Cinefex Vault #2: Cold Mountain

by Joe Fordham

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.