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Veteran stuntman discusses industry safety following fatal accident on 'The Walking Dead'

A production still from
A production still from "The Walking Dead."

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Last week on the set of the AMC television show, "The Walking Dead," stunt performer John Bernecker was reportedly doing a fall from a 22-foot high balcony when he missed the landing pads.

The result was a fatal head injury.

Production was temporarily halted following the incident, but resumed today according to The Hollywood Reporter. The Screen Actors Guild and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are reportedly investigating what happened. 

To find out more about on-set procedures for ensuring stunt safety, The Frame spoke with Conrad Palmisano, a veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator with more than 47 years of experience in the industry. Palmisano is also a member of the SAG-AFTRA Stunt and Safety Committee and the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures.

Interview highlights:

On the changes in stunt work since the 1970s:

When I started, it was basically "pad up and hit the ground" kind of stunt work. There was no CGI or anything like that, so most of the things we had to do live and in-reel. If you were falling off a two-story building, you were falling off a two-story building. There was no wire to attach to slow you down or belay your weight or anything like that. We just did it.

Stunts today are safer than they were 20 years ago and we anticipate that they're going to be safer 20 years from now because it's an evolutionary process.

On the difference between stunt performers and stunt coordinators:

A stuntman or stuntwoman is a performer and they live between the words action and cut. All the prep stuff is done in advance. A stunt coordinator's job is to take the written word from the page and put it on screen ... The stunt coordinator always looks at the written word and then at the location and at the time allotted to shoot the sequence and then tries to make suggestions in order to say, I can deliver this for you in this way, or, I can't do it like that, but I can do it like this, or this, or this. Which is your choice?

Our goal is to make everything safe for the performer, for the crew and the cast that's involved in it, as well as to protect their production company from having something bad happen and then end up in lawsuits.

On the difference in stunt coordination in film and television:

Few people, in my experience, want to cross that boundary [to] put your foot down. Part of the problem is some people don't put their foot down because they're afraid of repercussions or next season they won't be brought back.

And it's different between feature films and television. Feature films you have a lot more time for rehearsal, for setting up, for shooting what's going on. Television, you have to work very, very fast and things can change very quickly and so there's a lot more pressure in TV than there is in features.

On whether stuntmen or stuntwomen are able to back away from a stunt if they feel unsafe or nervous:

I've brought stuntmen out, in one particular case, to look at a high fall. And we looked at it during the daytime, a three-story fall off a building [in] downtown L.A. into an alley. And it was going to be done at night, but we looked at it in the daytime. When we got there that night and [the stunt performer] looked at it, he says, I'm sorry. I can't do this. I said, Well, you looked at it and you said you could. And he said, Yeah, but I just don't feel good, I can't do it like that. Well, there was a payphone down there, [so I said], Call somebody to replace you who's comfortable doing it. And he did. And we went on working together for years after that. I'd rather have him step up and say this isn't good than have something go wrong. And any stunt coordinator would feel the same way.

To hear John Horn's interview with Conrad Palmisano, click on the player above.

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