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Learning to Fall



There’s a small, unassuming alley in Greenpoint Brooklyn where people risk their lives every day. Towards the end of the alley, as you near the opening visa of the East River and towering skyline of Manhattan, you’re able to get set on fire, fight like a martial arts master and learn to fall…from 50 feet in the air.

The end of the alley running uniform with Milton St. has been the home to more than a few seemingly accidental “falls” from the roof. That’s because the whole section of the alley is the home for stunt performers. It’s marked with the detritus of a movie set: a BMW car, motorcycles, platforms and inside the warehouse: a fire extinguisher, a trampoline, a ladder, an inflatable airbag 20 meters in diameter, and a dummy doll all makeup Hollywood Stunts.

The space and company is the brainchild of Bob Cutter, a stunt professional that’s been in seemingly more movies and commercials than Kevin Bacon’s IMDB page. Remember when the loan shark from the Matt Damon poker movie, Rounders, throws someone through a wall? Yeah, that was Bob.

About five years ago, Bob decided to open Hollywood Stunts. You can hire them for stunt work in various disciplines: fire work, choreographed fights, firefights, car crashes, weapons, falls and more. It’s the falls that make Hollywood Stunts different than a usual training ground for professional stunt people. That’s because on any given Saturday you can learn how to fall from 40 feet, and join them “for the biggest adrenaline rush of your life!

Some professional thrill-seekers may want to take Hollywood Stunts’ one or three-week classes designed for trained actors and stunt professionals looking to master a specific technique or scene. It’s always best to remain in practice (especially when practice means jumping off a roof on cue), and that’s what they do most of the time during the week.

But anyone can also walk off the street, sign the liability form and take their Saturday High Fall Classes. Or, as one 75 year-old told Bob a few weeks ago, “It’s always been my life long dream to be set on fire,” so that’s what he did—once all the necessary training and equipment had been set up, and with the help of Bob’s supervision and staff.

Recently, Adrenalist visited with Bob and his Saturday class, and learned how to fall with the fearlessness usually only found in a stunt person, a crazy person, or someone we profile on Adrenalist.

First there are 3 rules the instructor gave about falling:

1. Always fall on your back

2. Try and fall as flat as possible (with the maximum surface area landing at the same time)

3. Before you make contact breath out. The best way to accomplish this is to scream like bloody murder—not the hardest instruction to take when you’re falling 30 feet in the air.

The instructor for today’s class is a stunt person who specializes in falls and choreographed fights (he was constantly flipping and spinning on the mat as he set things up between exercises). He used a car crash analogy to explain why it’s so important to remain loose when you land. “‘Drunk guy in a car crash survives,’ is actually a true maxim,” he said. The drunken man survives because he doesn’t tense at the point of impact like the sober people in the car (this is not a good reason to drive drunk though!). “The same rule can be applied to falling. Don’t be tense!” he reiterated throughout the day.

The class of eight students then practiced jumping from a slightly elevated platform (perhaps 1 foot) onto a mat. First, the instructor yelled “All clear,” then the jumper answers “Falling” and jumps into the air. The amateur fallers are supposed to swing their legs in front of them and land as flat on their back as possible. The key is relaxing the neck and allowing your head to land at the same time as your body to prevent whiplash. Most of the students had trouble with the whiplash issue.

After a few repeated attempts and tips from the instructors to get the falling—or more importantly—landing form down, it was on to the big airbag and real jumps. The airbag stands around 10 feet when it’s fully inflated. The bag is designed to act as more of a cushion than a net. After each jump, an instructor lets out the baffle—which is simply a flap on either side of the airbag—to gather the air back up. If the baffle weren’t tended to, than jumps from the platform, or on a movie set, would lead the stunt person to bounce right off the airbag. One instructor told me it was called the “moon effect.” No one wants to bounce out of the atmosphere.

The whole class jumped from 20 feet, and as one participant told Adrenalist “I have a real fear of heights, so I took this class to help with that. I’m not sure I got over my fear of heights, but I did jump.” Most participants though, simply wanted a jolt to their weekend, and jumping even from 20 feet will give you just that: a shock to the senses.

Those participants who showed enough technical proficiency in their jumps from 20 feet, were allowed to climb to the next level and jump from 30 feet, or as one 30 foot jumper told me “It’s different because you’re falling longer and you’re not used to falling through the air that much.” For anyone that’s done any cliff diving or high dive jumping, you can probably imagine what we’re talking about. It’s a sense of falling, but you’re falling for an uncomfortably long amount of time—too long. It doesn’t feel normal—which is why so many people probably love it and others have nightmares about it.

Generally, the walk-in class isn’t allowed to go above 30 feet, but one instructor jumped from 50 feet facing down—only spinning at the last moment. If you think falling onto your back is hard, try doing it by spinning around as you’re falling face-first from 50 feet in the air! It all happens in the blink of an eye. Even the 30-foot jumpers exclaimed: “It’s so fast!”

Another instructor casually did a full flip onto her back and landed effortlessly on the airbag almost like she was taking an early morning jog. Like flipping onto your back from 30 feet in the air was normal—which for her—it was. The crowd of jumpers plus the people milling about for the next class all realized falling took as much practice as daring.

A “stunt” can mean a spectacular event or incident designed to attract attention; that’s where the phrase “publicity stunt” comes from. But for a largely unknown and unnamed group of athletes, self-promotion takes a back seat to safety and getting the “stunt” right. That’s why you don’t hear about any famous “stunt people.” And for the record, none of the instructors interviewed enjoyed Drive where the protagonist plays a stunt person.

There’s not much margin for error when human lives are at stake, and that’s exactly what the men and women at Hollywood Stunt seek to re-create safely. The dance with the devil jumps of death, but with the equipment and technique to survive the fall intact. There’s a risk to any stunt, but the instructors and training keep you safe while you fly fall in their shoes. For a couple hours, you can pretend you’re Jackie Chan or Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

It’s always better falling if you’ve fallen before; also when there’s a huge airbag cushioning you at the end of your fall. But the hardest part of falling is letting go when you land; letting go, and trusting the equipment and your form; letting go, and falling.

That’s what Adrenalist’s do. They let go.

Thanks to Bob, Aaron, and the rest of the staff at Hollywood Stunts.

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