Knowing how to do breakfalls is really useful for a stunt performer. A high proportion of the movie stunts performed involve falling, whether it’s for a fight, chase, or off a building. But it’s not enough to be good at the breakfalls you do in martial arts training.
When we do throws and takedowns in Jiu-jitsu, our first and foremost goal is to prevent injury. In stunts, the goal is to make the fall look realistic. These two goals can clash, however. The big slap and controlled leg position of a very safe breakfall are the same things that make it look as though the person falling didn’t get hurt. No big surprise, right?
The trick is to keep the most important safety elements of a good breakfall while doing a few little things to help make it look messy.
Breakfall Safety Points to Keep for Stunt Falls
The Chin Tuck. For most falls, a good stunt performer keeps their chin tucked to prevent their head from slamming into the ground. There are a few exceptions though, like when they fall on their front, in which case they turn their face away from the ground.
Surface Area Maximization. The more of your body you distribute into a fall, the less any one part receives a strong, potentially injurious impact. Formal breakfalling teaches this principle well, though you usually take out the exaggerated slap with the arms so the fall doesn’t look as controlled when performing a stunt.
How to “Sell” the Stunt Fall Safely
Invest in low profile pads. Because you don’t usually get the luxury of doing falls on mats or sprung floors, investing in a set of low profile pads is an important thing for any stunt performer. Even with good technique, hard surfaces can still give a bit of bite. Low profile elbow, knee, hip and back pads are a few worthwhile choices. These can help take the edge off falls on concrete, stairs, or other hard surfaces. That way they don’t end up “selling” their fall with real injuries. Of course, if you’re doubling for a woman in a dress, you may not even get the luxury of pads (one of the downsides of being a female stunt performer).
Body Language. Depending on the mechanism of the fall, your body usually reacts in different ways. If you’ve been knocked out, your body buckles from the legs up. If you’re falling off a building, you might flail your arms. If you hit the ground flat on your back, you might tighten up around the core from being winded. Being able to put this into one’s body goes a long way toward “selling” a fall.
Facial Expressions. You know that calm and collected facial expression a person wears when confidently pulling off an awesome breakfall in training? Well, that has the opposite effect desired in most situations in which stunt falls are required. Good stunt performers learn to act into the fall with a wince, an eye-roll or frightened grimace, etc. depending on the context.
Train, Train, and Train Some More
The best stunt performers in the industry are constantly training to keep their skills up to snuff. Most go to gymnastic gyms, stunt-friendly martial arts schools, etc. The more they train in their down time, the better they are when called upon to do their craft. As part of our contribution to the stunt community, we’ve decided to offer a stunt performer class focused on Judo-style throws and falls. Check out the video below to see a sample of the sort of things we’ll be teaching.