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Working Hollywood: 'Grey' stunt performer taps into animal within

January 29, 2012 |  5:00 am

The Grey

Working Hollywood is a recurring feature that appears in Sunday's Calendar section and explores unusual below-the-line jobs in movies and television. It now will make Company Town its online home -- in today's edition, meet Shawn Beaton, a stunt man who wore wolf's clothing for the Alaska-set Liam Neeson adventure "The Grey," which opened in theaters Friday.

As a stunt performer, Shawn Beaton has doubled for the likes of Michael Chiklis in the "Fantastic Four" movies and Matt Damon in the upcoming sci-fi drama "Elysium." But his job as a wolf stunt performer on the new man-against-nature meditation "The Grey" required him to -- almost quite literally -- crawl into the skin of a different animal. "I wore the full wolf suit with this huge head and everything, and it was wild," Beaton said.

Before answering the call of the wild on the R-rated film that stars Neeson and was directed by Joe Carnahan, Beaton honed his skills in tae kwon do, attending the Canadian Olympic team trials in 1988. At 21, he moved from his hometown of Kelowna, Canada, to Vancouver and landed a job in a pub, where one of the bar managers happened to be a stunt driver.

REVIEW: 'The Grey'

Soon, Beaton was training with a group of Vancouver-based film fighters and expanding his repertoire into other forms of martial arts and gymnastics. "It’s a pretty good little community up here, so we all teach each other and share techniques," Beaton said.

With its premise of a group of plane crash survivors struggling to make their way to safety in a harsh Alaska landscape populated by vicious wolves, "The Grey" presented unique challenges as Beaton strove to blend in with shots of live wolves, animatronics and some visual effects.

"When they need some actual, real movement from somebody, that’s where I would come in, creeping behind a bush, popping my head up or feeding off of a body," he said. "So there was a lot of physical acting involved in it."

Wild kingdom: "The Grey" wasn’t the first time Beaton had tapped into his animal instincts. "I've worked with movement trainers before for monkeys or gorillas or cats," he said. "And in wushu, Chinese martial arts, you study a lot of different animal styles like tiger and eagle claw and snake. So that type of animal movement really helps me adapt to this work."

Low profile: "I watched a lot of wolf videos on YouTube and practiced in my house and videotaped myself so that I was getting the right type of movement and body positioning," Beaton said. "Wolves are a little easier than some animals because their back legs are a lot longer and their hips are in a slightly lower position than some dogs. So it actually helped me out with that, because for a human on all fours, your arms are obviously shorter than your legs. By stretching out your back legs, you even out the angle of the back. So you're able to keep your hips down and your back down, and you have that linear look of a wolf. If you watch them, they're really sleek and low to the ground."

Pain in the neck: Shooting in a Canadian forest in mid-January, Beaton didn't mind his fur coat, but he found his wolf head a little awkward. "It felt like around 20, 25 pounds," he said. "The way they designed the suit, there were bungee ropes that were attached to the head and to my back to help me deal with the weight of the head. But when I was down in the wolf position, it was a lot of strain on the back of the neck to keep it up and be able to maneuver it around. So it was a lot of sore necks at the end of the night."

Gasping for air: The head posed another major challenge. "Even though there are breathing holes in there, it still hampers your breathing," Beaton said. "When you have to pretty much go full out in that wolf body position on all fours, you’re not getting as much oxygen flow into your lungs because you have a head on. So until you're able to take the head off and actually catch your breath, you're stuck in there for a second, so you're just calming down your heart in between shots and trying to slow your breath down."

Fowl humor: "James Bitonti, the first AD, was calling me the San Diego Chicken, because when I was standing upright and I had the head on, I looked like a giant chicken," Beaton said. "The legs weren’t covered with fur from my knees down, so I just had these bare legs with boots, and then the rest of it. So that was pretty funny. And a lot of the girls happened to like the tail that was on there. So there were a lot of giggles on this one about the suit. You have to have a sense of humor about it. We had a good time."

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 -- Cristy Lytal

Photo: Liam Neeson faces off against a wolf (Shawn Beaton) in the Alaskan wilderness in the movie "The Grey" The movie uses a combination of CGI, animatronics and the physical artistry of Shawn Beaton.  Credit: Open Road Films

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