Full Body Burn

I definitely took this stunt way too lightly when I heard about it for the first time. The original plan was for a "back burn", which didn't seem like a very big deal to me. I knew that Hollywood stunt guys had been doing these for years and the suits were totally flameproof.  But that was all I knew. And it ended up being a problem.

The day of the stunt I showed up completely clueless. I actually had my mind on other upcoming stunts that concerned me more. And the burn was only half of the day's work.  Marisa and I were also going through "ratchet" training that day in preparation for the upcoming train stunt.  We did the ratchet stuff first and were done with that by noon. The fire stunt was set for around 5:00, so I had a lot of waiting around to do. I still knew nothing about it, and so I still wasn't worried.  I should have been asking the stunt coordinator some questions. But no. Instead I was  on the phone all afternoon trying to work out some problems I was having with the DMV. 

Around 3:30 the stunt coordinator approached me to start my training. It was at that point that he asked me if I would be doing a back burn or a full-body burn. I was surprised by the question because I had been informed days earlier that we were set to do the back burn. I told him this and he said that it was completely up to me. I asked him what he thought and he told me that a full-body burn was definitely more dangerous, but he felt that I could pull it off. That is usually all I ever need to hear, so I opted for the full burn. I assumed that everybody involved knew of my decision and  would plan accordingly. Well, we all know what happens when you assume anything. 

The training that I went through was actually quite simple. The first thing I had to do was demonstrate my lung capacity. The stunt coordinator explained that being on fire would naturally put my body in panic mode and my heart rate would be rapidly accelerated. To simulate this situation, I had to run sprints and then stop and hold my breath as long as possible. I did around 40 seconds which was apparently acceptable. The burn would last about 15 seconds, during which I would not be able to breathe.  Since I also would not be able to open my eyes during the burn, I had to do practice "fire walks" toward a small kiddy pool with my eyes closed. That stupid pool was another part of the big problem. I know that normally stunt guys go for full size pools or just get put out by a bunch of fire extinguishers. But no. Not me. I had to blindly hit that tiny pool starting from about 30 feet away. The stunt coordinator finished up my training with a few final words. He explained to me that I would be burning at 800 degrees F, and that if I were to panic, I would definitely get hurt or killed. I was beginning to take this stunt more seriously.

About 15 minutes prior to the stunt, the problems started. The director wanted the shot to happen in a very small time window around sunset. We couldn't really start preparing early because they needed to coat me with fire gel that would only last for about 5 minutes. So we were forced to cram at the last minute. And with only one chance at this shot, it was very stressful for everybody involved. Then the most major problem of all surfaced. A small breeze started to pick up. And it was coming from my back, which is the worst possible situation since it would cause the fire to wrap around the front of my body and hit my face. Nobody had planned for any wind because it had been calm all day. But the temperature change at this time of the day is what caused the sudden breeze. All of the cameras were set at this point and we really only had two choices - go or no go. It was up to me and I guess I really didn't understand the critical nature of the situation, because I didn't hesitate to give the thumbs up. I have learned to call this "Kodak courage".

Everybody started taking their positions and I was quickly covered in fire gel. This nasty stuff was used to protect my exposed skin from the extreme heat. My entire head was lathered in it, even in my ears and nose. My eyes had to stay shut from this point on, so I needed to rely on the mental picture I had painted from my training. They lined me up with the kiddy pool and pulled a hood over my face. Everybody was in such a hurry that nobody noticed the hood was not covering my nose. I didn't know any better so I didn't say anything.  I could hear everything happening and I was starting to get nervous. When I smelled the torch being lit I had to force myself to stay calm. But my heart was pounding. I got the command to hold my breath and then felt the torch touch my ankle. I quickly felt the warmth running up my leg. I waited anxiously for the command to start walking. It seemed to take forever. The flames were starting to get loud. When I finally got the command, I took my first two steps slowly, as I was supposed to. But then somebody panicked and started yelling,"Uh oh, uh oh!"  At the exact same instant, I felt my face start burning. I freaked out and ran straight ahead. Luckily I hit the pool and fell in. I popped my head up out of the water and could still feel it burning, so I went back under, still holding my breath. When I came up the second time, I had to grab a breath of air. They ripped my hood off and threw a blanket over me. For a second I felt like the fire was out. But then my crotch started burning. I freaked out again and they poured a bucket of ice water down my pants. The funny thing was that everybody expected me to jump from this freezing cold water. But it felt great!  I was very happy to be alive. 

I ended up with second degree burns all over my face. I was ugly for about a month with huge scabs on my nose and eyelids. On the following shoots, my face had to be coated with makeup to look normal.  I was sort of bummed about this outcome, but looking back at the footage actually made it worth it.  Watching the tapes revealed everything that went wrong. The major problem was that the wind had picked up and the fire wrapped around my face. The stunt coordinator was standing behind me and could not see this, so his command to start walking came late. That was why the person panicked. And my hood was definitely on wrong. Oh well. You learn I guess. I have taken my fair share of crap from stunt professionals who saw that stunt on TV.  Yeah, it was done wrong, I'll admit. I had no business doing a full burn. 

Aerial Photography Los Angeles