Cinefex Vault #2: Cold Mountain

Cinefex Vault - Cold MountainIn this second story from the Cinefex Vault of online articles we present a journey into filmmaker Anthony Minghella’s 2003 adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Civil War era novel, Cold Mountain. Sadly, Minghella died after making only one more film, aged 54, but he had a great talent for bringing intelligent perspectives to his films, keeping epic vistas rooted in rich characters. Visual effects supervisor Dennis Lowe recalls the experience working in the trenches with Minghella on location in Romania, aided by visual embellishments at Double Negative and Framestore.


Siege Tactics – article by Joe Fordham

Confederate soldiers converge upon the Union Army in Miramax's "Cold Mountain".

Confederate soldiers converge upon the Union Army in Miramax’s “Cold Mountain”.

Visual effects supervisor Dennis Lowe reunited with filmmaker Anthony Minghella for Cold Mountain, an epic drama set during the American Civil War. Adapted by Minghella from a novel by Charles Frazier, the film told the tale of Inman (Jude Law), a wounded Confederate soldier who deserts a military hospital to embark on a long trek home, where his love, Ada (Nicole Kidman), is also struggling to survive the war.

Like Minghella’s earlier films, Cold Mountain emphasized characters and drama over spectacle; yet, to set the stage of a country divided by war, Minghella chose to open the film with a ferocious battle alluded to peripherally in Frazier’s book: the Union army’s attempt to capture a Confederate stronghold in Petersburg, Virginia, by tunneling under enemy lines and detonating bombs from below, to devastating effect.

For a scene in which Union soldiers tunnel under a Confederate stronghold and detonate it from below, on-set pyrotechnics by physical effects supervisor Trevor Wood were augmented with CG people, debris and fireballs at Double Negative.

For a scene in which Union soldiers tunnel under a Confederate stronghold and detonate it from below, on-set pyrotechnics by physical effects supervisor Trevor Wood were augmented with CG people, debris and fireballs at Double Negative.

The sequence was shot on a tract of farmland outside Bucharest, Romania, bulldozed and landscaped to match 19th-century reference photographs. “The siege had to look awe-inspiring,” said Dennis Lowe, “but a lot of it was achieved at the location, with physical effects, then subtly enhanced with visual effects.” Physical effects director Trevor Wood, a long-time associate of Neil Corbould Special Effects, oversaw practical carnage for the siege, using more than 250 gallons of fuel and 200 pounds of explosives to simulate the excavation of a crater 170 feet by 80 feet, and 50 feet deep. “They couldn’t physically pack all that energy into an area that was really that size; so Trevor’s team detonated a circle of about 20 charges, which looked like a bigger explosion than it was.”

Anthony Minghella directs a crowd of extras costumed as Union Army soldiers.

Anthony Minghella directs a crowd of extras costumed as Union Army soldiers.

Director of photography John Seale covered the explosion with four cameras, with a second unit in the trench. Lowe supplied five additional spring-wound Eyemo newsreel ‘crash cameras,’ positioned closer to the blast. The explosion was captured in one take, then enhanced with digital effects. Double Negative blended practical elements of exploding mud and 3D animation. “We wanted to emphasize the scale of the practical explosion,” Lowe explained. “We added CG flying bodies, horses, carts and barrels blowing out; but it was never overemphasized. Anthony wanted the effects to be almost subliminal. Early on, we added as many people as would have been located in that part of the trench and had them fly up 300 feet; but that looked a little over the top, so we layered them into the explosion, covered by foreground mud.”

The Union Army attempts to capture a Confederate stronghold.

The Union Army attempts to capture a Confederate stronghold.

Closeup angles of the ground erupting — hurling Confederates through the air and ripping the clothes from one soldier’s body — used practical effects with minimal digital finessing, and editorial sleight of hand. “We took out wires and added dust and debris,” said Lowe, “but most of that was done for real, with the help of film editor Walter Murch, who was very skilled at judging how much of a shot we could use.”

Digital enhancements also included matte paintings of Petersburg extending off into the distance, and crowd replication seen in an eerie shot preceding the detonation where the camera cranes up to reveal the Yankee soldiers laying in wait, face-down in the mud. Six hundred members of the Romanian Army portrayed soldiers on the field. To expand the mass of men, the visual effects team repositioned and replicated the troops.

For scenes of Confederate troops firing on Union soldiers trapped in the blast crater, Double Negative used crowd replication techniques to multiple the number of extras, and incorporated additional smoke and muzzle flash elements.

For scenes of Confederate troops firing on Union soldiers trapped in the blast crater, Double Negative used crowd replication techniques to multiple the number of extras, and incorporated additional smoke and muzzle flash elements.

Crowd replication was used to nightmarish effect as Union troops pour into the exploded crater, then fall prey to a ‘turkey shoot’ as surviving Confederates take potshots from above. “The extras filled about 1/20th of the area of the crater,” said Lowe. “We shot the crowd in sections using the old rope trick — we threw a rope around them, moved them, then filmed them all again. We shot that as a static plate, then motion-tracked the foreground and added drifting smoke.” Smoke added to the sepia patina created by John Seale using combinations of in-camera filters and digital grading by Framestore CFC.

Filmed over three weeks, the battle set a somber tone for the picture, intercut with Inman’s memories of home. “Anthony felt the film was not about the war,” said Lowe. “He and Walter broke up the battle as the film took shape, making it more relevant to the story. It was an anti-war film, really.”

Double Negative supplied numerous subtle matte paintings, including one in which ski slopes and resorts were removed from distant mountainsides.

Double Negative supplied numerous subtle matte paintings, including one in which ski slopes and resorts were removed from distant mountainsides.

In addition to the battle, Cold Mountain‘s 176 visual effects included night sky enhancements, digital snowfall and a surreal vision in a well — a prophetic image foreshadowing Inman’s return home, inspired by an M.C. Escher print and created by digitally blending elements of Jude Law and trained crows. Digital matte paintings also enhanced environments, adding snow to areas of the Romanian landscape. “We tried not to make the matte paintings too beautiful,” commented Lowe, “because we didn’t want to draw people’s attention to the effects. The hardest thing was holding back, but that’s what Anthony wanted.

Actor Jude Law confers with director Anthony Minghella on location in Romania.

Actor Jude Law confers with director Anthony Minghella on location in Romania.

“The nice thing about Anthony is that he delegates. The first thing he said to me when I met him on The English Patient was: ‘This is your film. Treat these shots as your own.’ That was really shocking, because most directors are quite dictatorial. With Anthony, it’s like going back to film school — you’re playing, and if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world; you learn from it. That’s such a good way to make movies.”

Photos copyright © 2003 by Miramax Film Corporation.

Cinefex Vault #1: Angels in America

Cinefex Vault - Angels in AmericaIn the early years of the new millennium, Cinefex launched an experiment – the Cinefex Weekly Update. Readers had the option to submit email addresses and receive, every seven days, a free Cinefex mini-article, plus a column of ‘Film Clips’ highlighting effects-related news, filtered through a Cinefex perspective.

Writer Joe Fordham illuminates a corner of the Cinefex Vault.

From January through December 2004, we published 49 issues of CWU until we decided to call it a day. Sadly, the weekly turnover was not sustainable on top of our editorial workload. The CWU archive existed online for a while, but when we gave our website a shakedown, that too went the way of the dodo. Gone were all those stories – career profiles, book reviews, deleted fragments from our print articles, and new stories on productions we couldn’t fit in the magazine, including Team America: World Police, Blade Trinity, The Terminal, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kill Bill and, yes, even Catwoman.

Twelve years later, Cinefex Blog has unlocked a time capsule and resurrected a sample of those stories from the Cinefex Vault. This week, we present CWU article #1, written by our founding father Don Shay, which delves into the work of visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund on HBO’s haunting mini-series, directed by Mike Nichols, based on Tony Kushner’s epic stage production, Angels in America.


Heavenly Days – article by Don Shay

An alluring angel (Emma Thompson) visits a despairing AIDS-stricken man.

An alluring angel (Emma Thompson) visits a despairing AIDS-stricken man.

When Richard Edlund received a call from HBO asking if he was available to work on a project called Angels in America, the four-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor hesitated only long enough to ascertain that director Mike Nichols would be at the helm. The television miniseries, adapted by Tony Kushner from his own two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was a six-hour examination of the burgeoning AIDS plague in the mid-1980s, and Edlund found himself drawn in by the treatment of the subject and the intelligence of the writing.

Edlund flew to New York, where the production was being mounted, to meet with Nichols and the producers; but ultimately a younger, less-experienced supervisor was hired instead. Three months later, however, HBO called again. The first half of the production was in the can, and Nichols was dissatisfied with the effects in progress. Would Edlund consider taking over?

Although most of the visual effects would appear in the second half of the production, the first featured a hallucination sequence in which Harper Pitt (Mary Louise Parker), the pill-popping wife of a closeted gay man, finds herself in a fantasyland Antarctica dressed with an icebound sailing ship and other oddities. The sequence, filmed on a greenscreen stage, had been poorly designed from an effects standpoint. “They had built a miniature ship that was maybe ten feet long — not very detailed — and they had just put it on the floor of the Angels in Americaset,” said Edlund. “Of course, it looked like a miniature sitting on the floor of the set. They even had little kids dressed up in Eskimo garb to force the perspective, but they looked like kids. Also, they were getting video dailies, rather than film, and they couldn’t tell that there were focus problems.”

Edlund took the sequence to R!OT in Santa Monica, where Michele Moen, who had worked for him at Boss Film Corporation, was now visual effects art director and lead painter. “Michele has a great eye,” Edlund asserted, “and I needed someone whose aesthetic sense I could trust.” Working with unsteady plate photography for a lead-in shot that craned up from a New York sidewalk and then descended on the Antarctic setting, Edlund and the R!OT team produced a digital painting-enhanced transition, then went on to rebuild the subsequent sequence. “We had to get rid of the ship model, so we rotoed the actors whenever they walked in front of it and painted in all the backgrounds — including the ship, which gave the sequence some visual interest.”

Director Mike Nichols examines practical angel wings on a greenscreen stage.

Director Mike Nichols examines practical angel wings on a greenscreen stage.

The show’s most flamboyant effects come when AIDS patient Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is visited by an angel (Emma Thompson) who crashes through his bedroom ceiling and hovers above him. Thompson was fitted with enormous feathered wings and flown practically on the set via a custom-built rig. “It was better to shoot Emma with the wings on the set, rather than put the wings on later,” said Edlund. “There was a lot of smoke on the set, and shards of light, which would have made it difficult to add the wings after the fact.”

To spare the actress the discomfort of hanging her on wires for multiple days of filming, the special effects crew suspended Thompson, upright, on a bicycle seat rigged to move her up and down and side to side as she hovered and delivered her lines. Fans on the set blew her hair and costume. R!OT did extensive roto and paint work to remove the mechanical flying rig and cables used to support both the rig and the rhythmically flapping wings.

Director Mike Nichols confers with actress Emma Thompson.

Director Mike Nichols confers with actress Emma Thompson.

The sequence climaxes, as it were, with the female angel seducing the gay man as they hover slightly apart in midair. Flames sear the garments off both characters in discreet head-and-shoulders shots requiring the digital team to burn 3D clothing from the undraped performers. Wide shots of the naked figures in orgasmic frenzy featured Justin Kirk and an Emma Thompson body double. “We made castings of the actors and built body pans so they could lie on their sides, facing each other, and be shot in profile from above,” said Edlund, “with the floor painted green beneath them.” Edlund photographed Thompson in closeup, then turned the material over to the R!OT crew, which replaced the body double’s head with the actress.’ “I had shot Justin and the body double a few feet apart, so they could move their arms around, but they were pushed closer together in the composite and their arms were rotoed where they overlapped. We incorporated some orgasmic body action, since the actors couldn’t do any of that in the rigid body pans, and layered in fire elements and the angel’s wings, which were shot separately.”

Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt with the angel wing rig on set.

Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt with the angel wing rig on set.

Late in the film, Prior pays a visit to Heaven, a cross between modern-day San Francisco and the remnants of ancient Rome, run by angelic bureaucrats. The principal action was photographed at Hadrian’s Villa, a 2,000-year-old structure outside Rome, which was enhanced with digitally painted backgrounds. “Mike wanted to impart visually that this was a bureaucratic, dysfunctional place,” recalled Edlund. “We were talking about how to do that, and I said: ‘Remember Orson Welles’ The Trial, where there was a room filled with this vast typing pool?’ And he said, ‘Exactly!’ So they got 60 desks equipped with old Olivettis and Underwoods, and a bunch of angels in gray suits with little wings. We multiplied them eight or ten times by shooting tiles, then comping them into the background.”

Working with an acclaimed director on a prestigious, high-profile project was a heavenly experience for Richard Edlund. “It was a rare opportunity to be involved in something other than a bubblegum movie,” Edlund commented. “Mike Nichols and the actors were terrific. Angels in America is one of my all-time favorite filmmaking experiences.”

Photo copyrights © 2003 by HBO, © 2016 by Cinefex.

Now Showing – Cinefex 146

Cinefex 146 features Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Hail, Caesar!, The 5th Wave, and Gods of Egypt

Gods collide in the brand new edition of Cinefex, featuring Joe Fordham’s superhero-sized story on this year’s biggest gladiatorial smackdown, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The action doesn’t end there – there’s also my in-depth article on the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time, Deadpool, plus Jody Duncan’s extensive coverage of the youth-oriented alien invasion movie, The 5th Wave.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also a lavishly illustrated article on the Coen brothers’ quirky period comedy Hail, Caesar!, plus a special Q&A with Eric Durst, visual effects supervisor on Alex Proyas’ epic Gods of Egypt. Jeepers – how do we fit it all in? Here’s our editor-in-chief to reveal all …

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

In Mel Brooks’ 1987 film, Spaceballs, he spoofs the ubiquitous warp-drive effects in space movies, coining the term “Ludicrous Speed.”

Now that we’re on a bi-monthly, rather than quarterly schedule, the USS Cinefex NCC-1701 is always at Ludicrous Speed. In the editorial department, we had just printed out our final articles for issue 145 when we realized that our 146 articles were due – like, now!

And, when the freshly printed issue 145 arrived, rather than take a moment to congratulate ourselves, offer a champagne toast, peruse the issue at our leisure, and luxuriate in the heady aroma of printer’s ink – all of which we would have done, at least metaphorically, on the old schedule – the new schedule demanded that we take a quick look, high-five one another, chug a beer, and get back to work.

The difference in pace is that between a Turn-of-the-20th-Century Ice Cream Social and a Rave. We’re dancing as fast as we can, the beat is incessant, and we’re working up a sweat.

It is exhilarating!

Fortunately, Ludicrous Speed hasn’t negatively impacted the final product. Issue 146 looks as beautiful as any previous issue, and the content is top-drawer: Joe Fordham’s in-depth coverage of the effects in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Graham Edwards’ fascinating Deadpool article, and his exploration of how the Coen brothers and their visual effects team brought the look of old-school effects to Hail, Caesar!, my own story on The 5th Wave, and a Q&A with visual effects supervisor Eric Durst on the making of Gods of Egypt.

And now, if you’ll excuse me – issue 147 is calling!

Thanks, Jody. Now quit wasting time writing columns for the blog, and get back to some real work!

Issue 146 of Cinefex is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, stand by your mailbox – your copy is already on its way. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.