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Putting less spring in daring steps

Times Staff Writer

SCOTT LEVA assumed injury or death was just “part of the territory” of being a stuntman. The 28-year stunt veteran used to fall precariously from heights into pads or cardboard boxes. And even in the 1970s, when they began to use air bags to cushion their falls, the equipment didn’t always work as intended.

“A performer would hit the bag, and if they were deep [too close to a wall or cliff] or off to the side, the bag would collapse, or the bag would lift up and bounce the performer out,” says Leva.

One stuntman, Leva recalls, jumped off a cliff in Malibu and landed on the end of the bag, bouncing back to the rocks above and hitting his head. Another stunt performer, Sonya Davis, died of her injuries after a 50-foot backward fall landed her on the far edge of a bag, then bounced her into a wall during the Eddie Murphy film “Vampire in Brooklyn.”

Leva says he took it “real personal” when a good friend of his, veteran stuntman Paul Dallas, died in 1996 after the bag he fell into collapsed. “I said, ‘Something is wrong,’ so I literally started taking the air bags apart.”

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The redesign that resulted, the Precision Stunt Air Bag, took years of personal testing -- he wouldn’t let anyone else try out his evolving models -- and was recently honored with a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Leva’s air bag, which the academy cited because it “serves to enhance the safety of falls from up to 200 feet,” envelops stunt performers, even if they hit it off-center.

The traditional air bag, says Leva, wasn’t designed to do that. Made of a lightweight parachute material, it had two air chambers, one above the other, and separate air tubes that filled each. When a person fell onto the bag, air vents at the side, held closed by Velcro, would pop open to soften the bag so it could absorb the shock.

The bags were so hard that occasionally, to keep people from bouncing off, the air pumps filling the chambers would be turned off as soon as the performers jumped. It was a scary, imprecise system that required landing in the center of the bag to guarantee safety.

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The Precision Air Bag has vents held closed by bungee cords that stretch a lot or a little, depending on the weight of the person landing, and adjustable fans that can also customize the amount of air in the bags. In Leva’s design, air flows upward, and that too helps the bag engulf performers anywhere they hit.

Leva says his system has saved the lives of 11 stunt people who hit off-center, including one who went headfirst into the corner of the bag and “should’ve gone right into the ground.”

The bags are made out of a strong vinyl. “You can cut it, but you can’t tear it, and it holds weight,” he says.

Leva brought out the first version of the bag in 1997, and it’s been used in the filming of such movies as “X-Men” and “Rush Hour 2.” The latest version of his design, which he is constantly refining, “catches multiple performers if they are off-center,” he says. “If two people jump and one person jumps before the other, the bag is still going to lift you,” he explains, “but doesn’t bounce you high.”


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