With today’s advances in CGI technology, just about anything a director’s tortured imaginings can dream up can be put on the screen. However, there’s no amount of computer trickery that can replace the spectacle of watching some mad-as-hell stunt performer risking his or her life for our sordid entertainment. And the audience always knowa whether we’re watching the genuine article or not.
Certain purist directors, such as Christopher Nolan, run for the hills as soon as they get a whiff of CGI and still manage to produce scenes that knock our collective socks off.
Unfortunately, that level of authenticity doesn’t come cheap. Whether it’s crashing trains or dropping planes, swinging through downtown or flipping hotels on their head (along with the bonanza paydays for the lunatics who do it), keeping it real in the movie business usually leaves the mother of all holes in the budget.
Here then, are the 12 Most Expensive Movie Stunts Ever.
12. THE GENERAL (TRAIN CRASH)
Described by none other than Orson Welles as perhaps the greatest movie ever made, The General remains the undisputed masterpiece of the incomparable Buster Keaton. A man with the facial expression of an Easter Island statue, Keaton was at the top of Hollywood’s elite at the time he wrote, directed, produced, edited, and starred in his civil war classic. Handed a then-breathtaking budget of $750,000, he burned through $42,000 of it filming the most expensive stunt in silent movie history.
Playing a Confederate railroad engineer whose beloved train The General is stolen by Union spies, Keaton sneaks behind enemy lines to repossess the locomotive and rescue his girlfriend, who’s become an unintended hostage of the north. Reclaiming the engine and sneaking his girlfriend aboard, they set out for safety chased by two other Union trains. After attempting to slow his pursuers by leaving telegraph poles strewn across the track behind him, the chase culminates in Keaton setting fire to the Rock River bridge, sending the first of the enemy trains plummeting into the water below.
Costing over half a million dollars in today’s money, the scene was filmed in one take just outside the Oregon town of Cottage Grove, which declared a holiday so residents could watch the shoot take place. The pulverised remains of the full-size vintage locomotive became a tourist attraction for more than 20 years.
11. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (WEB SLINGING)
After Spidey had begun to lose his way with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, new director Mark Webb wanted to give his reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, something fresh to make the wall crawler’s fans sit up and take notice. While the previous movies generated Spider-Man‘s web swinging through New York digitally, Webb elected to go all in and have his incarnation of Spidey do it for real. Not easy and most definitely not cheap.
To achieve the ultimate realism, Webb and chief stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong studied the physicality of Olympic gymnasts as they performed their high bar routines and quickly realized the problem—in the Raimi era movies, Spidey’s downswing is the same speed as his upswing. As we know instinctively that’s not right, the digitally rendered stunts appeared unrealistic.
For the 2012 reboot, Armstrong built a series of complex aluminium rigs with winch and cable assemblies that propelled the stunt performer through the air as if cracking a whip. At the bottom of the swing, the actor would be travelling at nearly 40mph and topping 3 g’s, before the whole rig moved forward 50 feet as the upswing started. With star Andrew Garfield training for months to be able to do many of the stunts himself, the finished product looks as genuine as a teenager swinging through downtown on his own webs ever will.
10. TERMINATOR 2 (HELICOPTER CRASH)
What do you do if your cameraman refuses to shoot a pivotal scene in the most expensive movie ever made because he deems it too dangerous? Well, if you’re director and certified badass James Cameron, you grab a camera, swing yourself aboard a helicopter and film it yourself. Presumably accompanied by your own dramatic theme music and wind machine to tousle your flowing locks.
In Terminator 2‘s breathtaking helicopter chase, the CGI pioneer did away with digital technology and shot the whole sequence in situ. All the stunts you see were performed for real. Illuminating the three-mile stretch of the Long Beach Terminal Island Freeway in LA required over 10-miles of electric cable to be laid down and needed the assistance up to 1,000 crew members. For the scene where the pursuing T-1000 flies under the overpass, ace stunt pilot Chuck Tamburro first tested the clearance by putting his Bell Jet Ranger on wheels and rolling it under the bridge. With just five feet of air above the rotors and four feet on either side, Tamburro practically had to scrape the skids across the tarmac to make it under safely. Which he did. Twice. At 70mph. If you’re wondering what this lunatic looks like, he has a cameo as the pilot who is invited to leave the hovering helicopter earlier in the movie by Robert Patrick’s shiny terminator.
9. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (PLANE HIJACK)
It seems as soon as a movie leaves solid ground, all production budget checks get a ton of extra zeroes scribbled on the end. In The Dark Knight Rises, the last in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the director spent as little as possible of his reported $257m budget on CGI. Even the vast majority of the opening sequence’s remarkable plane hijack was filmed on location, a scene that required several months of planning for the three-day shoot.
Shot over the uninhabited and desolate Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, probably to avoid a falling aircraft landing on someone, the scene sees the CIA turboprop containing big bad Bane being shadowed by a hulking, ominous C130 Hercules. As the cargo ramp lowers, four tethered henchmen descend to attach cables to the government plane, flipping it vertically and smashing off the wings before an explosive charge blows away the tail section. The sequence ends with Bane and nuclear physicist Dr Pavel dangling from a wire as the ruined plane is cut free and plummets to earth.
Famously owning neither a cell phone or email account, Nolan also prefers shooting on film rather than digitally and reportedly hates computer imagery. His love of practical effects pays off with stunning moments like this. It could have been achieved for a fraction of the cost with CGI, but could never have had the same authenticity.
8. SWORDFISH (HELICOPTER AND SCHOOLBUS)
Another addition to the list of “did they actually do that for real?“, the bus hijack in 2001’s Swordfish was filmed almost entirely on location in the skies above downtown LA. John Travolta’s bus full of hostages is plucked from the ground by an enormous helicopter and flown through the city to escape pursuing police.
Director Dominic Sena opted against CGI for the majority of the scene, instead employing the aptly named Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane to do the heavy lifting for real. But even that mammoth workhorse struggled as it carried the bus 15 storeys above street level and within inches of buildings, with the weight of the load nearly 80% of its lifting capacity.
One of the few digitally produced effects in the scene, as the bus crashes through the skyscraper’s window and into a business meeting, was deemed too risky to shoot for real by the helicopter’s pilot. Although, on a reported salary of $25,000 an hour, he must have been tempted. With the CGI starting to show its age now, Sena’s decision to film as much as he could without resorting to computer trickery seems pretty much vindicated.
There are two other pieces of Hollywood digital misdirection. The interior shots, which were filmed in a TWA hangar at LA International Airport, and the depositing of the bus on the rooftop. With no building able to physically take that kind of weight, a reinforced replica was constructed, all adding to the scene’s final price tag of $15m.
7. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL (FREE CLIMBING)
Somewhere in the world, there’s an insurance agent who has to sign off on Tom Cruise doing his own stunts. While it’s rare to feel sorry for such people, it’s hard not to feel a flicker of sympathy when you watch sequences like the free climbing scene in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
The Cruiser is a big fan of rock climbing, easing us in with the opening of Mission Impossible 2, where he soloed over the unfortunately named Dead Horse Point in Utah. In this, the franchise’s fourth outing, we join plucky super-spy Ethan Hunt scrabbling about on the slick glass facade of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, with only a pair of temperamental electronic gloves preventing him from ending up an expensive stain on the sidewalk.
Taking five months to plan and four days to film, the scene finds Cruise scaling the outside of the tallest building in the world, as he tries to gain access to the hotel’s server room. After rehearsing for months on a replica section of the building, the shoot itself found Cruise harnessed to the outside of the real Burj for up to 10 hours a day, with the skyscraper’s glass panels super heated in the Dubai sun to nearly 100°F. In the end, the only CGI used in post-production was to remove the wires securing the actor to the building.
6. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (SKI JUMP)
Bringing a tear to the eye of any red-blooded Englishman and topping the list of many a fan’s favourite moments, the ski-parachute jump from The Spy Who Loved Me is Bond at his absurdly spectacular best.
After receiving a message from MI6 on one of those new-fangled digital watches, 007 once again proves his unswerving loyalty to the crown by abandoning a sultry blonde in their remote Alpen ski lodge. Cleverly camouflaged against the snow in a luminescent yellow ski suit and bright red bobble hat, Bond is soon skiing for his life from pursuing Russian thugs. The twisting, turning, back-flipping chase culminates with our man launching himself off a cliff edge, falling for an eternity before deploying standard-issue Union Jack parachute, while the theme music’s opening fanfare follows him down and movie audiences the world over jump to their feet for a standing ovation.
Shot in one take, mountaineer and stunt man Rick Sylvester’s mind may have been distracted by his huge $30,000 payday on his approach to the leap. Too slow on take off, he also got his legs tangled and fell for longer than anticipated—dropping out of shot of the aerial camera. Fortunately, a backup rig had been secured below the ridge of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, Canada, which caught the moment in all its glory.
5. CLIFFHANGER (AERIAL ROPE TRANSFER)
There are easier ways to make a million dollars. Probably. Staking its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive aerial stunt in movie history, the airborne transfer scene in Cliffhanger led to British stuntman Simon Crane pocket $1 million for making the crossing between two aircraft flying at 15,000ft, without a safety harness in sight. When it all proved too much to bear for the insurance companies, the movie’s star Sylvester Stallone bankrolled the entire stunt himself, including Crane’s eye-watering pay check.
After a botched heist aboard a US Treasury plane, turncoat agent Travers makes his hair-raising descent on a zip wire to his gang’s following aircraft. When the rigged government plane explodes (has one of those ever just landed safely?) the stolen loot is scattered across the Rocky Mountains below. With $100m at stake, traumatized rock-climber Stallone is enlisted to help locate it.
As if swinging about between two aircraft 15,000ft in the air with no safety equipment wasn’t enough, Crane also had to contend with the extreme cold and lack of oxygen. On top of that, he had to put all his faith in both of the plane’s pilots being able to fly at exactly 150mph in strong winds. Any slower and the big DC9 would stall, any faster and the air pressure would tear the stuntman to bits.
4. IRON MAN 3 (AIR FORCE 1 RESCUE)
Yep, we’re on another ill-fated government flight. (Seriously, take the train or something). This time, it’s the President’s ride and Air Force One has a big hole blown in the side, out of which flies most of his administration. Fortunately, self-effacing hero Iron Man is on hand to scoop up the free-falling bureaucrats.
Seamlessly blending CGI and live-action, the rescue sequence in Iron Man 3 used 13 members of ace parachuting team The Red Bull Air Force to portray the hapless victims, and one to play Iron Man himself. Taking over a month to film, the team totalled 580 jumps, sometimes up to eight a day.
The Red Bull skydiving team was also responsible for much of the filming. Using a head mounted Red camera, the unmistakeable shaky and frantic footage adds to the buttock-clenching tension of the scene in a way that would have been impossible to reproduce artificially.
Like the other movies here that eschew CGI as much as possible, shooting sequences like this the hard way isn’t cheap. Final production budget for Iron Man‘s third outing topped $300m.
3. INCEPTION (HALLWAY DREAM FIGHT)
Christopher Nolan has a history of bringing us perplexing and confounding storylines, so his movie about dreams within dreams within dreams (within dreams. Possibly. Not sure) was always going to be a thinker. But love it or hate it, it would take an unusually harsh critic to deny that the hallway dream fight in 2010’s Inception was a truly staggering spectacle.
Filming the show-stopping scene involved the practical effects purist Nolan having full-size corridors built on an enormous centrifuge that rotated at 6rpm. Over three weeks, 500 crew members worked on the sequence where Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles black-clad thugs on the floors, walls, and ceilings of his dreamscape hotel. The actor trained for an additional two weeks with the stunt team to get his movements and balance right and to overcome the motion sickness caused by the spinning sets. Further scenes required him to float around a vertical hallway on wires to capture the zero gravity effect.
With the camera anchored to the floor, the audience stays grounded while the combatants bounce around the corridor beating the bejesus out of each other like a bunch of furious Lionel Richies. The director’s dedication to practical effects has produced some of the most memorable scenes of recent times, none more so than here with one of the best fight scenes in movie history.
2. THE MATRIX RELOADED (FREEWAY CHASE)
The now iconic freeway chase is the undoubted highlight in The Matrix Reloaded. The second in the Wachowskis’ trilogy on the already groundbreaking action sequences of the original movie, and also ramped up the psychobabble until pretty much everyone was thoroughly confused.
When filming on existing roads proved too problematic and time-consuming, a $2.5m stretch of highway was built on the abandoned Alameda Point Navy Base in California. Stretching for a mile and a half, the three-lane loop gave the directors complete freedom to smash up the 300 cars donated to the production by General Motors. Shot over 48 days, the spectacular chase follows Trinity, Morpheus and the Keymaker’s escape from pursuing agents and dreadlocked freaks The Twins.
Although hugely reliant on CGI, a great deal of the sequence was filmed in real-time. Carrie-Anne Moss performed several of her motorbike shots herself and the bonnet-crushing leap from Agent Johnson required no computer skullduggery.
Eagle-eyed Matrix fans were quick to point out the numerous references dotted throughout the scene. One of the exit boards displays directions to Paterson Pass, a nod to production designer Owen Paterson. The number 101 appears throughout the series, and Gulliver’s Travels crops up with a sign for Big Endian Eggs appearing on the side of a trailer, alluding to the Lilliputians’ debate on how to eat boiled eggs.
1. BEN-HUR (CHARIOT RACE)
Coming in as no surprise at number one, Ben-Hur was made at a time when the movie business was fighting for its life against the pervasive influence of TV. Greater and more lavish spectacles were needed to entice audiences out of their homes, and the chariot race from the 1959 classic is amongst the most dazzling sequences ever committed to film.
Eating up a quarter of the film’s entire budget, the scene required 1,000 workers to carve the arena out of an Italian rock quarry over the course of 12 months. It took three months to film the breathtaking race and involved more than 15,000 extras, 78 Andalusian and Lipizzan horses and 18 chariots, costing an estimated $4 million. The film’s stars trained for weeks until they were accomplished charioteers—even so, a fully-staffed infirmary was built next to the set to treat any injuries that occurred during filming. In the end, the only damage was to stuntman Joe Canutt, when he tumbled over the front of his chariot as he hit one of the many spectacular jumps too fast. He miraculously escaped with a few stitches to his chin.
Were these big-budget practical effects worth the time and money? Let us know in the comments!