Stop breathing - You are dead

acting martial artist action actor dead body Mar 14, 2021
dead actor

The other day I took a gig as a dead body in a movie.

Action peeps will always have to die on screen or play a fallen bad guy for a dead body shot.

It seems like an easy thing to do but there are different ways to die and you may have to stay perfectly still for an extended period of time and this includes not breathing. This time can be a minute, so can you hold your breath for the time. 

Let's firstly tackle the question of what happens when you hold your breath and what the side effects can be

Here’s what happens to your body when you hold your breath. The times are approximate depending on your fitness level and level of breath training you have achieved:

When they are calling for the cameras to roll I breath in and out deeply two or three times. Then I breath in but not a full breath but more like three quarters and then breath out a little before action is called. I use the breathing out to find a comfortable lung and body position I can hold for at least a minute or so.

0:00 to 0:30. You might feel relaxed as you close your eyes and tune out the world around you. This is surprisingly tricky because as your body relaxes your eyes and twitch which is an issue for close ups. Try relaxing your eyes and find a positions where your eyes feel relaxed and try to hold that position. Your body will relax into a different position even a small twitch or drop as a muscle relaxes. Usually this is ok if it's tiny or if you catch it on time you can lessen the movement, but if it's a close up or a shot across your body then it will be easily noticed on screen.

0:30 to 2:00. You’ll start to feel uncomfortable pain in your lungs. The most common misconception about holding your breath is that you’re running out of air, you’re not, just relax. Learning to slow your breathing and increase intake during inhalation is part of this, but holding your breath is difficult and dangerous because carbon dioxide (CO₂) is building up in your blood from not exhaling. You can start to twitch here or have chest and stomach flutters here as your body is starting to panic a little so you will have to fight a little harder. I like to release small bits of air like you were swimming under water but you can't flare your nostrils or move your lips. Slow controlled exhale when you need to relax pressure or physically calm your body can help.

The next few minutes are the physical reactions and depending on how skilled you are at holding your breath they may happen faster. Let's be honest most takes won't be longer than a minute, if production is being nice to you.

2:00 to 3:00. Your stomach starts to rapidly convulse and contract. This is because your diaphragm is trying to force you to take a breath.

3:00 to 5:00. You’ll begin to feel lightheaded. As CO₂ builds to higher and higher levels, it pushes the oxygen out of your bloodstream and reduces the amount of oxygenated blood traveling to your brain.

5:00 to 6:00. Your body will start to shake as your muscles begin to uncontrollably contract. This is when holding your breath can become dangerous.

6:00 and longer. You’ll black out. Your brain badly needs oxygen, so it knocks you unconscious so your automatic breathing mechanisms will kick back in. If you’re underwater, you’ll probably inhale water into your lungs, which is life threatening.

Side effects of holding your breath for longer than what is natural

Low heart rate from a lack of oxygen

CO₂ buildup in your bloodstream

Nitrogen narcosis a dangerous buildup of nitrogen gases in your blood that can make you feel disoriented or inebriated (common among deep-sea divers)

Decompression sickness which occurs when nitrogen in your blood forms bubbles in your bloodstream instead of clearing out of your blood when water pressure decreases (called “the bends” among divers)

Loss of consciousness, or blacking out

Pulmonary edema when fluid builds up in the lungs

Alveolar hemorrhage, or bleeding in your lungs

Lung injury that can lead to total Lung collapse

Complete loss of blood flow to the heart, which can cause your heart to stop pumping which is cardiac arrest

Buildup of dangerous reactive oxygen species (ROS), which happens due to long periods of low oxygen then breathing oxygen back in at high levels, which can damage DNA

Brain damage from a protein called S100B that breaks out from your bloodstream into your brain through the blood-brain barrier when your cells are damaged

So that is what happens to your body.

The way to build up this skillset is by using breathing techniques similar to how you learn to sing and hold stronger notes but my favourite is practice swimming under water and releasing small amounts of air and try to hold for longer periods of time. A good breathing technique is to take a few deep breaths and breath out completely to expand your lungs and oxygenate your blood so the body doesn't panic as quickly. Then you take in a deep breath. When going under water you can have a full lung but on screen i have about 3/4 full so there is less pressure in my chest and then i can release small amounts of air to relieve pressure and to reduce panic by the body.

If the budget is there you may have to have a mold of your face done so they can create a fake body but if there is little budget and they just want a chest then you can fill the shirt with stuffing and then you as an actor can go back to drinking set coffee and chewing on whatever food unit has supplied.

Practice your breathing and staying still, maybe freak out your partner or family with your new skills.

Get more info and support with you action film career at

Keep on rocking and we will see you on set.


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