In Stargate Atlantis’ latest episode, three of the City’s personnel find themselves trapped in what seems to be an impossible situation. Stuck in a disintegrating mining facility, far from home and with no way of contacting help, Carter, McKay and Keller face their most demanding challenge yet.
The episode was also demanding for the production team. Apart from the challenges of building and filming in a tilting set, it featured some very daring stunts of a sort not seen on Stargate Atlantis before. One particularly memorable piece of action required the team to build a precarious construction of wooden boxes and beams, from which Colonel Carter would endure a nasty fall. One of the crew charged with helping make this scene a reality was stunt coordinator James Bamford.
“We started with a lot of prep,â€ he says, of the episode. “That was a major cooperation between several departments. The original concept came from writer Martin Gero. I remember sitting in various meetings with him and Martin Wood trying to explain to us how they want this thing to work with three pieces of lumber. That in itself, figuring out how they wanted to do it, took longer than the actual building! They would demonstrate it to myself and Wray Douglas [special effects supervisor] with popsicle sticks, and then to the construction team as well. Then everyone had to run off and start building things so this could work – that was the chore!â€
Making the writer’s ideas into reality meant ensuring that the set could fulfil several important functions. Though the actors would be climbing the stacked boxes – with the aid of wires to ensure their safety – a stunt double would take the place of actress Amanda Tapping when it came time for the fall itself. This meant that the construction department had to make sure that the build was strong enough to support not just the weight of the actress, but also her double to enable the switch to take place. And because of the moving set, the episode required several sets of trial runs to make sure everything was in place.
“We had to rehearse all these different wire gags with the set at its different levels,â€ the stunt coordinator recalls. “That all had to be done way ahead of time before we got there to shoot it. We rehearsed everything in order. First we rehearsed the actors building everything in stages, and that was all done on wires to help lift the boxes. Then we had to get Amanda to her final spot before she falls, so we had to practice her climbing up there, which was also wire assisted. Then we got the stunt double up, and then we did a dress rehearsal. The three actors that were involved were just amazing – they worked really hard. They were part of every rehearsal. So before we got to shooting we had Jewel and Amanda and David all on wires, walking up on the beams and practicing their falls, just to make sure they were comfortable with everything before we got there on the day.â€
To make Carter’s fall all the more dramatic, Martin Wood wanted to do an aerial shot of the boxes collapsing and taking her with them. With the camera above the action, the audience would really get the feel of the fall from the character’s perspective, and see her actually plummet to the ground. To do that, the stunt double would have to work without safety mats to break her fall.
“The boxes below smash on the ground so you could actually see there was nothing beneath her, no safety,â€ Bamford explains. “In reality she was on a wire, so we stopped her just before making contact. Martin wanted to do a full rehearsal for that – we could have rehearsed it differently, without all the elements, just to save breaking materials. But Martin wanted to see how the boxes would fall. So we actually did a full rehearsal with all the lumber, and we smashed boxes on the rehearsal days as well. I think we got to rehearse it on one day twice before we actually got to shoot it.â€
The day of shooting coincided with another big stunt for Bamford – this time on an entirely different episode.
“We were shooting that episode simultaneously with ‘Outcast,’â€ he reveals, “which also has a lot of really big stunts in it, so I was back and forth between the two of those every day. The jump into the water in ‘Outcast,’ that was actually me. I had to leave the water, dry off, and go over to ‘Trio,’â€ he laughs, “where we had Amanda’s double falling from the ceiling!â€
Once the construction department had figured out how to create the vision that Martin Gero and Martin Wood shared, and Bamford had worked out how to manage the stunts, the action had to fit within the ingenious mining set. And once everyone was working in the same space, the set seemed very small.
“It was very cramped and getting in and out with the film crew was difficult,â€ Bamford explains. “We had to have safety for the crew because people were on ladders, people were dangling from the ceiling. The cast were in there too, and it was quite dusty. So I had a full safety crew there every single day. My usual wire riggers also hired extra safety riggers for the crew, and it became just very difficult to move around in there. It was very claustrophobic, and very odd once the set began to tilt. Some crew members got nauseous at 8 degrees, and then when it was tilted at 22 degrees, everybody was standing on an angle. People were slipping. It was quite a challenge, that set.â€
Nevertheless, the shoot went off as planned, thanks to the crew’s careful preparation – and the dedication of the cast.
“It went really smoothly,â€ Bamford reports. “I trust my riggers, and I was very specific in describing timing, and Martin Wood and Gero were very specific about what they wanted to see in the end. Once they got that communicated to us we went to work to give them exactly what they wanted. Because it’s supposed to be all the great minds of Atlantis together in this room, trying to get themselves out of this problem. So it had to look very planned and very intelligent. It was just the integrity of the materials themselves that would collapse. We had to do it without making the greatest minds of Atlantis look stupid!â€