Survival Skills for Stunt Professionals

by Inga Yandell

The wild is a bridge to many disciplines, its untamed and unpredictable nature requires an adaptive mind and skill set to survive. Bestselling author and former SAS agent, Chris Ryan, explores the adaption of SAS Jungle Techniques to an Urban Environment in his new book SAFE (Cornett, 2017). Bear Grylls keenly displays how wilderness survival is a versatile asset with his books and popular Tv series. Obstacle races and other extreme sports also echo this equation, as we come to realise the virtues of survival make us fitter, stronger, and more resourceful in other fields.

Award-winning international stunt performer Ky Furneaux has appeared in over 50 films and TV productions. She is also an experienced outdoor guide, specialising in extreme survival and outdoor activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, sailing and mountaineering. In this guest piece, Ky reveals how nature-based skills give her the edge on set.

When I decided that I wanted a change of career at 26 years old I thought I had a ton of transferrable skills to take with me into my new career of choice. Having been an outdoor guide for six years I was a rock climbing and abseiling instructor, a kayaking and sailing instructor and had some mountaineering and snow experience. Surely those things were needed all the time in the stunt industry? They were active pursuits and the stunt industry was full of action. Little did I know at the time that it was the mental aspects of all the outdoor and survival activities I did that would stand me in the best stead for this new career choice.

In order to work in the stunt industry, I quickly realized I needed to retrain in order to be the most employable person I could be. Much like the outdoors, the more skills I had in my “bag of tricks” the more employable I would be. I was trying to crack the industry in Vancouver, Canada, and I did some research and saw that all the women my height there were gymnasts and you don’t get anywhere trying to be the same as your competition so I trained hard every day to become a fighter. I learnt kickboxing, tae kwon do and weapons ranging from swords to sticks and long staffs and eventually began to work as a stunt performer.

The biggest shock for me as I trained was the realization that stunts actually can hurt. I think I was under the whole misconception that most people have that there is some little magic trick stunt performers use so that hitting concrete from 15 feet up doesn’t hurt but let me tell you, hitting concrete is still hitting concrete. It bruises and breaks just like in “real life”. Yes there are techniques that we use to “break” our fall so that the impact doesn’t break us every time and there are pads that sometimes we can put on if our wardrobe allows but most days I would walk away with a minimum of bruises and rarely, but sometimes, breaks. This is where being an outdoor guide kicked in for me.

While guiding a group of people, they were my priority. This may be the only time that some of these people stepped out of the city and I was responsible for making it something they would remember for all the right reasons. This meant that no matter what was going on for me, I had to ignore it and make sure my job was done well. If I was cold or blistered or hurt, these things were not a priority while I was doing my job, I could deal with it later. And so I learnt that, as humans, we have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize our pain and discomfort and just deal with what is important. It’s a survival technique back from the cavemen times when people were fighting wild animals and may have to run for miles with a broken leg to get away from a sabre toothed tiger. The fight or flight adrenalin kicks in and floods our body with natural endorphins to get through the emergency. Many times with stunt days I wouldn’t even realize I was hurt until I was in the bath that night checking out the cuts and bruises from the day. My pain wasn’t important. What was important was that I had been employed for a job and I would finish that job professionally and deal with my own worries later.

In the outdoors discomfort also has to be ignored to get where you are going. So being outside in the rain, covered in mud, being thrown into freezing water for countless takes, wearing uncomfortable costumes and prosthetics, all these things were as easily ignored as pack blisters and leeches underneath my gators when I had to get to a designated trail hut for the night.

I also knew from years of horse riding that if you get bucked off your horse, you had to get back on and finish the ride or else the horse would realize that all it had to do to go home was to buck off the rider. It was this stubborn mentality that helped me get back up again and repeat a stunt as many times as necessary until the director was happy that they had the shot they required.

Both the outdoors and the stunt industry have been great to show me that the human body has such great potential that goes un-realized. I have rarely found a moment where I have reached my limits and can’t go any further. My mind has placed limitations on me that are way below what my body can actually achieve. We have such huge physical potential that is unexplored and I believe that everyone underestimates themselves and what they can achieve. Stunt work has proven to me time and time again I can do more than I believe and that my mind usually throws in the towel before my body does. The outdoors offers amazing opportunities to challenge yourself and prove to yourself that you are far more capable than you truly imagine. Try walking that extra kilometer or two and see how much you truly can do. I bet that it’s way more than you think.

Due to the physicality of both career choices, most of the lessons I have learnt along the way definitely relate to the mind/body connection but these can translate into every aspect of my life. Quite often the limits imposed on me are of my own creating. No one knows the full potential of what I can do except for me so don’t let other people put their limitations on you. I need to focus on the things that are important and don’t let the other niggling things distract me from where I want to go. But most importantly, I can do way more than I believe. And I have.

Ky runs team building events and leadership programs aimed at goal setting and triumphing over adversity. Connect with her via: kyfurneaux.com or @kyfurneaux

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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