Fire In The Soul: Steven Ito

Fires, falls, fast Ferraris and furious fights are just a normal part of a stuntman’s job description. Who are these brave souls who meet danger headon, day in and day out? We have spoken at length with one busy stuntman, Steven Ito, to bring you the inside story on the world of Hollywood derring-do.

jump kick breaking
Ito displays martial arts focus with a flyingkick break and a very advanced “suspended” break.

Suddenly, the entire building explodes in flames. Screams of terror emanate from the people gathered outside. Where is our hero? A hush falls over the crowd as a sheet of moving flame drops from the top story, lands on a canopy, rolls to the ground, and staggers toward them. Could it be? Yes! Our hero has escaped the inferno with the incriminating information intact. The bad guy goes to prison and everyone lives happily every after. Thus ends a typical day in the life of a stuntman. Fires, falls, fast Ferraris and furious fights are just a normal part of a stuntman’s job description. Who are these brave souls who meet danger headon, day in and day out? We have spoken at length with busy stuntman Steven Ito to bring you the inside story. If you like action movies, you have undoubtably seen Ito die a hundred deaths! He has been shot, stabbed, thrown from buildings, cars and motorcycles. He has even broken his own neck to commit suicide when captured by the police, a memorable scene from “Showdown in Little Tokyo.” Ito has appeared in many of the best martial arts films, some of which include “Rapid Fire,” “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” “Kickboxer II,” “Perfect Weapon,” “Cage II” and “Rising Sun.” You will see him in two new upcoming features: “Mortal Kombat” and “Best of the Best III.”

If you like action movies, you have undoubtably seen Steven Ito die a hundred deaths! He has been shot, stabbed, thrown from buildings, cars and motorcycles. He has even broken his own neck to commit suicide when captured by the police, a memorable scene from “Showdown in Little Tokyo.”

One might think that people who like to live dangerously, on the edge, are cut from a fearless lot, apart from the average person. Ito confessed that this was not always true for him. “When I was growing up, I had a major fear of heights” Ito confesses. “The first time I had to do a climb, it scared the heck out of me. Now it’s okay. I feel I have the martial arts to thank for it.” Recently, he had to climb a 30foot mast with a fireball following him. How was he able to overcome his fear of heights to perform this stunt? “Focus and just do it!” he answers. “From my martial arts, I learned to do what I have trained myself to do. Focus.” Meeting the challenges with the mental set of a martial artist has helped him conquer his fear.

Tak Kubota
Steven Ito poses with the late Professor Toru Tanaka and karate master Tak Kubota during a free moment from shooting “Black Rain.” Shot primarily in Japan, “Black Rain” was directed by Ridley Scott and starring Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas.

Early Martial Arts Training
Steven Ito knew he wanted to be a stuntman early in life, inspired by Bruce Lee’s dynamic movies. His father encouraged physical fitness, and his uncles were involved in judo, which threw Ito into an active lifestyle. He played many sports including football and wrestling for his Los Angeles high school. At the age of 13 Ito began his martial arts studies in Okinawan Shorin-ryu karate and Aikido with the U.S. Aikido Academy in L.A. Fascinated with the arts, he then tried Tae Kwon Do and stayed with this school until it closed several years later. He spent a year at Dan Inosanto’s Jeet Kune Do/Kali Academy as well. As he began to work in the movies, Ito realized that having sharp, crisp kicks was vital. He was always impressed with Tae Kwon Do Master Hee Il Cho’s kicking style, and so he joined Cho’s Tae Kwon Do studio in West Los Angeles. He found Cho to be an inspirational martial artist. Not only did Ito’s kicks improve, but he also made a serious commitment to Tae Kwon Do. He earned his black belt and continues to teach for Master Cho.

Stuntwork Came by Chance
Ito’s first introduction to stuntwork came along by chance. He met some practicing stuntmen and got his first break. They worked together regularly to perfect many of the specialized skills used in stuntwork. They experimented with every possible variation of falling: twoman falls, with weapons, flips, etc.

Burning stuntman
Completely engulfed by flames, Ito runs from a fire in “Deadly Pursuit” after he was thrown into a barrel of gas and tortured. This was Ito’s stunt debut!

“When I was growing up, I had a major fear of heights” stuntman Steven Ito confesses. “The first time I had to do a climb, it scared the heck out of me. Now it’s okay. I feel I have the martial arts to thank for it.”

With time Ito’s fears transformed into positive excitement. High falls were fundamental skills, but Ito found that stuntwork required more. He began to enjoy meeting challenges, and dreamed of a career in the genre of action films. From then on, his determination, training and athletic ability helped him to become a regular in the field and make his dreams become reality. Most proficient stuntmen are adept with motorcycles, snow skis, jet skis, gymnastics, horses, scuba, and even roller skates. Any of these skills may be called upon during a shoot. Ito’s resume includes all of these skills and more. He is always eager to try new sports, important in this field which is constantly pushing limits. Stuntmen are adventuresome: they thrive on innovation. A routine day would be far from routine to the average ninetofiver.

A Day in the Life
A day in the life of a stuntman begins early in the morning with a workout. Ito jogs and does one hour of calisthenics before he is off to the studio for shooting. If he is not called that day, you will find him at the karate studio or gym for a two- to threehour workout. Ito crosstrains seven days a week to keep his reactions razor sharp. He admits that it is important to stay in the best possible shape, always prepared for action sequences. This also lessens the chances for injury, an everpresent risk in the business. The stuntman should keep his or her body finely tuned.

Brandon Lee movie
Ito joins in the fight against the late Brandon Lee (pictured) and Dolph Lundgren at the bathhouse scene from “Showdown in Little Tokyo.”

Fire In The Soul, Strength In The Body:
Composite For A Professional Stuntman

Once called to the movie set, the stuntman often spends a long time waiting for the moment when things will happen. He makes the rounds to wardrobe, makeup and rehearsals. He must be ready, yet he must wait. Scene after scene is shot with the actors and actresses. Cameras, lights, equipment and specialists of all kinds are actively busy on the set. Then the stuntman gets his call. That is the moment he has been patiently awaiting. Stuntmen are brought in because there is danger in the sequence. However, every precaution is taken to minimize the danger to the actual stunt player as much as possible. The director explains the scene and what he is looking for. All the special effects are then mapped out to include lights and camera angles. A whole network of people talk it through. Sometimes a stuntman can be creative with his own individualized skills and experience. He might make suggestions as to how the stunt will work best. Sequences are analyzed and visualized. From beginning to end, the team looks at every aspect, considers all possible obstacles, and then tries to remove them. The result is: the impossible becomes possible! Next, cameras must be set and lights arranged. Unlike theatre where the action moves in sequence, movies carefully prepare each bit of action. In a martial arts scene, the viewer is given both the action of the hero as well as the reaction of the recipient of the hero’s kick or punch. All this requires preplanning. Sometimes one minute of film action takes an entire day of shooting to pack in every possibility for dramatic effect. We as viewers see only the result, condensed and crystalized.

At the age of 13 Ito began his martial arts studies in Okinawan Shorin-ryu karate and Aikido with the U.S. Aikido Academy in L.A. Fascinated with the arts, he then tried Tae Kwon Do and stayed with this school until it closed several years later. He spent a year at Dan Inosanto’s Jeet Kune Do/Kali Academy as well.

90% of Stunts Involve Film Fights
Ninety percent of a stuntman’s work involves fight scenes. While waiting to do a fight, the stuntman rehearses the moves over and over, with blocks, punches, kicks and throws, so that when it is shot, the fight will flow smoothly. Even though many techniques are carefully choreographed ahead of time, Ito admits, “At the actual moment, with cameras rolling, your adrenaline flows!” Because of the danger element which is always present, stunt scenes usually draw a crowd. Even the stars gather around to watch. You will often hear cheers and applause when it is over. The stuntman is an invisible hero, except to those in the know. Indispensable to a good action movie, the competent stuntman is not seen, but instead appears to be the character. Yet the fire in his soul shines brightly through his daring acts!

Most proficient stuntmen are adept with motorcycles, snow skis, jet skis, gymnastics, horses, scuba, and even roller skates. Any of these skills may be called upon during a shoot. Ito’s resume includes all of these skills and more. He is always eager to try new sports, important in this field which is constantly pushing limits.

This article was originally published in Kung Fu Revue‘s December 1998 edition in German language. Annellen and Alex Simpkins are San Diego, California-based black belts and freelance writers.

 

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