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Out of Window Out of Body: “Drop Zone” Tales, Part 3

Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com | Blue Skies Magazine issue #54 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 3" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com
Written by Moe Viletto

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Originally printed in issue #54 (May 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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During the 3 months of filming the aerial stunts for the movie “Drop Zone,” our team’s home changed often. We started in Homestead, FL to get organized, did some pickup shots and finished in Santa Ynez, CA and filmed in Los Angeles, Key West, Key Marathon and Miami. We went back and forth from Miami to the Keys enough times to make a drug smuggler jealous.

After all the Miami madness, the film crew moved to LA to finish up and I had 2 weeks to prep for the final stunt. The dummy we named Roy was with us from the start of the shoot. He weighed about 50 pounds and had a hard head, hands and feet with a soft body and articulated limbs. Poor Roy got totally abused. One night while filming in Miami, Roy was dressed as a policeman. We were punching him out and kicking him when he was down. People passing in cars glanced over and just drove on.

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I would be running through a glass window with him and then dropping him as my canopy deployed. [Starting at 1:40 in the preview:]

Roy was a bit taller than me so we put a harness under his clothing so I would have something solid to grip as I held him up for the run. I didn’t want him tripping me up as payback for all the prior abuse. The director had Roy hucked out of the open window I would be exiting from to give the five camera operators an idea of his trajectory. Watching him accelerate and hearing his hard noggin slam into the sidewalk from 280’ was pretty realistic.

OK, Roy was set to go—now to work out the logistics of crashing through the glass and deploying my canopy. Since Roy was such a handful, and needing both hands to hold him, I chose to do a pilot-chute-assist type of deployment.

This is how I set it up: I had a 24-foot-long raised platform built to the same height as the window ledge so my running area would be level. The first man standing on the platform was Jake Brake. He would be holding a fan on my face to keep the makeup from running and keep me cool. He also had a radio so he could give me the command, “Go when you’re ready, Moe.”

Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com | Blue Skies Magazine issue #54 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 3" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Next in line was Dummy Roy, held face-to-face by me. Behind me was Don Swayze, wearing a harness that was tied off to a point that would stop him just at the window’s edge to keep him from falling out. He would be running behind me and Roy while holding my pilot chute inside of a protective gauntlet that was wrapped around his wrist. As I crashed through the glass he would hold my pilot chute to the point where he would only open the container, then let it go to allow for a bit of freefall. Upon opening shock I was to drop Roy. Behind Don was Jake Lombard. He would be managing the rope that was tethering Don.

A trip to the glass factory was done to ensure we had the window tempered properly; we needed to control the size of the broken pieces that would be raining down on me and my deploying canopy. Candy or sugar glass wasn’t used because it is hard to control the size of those fractured pieces. I didn’t want some 20-pound, big ol’ snaggletooth of a candy shard punching through my opening parachute and taking me out. After testing small batches of glass we found a temper that consistently broke a 4-by-8 feet sheet of glass into dime- to quarter-size pieces. Six full-size windows were framed up in order for me to practice crashing through before I did the real thing.

When you see a stunt performer crash through a large glass window, a split second before he or she hits it, pyrotechnic charges are set off remotely to break the glass. I asked the experts if this procedure ever fails and without hesitation they said yes. Then Don chimed in about a stunt he did years ago where he bounced off a window when the pyrotechnics failed and ended up with a shoulder injury.

After hearing all this I sure didn’t want to hit the window when the pyrotechnics failed and then have it break as Roy and I dribbled down the face of the building, so another technique was used. The glass riggers would tap the glass with a sharp punch. This would crack the glass symmetrically but it would not separate and fall from the frame. It would be very fragile, though. It could easily collapse with any slight vibration or pressure change, like a door opening or a wind gust outside. So now it would be easy for me to just run through it, allowing the glass to now shatter and fall away in small pieces. Of course good ol’ knuckelhead Roy would be taking the first hit.

It was now time to set up for practice.

I made a heavy duty Kevlar bridle, which is more cut resistant than nylon, and attached a well reinforced 48-inch pilot chute. The pilot chute would be held by Don inside of a ballistic cloth shield. I chose to use a Velcro-closed rig rather than a pin rig; it would give Don a bit of leeway while running behind me, should the bridle get bumped or inadvertently pulled a bit. The potential to pop pins on the run could give me a premature unpackulation, deploying my canopy before it was needed. I sewed a piece of Velcro to the back of an army jacket to simulate a BASE rig and adhered to it a shrivel flap and the Kevlar bridle and pilot chute. This would allow Don, Jake and me to practice the timing of our run toward the window and simulate opening the container.

The glass team erected a framed window on a 3-foot-high platform. I put a crash pad on the floor outside of the mock window. Wearing a pair of goggles I could sinch the army jacket’s hood tight against them. The only flesh exposed was my hands. I could protect them inside of Roy’s wardrobe and have full dexterity after I dropped him without the use of gloves. I couldn’t have all this protection for the stunt but it was wise to use it for practice. The possibility of getting injured by glass on the jump was a reality. But that is why it is a stunt. With the glass pre-cracked, I busted through easily and thumped in on the crash pad with Roy. I dragged the Kevlar bridle across the remaining glass trying to sever it. No damage. We practiced on all 6 sheets of glass except for one that shattered and fell out when it was being pre-cracked. Something didn’t seem just right though. By the time I crashed through the glass I would have to brace for impact on Roy and the crash pad. I needed just a little more hang time to get a good simulated exit. The day was over. We would sleep on it. Not! Not very well at least.

Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com | Blue Skies Magazine issue #54 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 3" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

The next day Jake Lombard had an idea. We removed the mock window from the end of the platform and suspended a rope in the rafters. One end of the rope was attached to a harness at the back of my neck. The other end ran up through a pulley in the rafters and then down to a belay point on Jakes harness. I would stand at one end of the platform and Jake at the other, facing me. When I started my run, he would also run toward me, just to my left. When I reached the end of the platform and pushed up and off for my launch I could relax as the force of Jake and his run would take the shock, thus suspending me for that split second of comfort I was looking for the day before. I didn’t have to fetal up for the crash pad landing and getting head butted by ol’ Roy. After a few dozen practice runs I felt ready.

Five cameras set up for different speeds at different points of view had to be coordinated with the start of my run. Some were set up for ultra-slow motion which meant 60 seconds of film would burn up quickly. If the cameras were rolling too soon or too late they might miss the jump. D.J. Caruso, the second unit director, set up the radio communications as such. He would check to see if I was ready. I would confirm to Jake and he would relay back. Next he would say, “Roll cameras.” And then all 5 camera operators would confirm back, “Rolling.” This took about 25 seconds. Next, “Pre-crack the glass.” And wait for confirmation which took another 10 seconds. Now he would say the only words I needed to hear, “Go when you are ready, Moe.” No previous communications were necessary for me to remember. All I needed was to hear those words over the radio that Jake Brake would be holding in front of my face. Now, the high-speed cameras would already have been running for 35 to 40 seconds which left 20 for the jump. We practiced the radio procedures many many times over. This was a very high-dollar night of expenses for the production company; they could not afford to miss this shot—but I did build and pack a second rig just in case.

On the night of the jump the director decided to change the order of radio communication we had practiced so many times over. He would have the glass pre-cracked and confirmed BEFORE rolling the cameras. The cameras didn’t need to be rolling while the glass was being pre-cracked. This would save precious seconds and allow more film to be spent toward the jump. A smart move, but we didn’t spend any time practicing the newly changed orders.

During the hours in the makeup trailer I was still waiting to hear from the Money Man. We hadn’t come to a price agreement yet on the stunt adjustment. I based my bid around other stunts that were done on the movie as well as comparable stunts in other movies. They started to play Hollywood hardball and I didn’t need the added stress. They were already getting a deal. Here we were, down to the wire with only a few hours before the jump and they were threatening to bring in someone else to replace me. BJ stood up for me. He said he would walk off the set if I was to be replaced. He said I had developed and practiced my method and already showed them my BASE jumping skills and attention to detail during the last 3 months. I held my ground and I shook hands with Mr. Money just a half-hour before the jump. Time to make this happen.

When I popped out of the elevator on the top floor, I was greeted with a cackling of laughter as my team made fun of a Mini-Me Wesley Snipes. We snapped a few photos and then it was time to get serious.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #54 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 3" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Moe Viletto does Wesley Snipes’ stunts.

My team and I were set to go. We lined up on the platform. I picked up Roy and stood poised and ready. When asked, I confirmed I was ready. The glass was pre-cracked and it held. I heard my command over the radio. “Go when you are ready Moe.” Jake Brake stepped aside. I took a deep breath and started to lean forward to start my run when I heard on multiple radios to “STOP!” Jake jumped back in front of me and stopped me. There were NO cameras rolling. We had practiced the original countdown sequence so many times that when the director changed it at the last minute, the team got mixed up. Another second or two and I would have had to use that second rig. That could have been a very costly mistake for the production company and very profitable for me.

I set Roy down and tried to relax. My juices were flowing. I was pumped and ready to go. The film crew regrouped and was ready this time. Once again I picked up Roy and confirmed I was ready. When the announcement came, “Go when you are ready Moe,” I left my body.

OK, I know this may sound crazy to some, but I’ve never denied being crazy. But for some reason, “I” wasn’t supposed to be in there. “I” hovered 15 feet up, to the right and behind my team on the platform. “I” clearly remember looking down at the line of bodies. There was Jake Brake standing off to the left. Next was Dummy Roy; the other dummy, me; Don holding my pilot chute; and Jake Lombard holding Don’s safety line. “I” watched us start to run and just when Roy’s head hit the glass, “I” now found myself outside of the building, above and slightly to the right, looking back in. As Roy and I punched through the glass, “I” watched in slow motion as the glimmering pieces of shattered glass rained down and matched my fall rate for a brief moment.

At this point Roy must have decided to give me payback for all the abuse he had endured over the last three months. He was taking me over the falls. We were rotating head low. Roy’s weight changed our center of gravity and the momentum was carrying us past horizontal. I hung on. Don’s timing was off and he held onto my pilot chute through deployment. This was a good thing as it got my canopy open sooner before things could get worse. I was about 45 degrees head low just as the canopy was starting to pressurize and my right foot caught the right steering line. It flicked off just as I dropped Roy and the combination of these forces rotated my feet back down through vertical then up again in front, twisting my body 90 degrees to the right with the soles of my feet facing the canopy.

That’s when “I” came back into my body.

I observed this all, as a matter of fact, from outside of my flesh and bones. I very much remember becoming one with my body again. It was when I was at 90 degrees right and upside down looking at my feet with an on heading opening. I swung back down and made a right turn to avoid landing in the cemetery across the street.

Ha! Dodged the reaper once again.

My landing was tiptoe soft and I let out a roar. They weren’t using my landing on screen. Don Thomas jumped from a chopper to perform a tumbling crash-and-burn to end the scene. BJ was there to meet me. He was almost as jazzed as I was. As we walked back to where my friends were sitting on the curb, we were greeted by Mr. Money. He had a huge smile on his face and an outstretched hand. He vigorously shook my hand and said “That was the wildest thing I have ever seen and it was worth every single penny.” I wonder if he would have felt the same if I would have had to do it a second time because the cameras weren’t rolling. Utah Steve was next to greet me, damn near crushing me with a bear hug. We became pretty close on this job doing all those tandems together. After greeting my relieved friends I watched videos from different angles. But none were like the view “I” had before the canopy opened.

The sun came up. I had breakfast and went to my room to catch up on some zees. Before I fell asleep, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the jump step by step. As I went through it in my mind’s eye, I would lose the flow and over-focus on certain things. After several tries, I was finally able to visualize the jump from start to finish with no interruption … and I thought my heart was going to explode.

Wow! It was all now just starting to sink in. The realization of it was overwhelming. I noticed that when I landed from the actual jump that I wasn’t overly excited. Oh, I was jazzed of course. But there in bed is when it hit me. I fell asleep with a big ol’ grin.

Later on, I collected up video footage that my friends took of the planning and execution of the stunt. One of my favorite video clips is that of D.J.Caruso, the second unit director, and Stan McClain, aerial director of photography, setting up for the shot below my exit point and not far from where Roy would impact on the sidewalk. Raising his eye from the view finder, adjusting his ball cap and taking a long drag from his cigarette, Stan said to the director as he was peering up at the exit point, “This is some reeeally crazy shit. What if his chute doesn’t open or he slams into the building?” Without missing a beat, the three-month educated, one-jump skydiving veteran, director responded, “Don’t stop filming !”

Couldn’t have said it better myself …

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