Kenneth Bates is one of those behind-the-scenes guys. In fact, if you’re not the kind to watch a film’s credits roll, chances are you’ve probably never heard of him. And yet, without him, some of the most insane action sequences in Bad Boys, Transformers, Pearl Harbour, The Rock or The Italian Job may have never happened. The man behind Hollywood’s biggest stunts since 1989, is now getting Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar to trade robot-crunching blows, as action director of Shankar’s 2.0. In a chat about meeting the superstar and on shooting Transformers, the otherwise reticent Bates takes us through what it’s like to be him.
What’s it like to work in India? Did you have to change things to get in your zone?
Working on an Indian film is a challenge, though I admit, I’m very pleased to bring big blockbuster moments to the Indian screen. I’m looking forward to delivering big action in 2.0. Shankar has a clear idea about what he wants. My job is to augment his work, so we can turn out the best on screen.
Had you already heard of Shankar or watched his films before the offer for 2.0 came along?
Since I was a co-producer and action director on Transformers 1, 2 and 3 (it was natural that), I saw Robot (Endhiran). That’s part of what made me interested in this film.
How was it to be working with Rajinikanth?
He is respected, and he brings an aura to the set. He’s a gentleman and an incredible actor. I could have chosen half a dozen other films, but I didn’t. I chose this one. After my first meeting with Shankar in LA (which lasted nine hours), I was intrigued by his passion for the movie.
How much of the action in 2.0 is live and how much of it is VFX-layered? Are there any never-before-seen action sequences we can expect?
I have to be careful with this question, since I’ve had to sign endless legal forms! What I can tell you is, we are making the biggest movie in the history of Indian films.
Was it exciting working with local crews?
I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge with the local crews. There are plenty of talented film techs in India. There is nothing that they can’t do as long as they are given the opportunity.
You’ve created your own high-speed camera vehicles to capture action sequences. After your custom Bates Decelerator won the Oscar, are there any new concepts up your sleeve?
My team and I want to put the action in the face of the audience, and we do whatever it takes to achieve that. It might mean that I have to slide down a cable with a camera in my hands or drive into tumbling cars. We will add some new high-speed camera vehicles to our fleet in the next six months.
One director who has impressed you with their knowledge of action direction?
I have worked with Michael Bay for over 24 years. Ever since Bad Boys, we’ve worked together to deliver huge Hollywood Films. Jerry Bruckheimer gave us the opportunity, and that raised the bar for action films to an all-new level. Jerry once said to me, “I don’t want good, I want great.” I have never forgotten those words.
Has the rise of VFX and an increasing reliance on graphic recreation taken away the raw appeal of manual stunt design?
When doing a film like Transformers, there are plenty of visual effects (in motion). We work together to accomplish action sequences with live action (in the) foreground and background to create layers to work with in post-production. It is actually very complicated, and requires hundreds of hours of preparation prior to shooting. After that, it takes tens of thousands of hours of post-production work. You have to design the action and make it look good, all the time making sure not to get in the way of the elements that are being put in during post-production.
People think action direction is all about car chases. How much of a science is it, really?
I don’t normally respond to this question, but now I must. Every director or studio comes to me looking for the undoable. In order to have the action in your face, the camera has to be (right up) there. It is a science, and it is experience that allows us to do what we do best. A lot of work goes into every sequence before it ever gets shot. Shooting is the fun part, but it also means 12-16 hours of work a day.