6 minute read


Job Title: Action Unit Director Or Second Unit Director

Job Overview

The action unit director is charged with directing the action sequences of a film. Following discussion with the director to gain a clear understanding of what he wants to achieve, the action unit director works closely with the stunt coordinator to safely choreograph the stunt. The action unit director then guides the performers and cinematographer through capturing the sequence on film.

For instance, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, Vic Armstrong directed four major sequences, including the opening scene with the speedboat, and a ski sequence with flying parachutes. In Charlie's Angels, he directed the helicopter scenes, a racetrack sequence, and all of the fights.

“We go out and shoot quite difficult stuff. It's a whole different technology of telling a story through action, keeping it interesting, and not getting repetitious. Also, putting your main artists into it safely.” In Armstrong's case, he often serves as both stunt coordinator and action unit director.

Special Skills

“You have to have a specific ability and then utilize that ability,” says Armstrong. “Don't come into the business as a jack-of-all-trades and expect somebody to use you.”

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

Action unit directors must have first-hand knowledge of what is required to safely achieve a stunt. Thus, most are former stunt people and stunt coordinators. It is also important to have a strong background in filmmaking. Coming up through the ranks as an assistant director is another route.

Professional Profile: Vic Armstrong, Director, Action Unit Director, Stunt Coordinator

“I realized I wanted to be a stuntman when I was eight or nine years old,” says Vic Armstrong. “My dad was training racehorses for a very, very famous actor called Richard Todd, who was the highest paid actor of his era in the ‘50s.” Todd played the title roles in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue, and starred in classics like Dorian Gray, The Longest Day, and The Virgin Queen. “Every weekend he'd come down with women covered in furs and jewels, in top cars, and smelling of aftershave. I thought, ‘Wow, what an elegant gentleman.’ He'd tell us stories about films he'd just been to or had been working on. We'd see pictures of him at premieres.”

Armstrong frequented the cinema to take in Todd's latest film, usually an action adventure. “I'd come home and get my pony out, and charge along and throw myself off. It drove my dad mad. He believed you should never get off a horse unless it threw you off.”

At age 14, Armstrong's main ambition was to race as a steeplechase jockey. Too tall to ride professionally, he competed as an amateur for many years, even riding some of Richard Todd's racehorses. In his late teens, he met a stuntman who wanted to borrow a horse for a film. The next day, Armstrong was asked to ride it. He made his film debut as Gregory Peck's stunt double in Arabesque, parlaying that experience into doubling for the actor in three more films.

Armstrong was the only young stuntman working in England at the time. “All the others were ex-commandos from the war or what have you; middle-age people. I built up a huge portfolio of work very, very quickly.” Vain, mature actors sometimes chose the much younger Armstrong as their stunt double over an older stuntman.

In 1966, just a year into his career as a stuntman, Armstrong got the opportunity that would impact his career for the next 35 years: he was hired to work on the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. “I was on a picture in Switzerland with [Gregory] Peck. Bad weather forced them to cancel the movie.” He returned to England and telephoned to chat with a friend—the stuntman whom he had beaten out for the role in the Peck film. Unable to accept work on the Bond picture because he was already signed on to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the friend suggested that Armstrong call and get the spot. “I met with Bob Simmons, Dickey Gray don, and George Leach, who is now my father-in-law, and got the job. It was awe-inspiring: this huge set, this massive film. It was all mind-blowing for a young stuntman.”

More Bond films followed: On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, Never Say Never Again, Tomorrow Never Dies, and Armstrong's latest project, Bond 20, a.k.a. Die Another Day. “I'm very, very proud of my input on the Bond movies.”

After only a few years working as a stuntman, Armstrong had earned a reputation for his precision and talent with complicated stunts. While working on Figures in a Landscape in Spain, the stunt coordinator left the project to work on another picture, and Armstrong was promoted to the position. “I became a stunt coordinator, which is much more creative, because you devise the stunts: A) you work out what the stunt will be; and B) you then break it down and work out how it's going to be achieved. Let's say you've got somebody jumping off a 200-foot building. We know you can't do it for real, but want it to look as though they jumped off and landed in the back of a pickup truck, for instance. We would devise all the methods that you would need to safely visually transport somebody from the top of the building to the bottom, to get in the truck, and drive away.”

What do you like least about your job?

“What I hate about it most is the unfairness of life and the bullshit.”Vic Armstrong

What do you love most about your job?

“I love the creativeness. I thoroughly enjoy carrying out a sequence that people go, ‘Wow, I really enjoyed that motorcycle chase in Tomorrow Never Dies.’ Or, ‘I really enjoyed the stunts with the girls in Charlie's Angels.’ ’The battle on Henry V looked so realistic’ Hove the creativity of actually telling a story on film.”Vic Armstrong

He worked steadily on A Touch of Class, A Bridge Too Far, Young Winston, and the first two Superman movies, in which he also doubled for Christopher Reeve and met future wife, stuntwoman Wendy Leach. By the late ‘70s, he was second unit director on the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods.

His resemblance to and friendship with Harrison Ford, established on the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, earned Armstrong the opportunity to double for Ford and stunt coordinate on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He also served as a stunt double for Ford on Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Frantic, Working Girl, Regarding Henry, and Patriot Games.

Armstrong's work on the Indiana Jones movies impressed George Lucas, earning him work on all three seasons of the television series Young Indiana Jones. He made his directorial debut on the second season premiere, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The following year, he directed the internationally successful Joshua Tree.

In 2001, Armstrong was awarded a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for the refinement and application of the Fan Descender to the film industry. Considered a standard of the industry, the Fan Descender provides a means for significantly increasing safety of very high stunt falls. The system permits falls to be made under controlled deceleration, with a highly predictable stopping point and without limitation of camera angles.

Armstrong has worked with some of the world's most well-respected directors, such as Sir Richard Attenborough, Michael Cimino, Roland Joffe, Irvin Kershner, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg, amassing an impressive body of work that includes: Air America, An American Werewolf in London, Black Beauty, Blade Runner, Captain Correlli's Mandolin, Charlie's Angels, Dune, Empire of the Sun, Entrapment, Johnny Mnemonic, The Last Action Hero, Legend, Quills, Rambo III, Star Wars: Episode VIReturn of the Jedi, Shadow Conspiracy, Starship Troopers, Terminator 2, and Total Recall, to name just a few.

“I'm proud of my reputation, I must say. I'm still friends with all of the people I started off with, which is nice. (Early mentor, actor Richard Todd, recently visited Armstrong on the set of Bond 20.) I enjoy the whole [process] of filmmaking and am proud to be part of that. When I look back at my credit list, I go ‘Wow!’”

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionDIRECTORS AND ASSISTANT DIRECTORS - Job Title: Director, Job Title: First Assistant Director, 1st Ad, Or Assistant Director