Stunts in session

Day School camp shows how it’s done in the movies

by Paul Smart
July 28, 2011 12:35 PM | 1 1 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Robert Barrow flies through the air.
Photo by Dion Ogust.
view slideshow (7 images)
The half dozen kids in Stunt Camp, which was completing the first of four weekly sessions at the Woodstock Day School this past week, are trying to follow Tommy Betts as he explains some basic physics. He had this big PVC tube with some metal at one end…and a compression tank with wires coming our of it.

“The thing about the amazing air cannon is that you have to respect it,” he said, shirtless, intense. He explained some basics about energy and force, asked his assistant, just in from Kingston, about the determinants for figuring out the radius of something.

The kids were glazing over. Sandwiches and drink bottles littered the table.

Tommy started talking about some kid who tried building an air cannon himself and blew PVC shards into his leg, another who thought his cannon was working, looked down its barrel, and blew a dent into his head that permanently blinded him.

Now the kids were paying attention.

Their parents have each shelled out $495 per week for them to be here, with an additional $400 per week should they stay on throughout the summer’s four planned weeks of Stunt Camp. Those wanting lunch thrown in have added $50 a week. Although there’s a discount for everything if you have a second, third or more kids involved.

In their schedule to date, they’ve seen demonstrations of fireballs, learned to rappel and work a ropes course, and have seen how to take bullet hits just like in the movies. They’ve practiced fight choreography and gotten a glimpse into the wonders of electronics as they apply to special effects. They’ve even tried out the new zip line that Steve Wolf of Austin-based Stunt Ranch in Texas had installed at the Day School. And gotten hooked on it.

“You do one of those explosions with burning chunks of rock, like when a mine goes off, you use this stuff in the air cannon,” explained Betts, a professional stunt man and pyrotechnics expert as well as teacher, crumbling some black cork in his hands. “Add some dust, a guide wire to shoot an actor sideways from the blast, and it looks real.”

He tossed some of the cork to his charges, all pre-teens. Some ducked, others jumped for the “rocks.”

It was time to head outside where the cannon was to be demonstrated with apples, tennis balls and those cork rocks. Everyone bolted, got pulled back and asked to carry stuff, then bolted again.

Betts told me how the classes are focused on 8 to 15 year olds. He got into this work six years earlier, while still a college student, when he saw Steve Wolf’s Stunt Ranch truck and its logo at a gas station in Texas.

“You blow anything up today?” he asked Wolf, a veteran stunt and special effects guy who started his camp in the 1990s, and whose mother, Sylvia Leonard Wolf, has lived and worked in the area for years. “Now I’m a licensed pyrotechnician. I always liked blowing stuff up into the air just like any man does. I just never knew I could do it as a career.”

Earlier, Steve’s mom, an art appraiser and curator who serves on a number of  local organization’s boards, told me tales of finding her son climbing the outside of their house, trying to blow things up, and other adventures that still leave her wide-eyed…and smiling.


“Our campers learn chemistry, electronics, optics and Newton’s laws. By week’s end, they’ve ridden zip lines, rappelled and know the basics of movie gunfights. Stunt Camp keeps up with kids’ appetites for knowledge and adventure,” Wolf himself said while headed off to a film set for 24 hours away from the Day School early in the week. “Kids are drawn by the chance to learn how movie explosions and other effects such as rain and snow are made on demand, and leave with an understanding of the role that physics, chemistry, math and engineering play in creating movies. Science becomes a powerful tool with exciting applications…Instead of seeing ‘violence’ on TV, our kids learn how to interpret scenes technically, pondering the techniques that were used to create these effects. This minimizes the effects of media violence and stimulates inquisitive thinking.”

I asked the kids what they’re in all this for. Did they have to beg their parents to get signed up?

One says he did, the rest noted that their mothers and fathers signed them up, then told them they were going.

Online, the materials they’re asked to bring to Stunt Camp include sturdy closed-toe footwear, a brimmed hat, a bathing suit and towel, sunscreen and bug spray, a water bottle, leather gloves and safety goggles, water shoes and a bomb disposal suit. 

“Just kidding,” runs a parenthetical statement on that last item.

What have been their favorite parts of the camp so far? Some kids mention the ropes, which they tumbled from, and the zip wire. What about favorite movies? Half mention Star Wars, with the remainder splitting between Harry Potter and Spaceballs. One corrects himself and mentions the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.


Betts told everyone to rally around for the amazing air gun. And to hold their ears if they were worried about really loud sounds.

He explained movie terminology: “Quiet on the set. Fire in the hole. Three, two, one…”

Kablam! An apple sails higher than anyone can see and comes down beyond the Day School’s banks of solar panels and pool. Kids raced off to pick up the pieces.

“I love this work,” Betts said as everyone came back and the cork chunks got placed.

“This is going to be awesome!” said a ten year-old, while a twelve year-old asked whether the power could be ratcheted up.

“Stunt performers are not daredevils,” Betts said, echoing a line by Wolf, a 25 year veteran of the film industry.

All the campers assembled before the cannon and scattered around, gripping their chests as if shot when the boom sounded again, and rock chunks scattered all over and around them.

As they pick the stuff up, Betts talked about how he uses the air cannon for film scenes involving baseballs, and broken windows. Recently, he shot a sofa through a window with one for a moving company commercial.

Out the side of his eye, he saw one of the campers tossing real rocks at a tree and made him do ten push ups, which the kid did gladly.

I asked what everyone would like to blow up, given the chance.

One said a tree and another mentioned a building when a third said simply, “a human,” at which point the rest also said they’d like to blow up humans. Betts said that’s just not cool.

I ask him about things he’s blown out of his cannon and he talks about this trick he taught himself involving spaghetti and fake blood pummeled against a wall.

One of the kids came up to me and showed how he was wearing his shirt inside out and backwards.

“My mom’s a costume designer and she hates it when I do this,” he said with a sweet smile.

Ah, boys.


Woodstock Day School Director Jim Handlin ambled by and asked what I think about Stunt Camp. He says it’s good there’ll be a story on it…he wants to make sure enough kids sign up for the coming weeks to ensure its continuing success on campus.

“It’s a truly unique opportunity,” he says. “And have you seen the new zipline and ropes course we now have here on campus?”

“At camp’s end on Friday we’ll get all the parents in and do a big explosion,” Betts said, filling his cannon once more after the director left. “Then we’ll light these kids’ hands on fire and have them around screaming as if it were real.”

“We survive!,” said the kid with the backwards inside-out t-shirt on, “to tell the truth!”++

Stunt Camp runs over the next three weeks at the Woodstock Day School, located on Glasco Turnpike in Saugerties. For further information, call the Day School at 246-3744, visit, or, even better visit visit

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July 28, 2011
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