don’t just get out there and put a ball. We actually put him in that spot and figure out how we’ll make the performance match the scene. We try and put that actor into that height or that dimension, and that’s why it’s difficult. And fun. Jim Cameron, especially, would not allow that to happen. We have a lot of talented actors out there who can pretend they’re looking at a creature. Jim didn’t want that. He wanted to get that creature. To get the actor to really feel what it would be like in that circumstance. When you see an Avatar looking down at a normal human being, we actually had Zoe or Sam interacting with a child. We tried to mimic that situation. That’s what was so good about it. The reason why this movie is so good, every scene, every frame, every movement has that acting or that drama. Nothing was taken for granted. It’s a great film. I hope everyone gets a chance to see it.
— Yvonne Villarreal
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Credits: Garrett Warren, at top, courtesy of Warren. “Avatar” images from Fox. “Alice in Wonderland” image by Walt Disney Co. Tintin image from Moulinsart.