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While VFX may beguile the eye in modern filmmaking, it’s practical effects that lend an unmatched texture and realism. The special effects supervisor of Peter Weir’s THE WAY BACK explains why SFX are still alive and well.
This story starts in May 2008, when I was approached by a producer about a new project. By mid-December I was working on what would prove to be the most effects-intensive film of my career to date, Peter Weirʼs The Way Back. Weir is a director with a string of benchmark films, including The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Gallipoli and Master and Commander, and he has a reputation for achieving something different in every project. So, no pressure…
The Way Back is the perfect backdrop to explain my approach to the craft of physical effects, its processes and art. Everything I strive for in the contribution that special effects make to a film is summed up in one statement: the art of the invisible. For me, it is about adding detail that audiences are going to appreciate subconsciously just as much as giving them eye-popping spectacle.
I initially studied industrial design and that has embedded a love of detail and structure that keeps the running of a project on the rails, without ruining the creative input. Creativity is not unbridled, however, and our increasingly budget-conscious industry requires ever more resourcefulness in thinking and problem-solving. In building on the ideas of the directors, designers and DoP, I try to create a heightened reality that sits seamlessly within the environment and genre of the film. This requires a level of attention to detail that is often not in the script, but the payoff is that physical effects can create unique and unexpected results by providing atmosphere and dimension.
Set during World War II, The Way Back tells the story of a group of POWs who escaped from a Siberian gulag only to face an arduous, epic trek to India. For us, the filming began in Bulgaria, doubling for a Siberian winter, where all I had to create were effects and atmosphere that blended seamlessly with the environment. To realise Peterʼs vision, I, together with a team of eight and two staff from Snow Business, worked extremely hard in continual freezing conditions to augment the natural snow cover, with four forty-foot containers of artificial product. We had to vary the tones and textures in order to match the real snow, and you won’t see the join!
We created several storms throughout the film, including a sandstorm in Morocco and many snow blizzards―one on Mount Vitosha at an elevation of 2,000 metres, with crew knee-deep in snow in temperatures of -20ºC. These blizzard scenes necessitated the continuous feeding of paper snow into six large petrol wind machines, and this required hot water to be poured over the carburettors to stop the fuel from freezing! And, like the varieties of snow we created, the colours of natural fogs and mists varied so widely throughout filming that we were obliged to use different fluids with the smoke machines, to seamlessly match the natural elements and ʻdisappearʼ the effect.
Not every challenge was about extending natural weather effects. Part of the film takes place in the Gulag mines, where prisoners broke up frozen rocks by heating them with steam. We recreated this by continually pushing low-pressure steam through a practical steam lance and augmenting with bursts of liquid carbon dioxide. Weʼd installed a high-pressure fogging system within the set, running at 600 p.s.i. to create an atmosphere full of condensation; the camera department hated the damp environment, but the water mist created a visual ʻextraʼ we could not have achieved with a simple smoke/haze set-up.
Perhaps the biggest effects challenge however was the 42m by 32m breakaway ice crossing, located high in the Bulgarian mountain range on a tributary feeding Lake Iskar. The design concept and principal ideas were tested in the UK, then we continued the build at Boyana Studios. Five weeks prior to filming, the central spine was stripped down, transported to the location and reassembled in treacherous conditions following one of the winter’s heaviest snowfalls. Designed with salvage floatation bags to sit it precisely on the surface of the water irrespective of load, we finally towed it a quarter-of-a-mile into position three weeks before filming, for final assembly.
Originally devised to have only actress Saoirse Ronan running across it, just three days before shooting Peter asked if we could adapt it to take all of the actors simultaneously. It was the right decision for the story; changing this and the camera direction injected pace. For us, it meant spending many hours a day diving in the freezing water to adjust the rig and finish the build, with air temperatures ranging from 10ºC to -8ºC. We used nearly seven tonnes of different waxes to hand-dress the surface, spread thinly in layers so that when it broke, it looked like slush. The rig is, of course, invisible under the breakaway platform, but there are other things you won’t see in the finished film: the nine post-production shots budgeted for this scene, as not one was used. However Peter loved the detail we achieved on set, particularly when Ed Harris slips over and the slushy ice sticks to his clothes.
Indeed, as a great storyteller Peter loves attention to detail and almost every scene required our input. We continually layered scenes with effects, from steaming excrement and frozen urine, slops of gruel thrown from the kitchen, to fires from flint sparks, campfires and rocks hot enough to sizzle food on.
One memorable effect took place in the desert, where we created a tiny spring of water bubbling through the mud. Although Peter loved what we achieved, actor Jim Sturgess may not have felt the same, describing it as his most uncomfortable experience on the film. Continual blizzards and being soaked through in a freezing rainstorm were tolerable, but having our mud, consisting of a chocolate mix, smeared on his face in a 45ºC desert heat, was just impossible to bear!
Working with Peter Weir has been a hugely fulfilling experience and I came away with a new perspective on filmmaking. Peterʼs ability to drive creativity, consideration and a great sense of collaboration whether you are the lead artist or the runner is awe-inspiring, and I certainly hope that I have achieved my goal of creating realistic effects that the audience accepts without question―and that our art has remained invisible! •