Tunnel AFF grad Derek Barnes is a 27-year old Canadian stuntman out of Toronto. He started 2015 off right by getting his A License with Skydive University in sunny DeLand, and let's just say he definitely had a unique experience compared to your average AFF student (you'll see why in a bit). First check out his insane demo reel to see what he's capable of on the ground:
We sat down with Derek to chat about the highlights of his course and to learn a little more about what it takes to do professional stunts for a living.
Any experience with skydiving before getting your A License with Skydive University?
"Absolutely nothing...Well, I've got a lot of friends that have done it, but I was mainly exposed to it by my aunt, who was always known as 'the crazy aunt.' She used to skydive and would talk about it all the time. Then I got into stunts here in Toronto: I've got a bunch of buddies who are always talking about [skydiving] being the best thing ever––so it got to the point where I just had to do it. And I could kind of justify it as an educational thing for work."
So what brought you to Rob and SDU in particular when you were shopping around for your AFF?
"My aunt Hannah. Like I said she's been skydiving for years and she spoke about him as kind of the go-to guy. So yea, there was no question about who to go to."
I have to say, I checked out your stunt reel more than once and it was insane. How long have you been a stuntman?
"I'd say I've been performing for the last two and a half years, and I was rigging just about a year before that."
So, how does one work their way into doing stunts for a living?
"Well when I got into the film world I was the coffee dude for 5 years. I would talk to all the stunt guys and ask them how they got into it, and they'd always say, 'It's a fuck-ton of training, takes a long time to get into, and it's almost impossible.' It seemed like a fantasy, so I gave up on it pretty quickly. I didn’t think it was going to happen. Then when I got into stunt rigging, I found myself in the stunt performer's union - I basically snuck in through the backdoor. I decided to train my ass off for a year and make that video to see what could happen."
Now when you say you were 'rigging,' what do you mean? Only because we have that term in skydiving, too...
"Whenever you see someone go floating in the air in a movie or anything, rigging is behind that."
Have you tossed around any famous people or their stunt doubles?
"The first movie I worked on as a stunt rigger was the Total Recall remake, which had a zero-gravity sequence. So when Colin Farrell and Jessie Biel start floating through the air, I was helping pull their wires at one point. Since then, I've had a chance to stunt double lots of people including Cary Elwes, Jamie Oliver, Henry Rollins and even Michael Keaton. I was a batman geek as a kid, so doubling Keaton was particularly cool."
And now you also do all the hard stuff, too like falling and "hurting" yourself, right?
"Yea, I got into that afterwards, though. Initially I was a rock climber, so I got into rigging through my experience with that. Luckily someone took me under their wing and I wound up on Total Recall."
All that training and your work in stunting––how did all that lend itself to skydiving?
"One thing I noticed is, when you get up there and the door opens and everything inside your belly is telling you that this is a terrible idea to jump out of a perfectly good plane––Yea, I'm pretty used to just shutting that up. It was more of the mental nerve control that was a foundation, more so than anything physical. I'm used to toning down adrenaline."
Tell me about the course schedule, what was the first day like?
"My very first day was actually Boxing Day [for you non-Canadians, that's the day after Christmas], and that was ground school. We sat in a room and Rob went over all the basics; then we did the wind tunnel that night where we worked on all the turns and air control, belly flight control and stuff. And then the very next morning we were jumping out of a plane."
Nice! Before we get to your first jump, tell me about your experience in the wind tunnel.
"The wind tunnel! That was absolutely trippy because you work on everything theoretically that you need to do to make it work. Compared to any gymnastic experience I have or trampoline experience–where you can get away with minor imperfections and still complete a move–there was just no forgiveness in the wind tunnel. It had to be spot on. Things were a little more forgiving in freefall, though."
So the wind tunnel took some getting used to at first?
"Well, any body position you need to do to execute a turn–it has to be precise. If your wrist is at like a 40-degree angle or a 60-degree angle, instead of a 50-degree angle, you're going to be tumbling sideways or spinning in a direction you don't want to. I was so shocked at how precise it needed to be."
Did watching yourself on video after the wind tunnel help?
"Looking at my footage from the wind tunnel after the fact: it was so great to have someone like Rob with like 17,000-plus jumps in the same frame as me. To see how smooth and controlled and effortless he made it look, and then I look at me––I'm thinking I nailed it at the time, and in the video I look like a dying cat on crack just like twitching and flailing to maintain that position. It was like Bambi on ice compared to Rob..."
Were you able to check out some other experienced flyers at the tunnel?
"Yea. When you see the guys get in there and they're flipping back and forth and flying through the air in any direction they feel like––that impressed me, and they made it look so casual. There's this masterful control of every little detail of their body."
Let's get down to your first jump now. How was it? Especially for someone who’s never been on a tandem before...
"The first skydive shocked me. It was the fact that I was doing it on my own. There were two skydiving instructors right beside me, but I did it all without being attached to someone. So that was definitely a thrill. The second the door opens you get that horrendous feeling in your stomach. That little gut feeling I felt was definitely a little more intense than I'd ever experienced before."
Aw man, how long did it take until that went away?
"Oh, the second you're out there and you're floating, that knot in your stomach subsides so quickly and every jump it gets less and less... especially as you get more comfortable with the gear and what not.
...However, there was kind of a funny situation on my first jump though..."
"I was floating down, you know, you do your three practice pulls and then you practice 90-degree turns between the two instructors that are jumping with you. I just felt so happy and content jumping between Rob and Carl. Then suddenly Rob points his finger kind of towards Carl, so I think, 'Oh, I'll turn towards Carl.' Then Carl points his finger kind of towards Rob, and I'm like 'Uh, OK,' and turn towards Rob. ...I was trying to think, 'what I'm I missing here?' They're just pointing at each other, you know? And then all of a sudden out of nowhere one of them grabs my pilot chute and rips it off. I suddenly realize, 'oooh, that means pull!'
So I had the single blondest moment possible in mid air and completely forgot to pull, which was pretty damn embarrassing. But suffice to say, I'll never make that mistake again!"
Why do you think you spaced?
"I was in such a weird euphoric state, that I was just way to content up there. I felt so blissful floating through the air."
So I'm guessing your most memorable jump would probably be that first one then?
"Actually the most memorable jump would have to be the last one, where I had my aunt with me and we got to release my grandfather's ashes at the same time. There was just so much that was memorable about that one. She's been skydiving since like 18 I think, been doing it well over 20 years. It's been a big part of her life. So my grandfather, her dad, she wanted to release his ashes in mid-air."
Wow, definitely incredible. Now I can see why that surpasses your first one...
What are you looking forward to learning now that you've got some of the basics down with your A license?
"Wingsuiting seems like a total dream of mine –there's no chance I'm slowing down until I can work my way to that. What I love about skydiving is it seems like there's always more to accomplish and more to work on and perfect, so I can see this as something all be doing with every minute I have outside of work."
Let's talk a little more about your stunt work, like the art of falling and some of that stuff in the video: How do you do it? How to do get your body to work that way – have you always been able to?
"As a kid I used to always screw around. I was always the lunatic child jumping off of the play set and things like that. I was always inclined to falling down; it was always something I did as a kid. I'd watch professional wrestling and always have stupid little matches with my friends, where I'd jump straight off ladders onto the ground and things like that..."
So it was wrestling you were into, not Jackass videos and all that?
"Oh yea, a bit of that too. Just when I was in high school all the Jackass stuff started happening. We'd be making our own Jackass videos and I got very used to just getting hurt on camera. Eventually it looked like it could become a career, so I spent the next year training more formally, doing martial arts and gymnastics, catching up on some of the proper ways to do things. After a year of rigorous training, I put that video together and haven't looked back since."
So, now you're back in Canada and it's obviously going to be too cold to skydive there for a while. What's up next? When will you be jumping again?
"I can't wait. I might need to make a trip before summer for sure... It feels like a heroin addiction. I feel like it'll be way to easy for me to wake up at the age of 30 in a bathtub with a parachute on my back, thinking like, 'what have I done with my life?'"
So you're pretty much sold then!
"The challenge is going to be trying to figure out where the line is between passionate hobby and raging addiction because I can definitely see it making its way into the latter."
Would you say skydiving comes naturally to you because of your line of work?
"It's hard to say. You know, when you're learning under someone that's as experienced and as excellent at teaching as Rob is, it's hard to tell what was me catching on quick and what was just his exceptional teaching – I really think that's why things seemed to come pretty quickly. He's just such a good teacher."
What are the chances of working skydiving into your stunt work in the future?
"Man, I'd absolutely love to. It just so happens that there are already a few guys in Toronto that have a humongous head start on me in that regard. But I think I'll just keep plugging away at it and enjoy every jump that I have: If one day I find myself in the mix of people experienced enough to work in that capacity, if by chance a gig were to come up, that would be a total dream. It would be a big jump to get to that kind of level from where I am now, though."
I'm curious: What's your average day, or week, of physical training like?
"At least 5 days a week, it's two or three workouts per day whether it's rock climbing, gymnastics, or just hitting the gym and doing weight training. Those are the standard three. I also do tae kwon do 3 times a week, horseback riding, kickboxing, weapons training, yoga, boxing as often as possible, and what else..."
Haha! This is the segment everyone reads and starts to feel horrible about themselves...
"(laughs) Yea but it's literally my job when it comes down to it. If I'm not on set – if I haven't gotten at least a couple workouts in – I'll often find myself going down the street doing hill sprints at like 2:00 in the morning just so I can go to sleep feeling content. I've had many situations where I'm doing kettle bells at 3 am."
Hopefully your neighbors are used to that by now...
"Yea, but my roommates probably think I'm into some really weird shit because they'll hear crazy sounds like me grunting in pain and then laughing euphorically – if I can pull off something I'm working on. ...I think they think I'm into some pretty kinky shit!"
Hah! On that note... Anything else you want to add about your AFF experience with SDU and getting your A license?
"I definitely should give my aunt some credit for dropping the bug in my year at a young age: That was the most satisfying element of that last jump was flying through the sky with my crazy aunt who I've known for 27 years, to be able to look over and be in her world for the first time and finally understand that. Now I guess, shit, I must be the crazy nephew then."
It sounds like you enjoyed yourself up there and will continue to for a long time to come...
"For sure. Having the opportunity to train with someone like Rob, it's still something I can't quite wrap my head around: When I told people I was doing AFF with Rob, they were like 'oh, God, that is ideal,' talking about how I was in such good hands. And I certainly felt that way."
You must be taking courses a lot too, right? Due to all the stunt work you do and all the range you need for it...
"Within the last couple of years I've taken courses on scuba diving, stunt driving, motorcycle riding, high angle rescue, acting, improv, hunting, stage combat, mountaineering - but I've gotta say, this was easily the most intense, yet fun and informative course I've ever taken."
Thanks so much to stuntman Derek Barnes for letting us profile his Tunnel AFF course with Skydive University. Congrats on your A License, Derek! Here's to many, many more memorable skydives! You can learn more about Derek and his adventures on the Mountain Man Media website.