Film

Going out with a bang

In association with
Ford
Going out with a bang 1

When filming any high-octane cinematic setpiece, there’s little room for error. An ill-judged jump here, a mistimed tumble there, and you’re off to A&E. But never is that truer than when the action turns explosive. Getting blown up’s par for the course for award-winning stuntman Rick English, but that doesn’t make it less terrifying. Or deadly. Here, he explains how he survived a very real, very fiery detonation on the set of Tom Cruise sci-fi epic Edge Of Tomorrow, in which he and five others were blown out of a trench during a battle sequence.

Step 1: wear a wire

“The explosion that you see on screen was real, but our reactions – getting somersaulted out of the trench, or flung against a wall – were controlled by a complex wire rig. Each of us was wearing a wire connected to a truss rig – a sort of scaffold suspended overhead and out of shot by a crane. It would’ve been simpler to use an air ram – which is like a plate that you stand on that fires you up into the air – but that’s not as repeatable as using wires, especially when multiple people are involved. We had a team of riggers operating the pulley system, so that when the blast went off, we would all go flying in the right direction.”

Step 2: there’s the rub

“I was wearing what we lovingly refer to in the industry as a ‘gooch wrap’, where the wire went down my back and came out between my legs, attaching on to my chest. This was so that as I was lifted up into the air by ‘the explosion’, I was also flipped forward on to my stomach. The wire pulls very hard in order to create the upward momentum and forward spin – basically turning me into a human yo-yo. As such, you always put pads underneath your costume between the wire and your skin. Especially important when wearing a gooch wrap, for obvious reasons.”

Step 3: stand your ground 

“The special effects – SFX – team are responsible for the actual detonation, and they set the ‘safe distance’. When you’re doing an explosion, you’re relying on them not to blow it up in your face, aim the blast in the wrong direction or set it off when someone’s standing on top of it. In this instance, we were stood seven feet away from the explosives, wearing eye protection, fireproof underwear – in case our clothing caught fire – and a fire-retardant gel on exposed skin. There were also a lot of fire extinguishers on set.” 

Step 4: hope for the best 

“The first time you see what the explosion will look like is when they call ‘action’. It’s rare you’ll see a live SFX test, because they’d have to use up explosives and it’d make a mess of the set. Sometimes they’ll show you test footage, but generally there’s a lot of trust involved. On this stunt there were two aspects to the explosion. The pyro element was what made the big fireball when ignited. Meanwhile, buried underground was an air mortar filled with dirt and debris, all of which got blown into the air with the pyro.” 

Step 5: feel the heat 

“When the detonator goes off, and the fireball flashes over you, it is super-hot. The explosion only lasts a couple of seconds, but the heat’s intense. From the moment they called ‘action’, I held my breath and tensed my body. The former because I don’t recommend breathing fire into your lungs; the latter because if your muscles are relaxed when the wire jerks you away, you can get rag-dolled. As the blast went off, I held my body tight so I could control how it moved in the air, and was yanked out of the trench, out of the shot and, as is so often the case, left dangling in the air on the end of a wire. Such is the life of a stuntman.” 

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