J is for James Bond

by Graham Edwards

J is for James Bond

In the VFX ABC, the letter “J” stands for “James Bond”.

The James Bond movies comprise the longest continually-running film series ever, beginning with the release of Dr. No in 1962 and continuing all the way up to the present day … and beyond, if you factor in last week’s press blitz announcing the title and cast of Spectre, the latest film in the franchise, due for release in November 2015.

While the Bond films aren’t exactly effects-driven, they still require the services of a crack team of illusion-wielding agents both on-set and in post. The output of these SFX and VFX mission specialists typically includes spectacular chase sequences, a big reveal of the evil mastermind’s hidden lair and, almost certainly, lots of inordinately large explosions.

The first Bond film of all, Dr. No, features just such an explosion during its climactic scene, when Bond causes a nuclear reactor to blow up, destroying the bad guy’s island base. Later films delivered more big bangs, from the airplane crash at the end of Goldfinger through to the pageant of pyrotechnics that closed You Only Live Twice, when agent 007 infiltrates the volcano-crater headquarters of arch-villain Ernst Blofeld and sparks off – you guessed it – a giant explosion.

"Diamonds Are Forever" composite shot by Albert Whitlock

Artist Albert Whitlock contributed a number of matte paintings to “Diamonds Are Forever”.

The visual and special effects in these early years were the province of industry stalwarts such as Roy Field, Frank George, John Stears and Wally Veevers. There was even a brief contribution by legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock, who provided some essential scene-setting spectacle for Diamonds Are Forever, and whose paintings are showcased on Peter Cook’s ever-reliable Matte Shot blog.

When Live and Let Die came along in 1973, the 007 team recruited Derek Meddings, whose modelmaking background with Gerry Anderson on shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds allowed the “big set” visions of production designer Ken Adam to be realised in miniature form.

In this extract from Don McGregor’s 1981 interview in Starlog 49, The Man Who Creates The Magic For James Bond, Meddings describes the submarine-swallowing supertanker seen in The Spy Who Loved Me:

“Nobody suspected that the supertanker was a miniature until the front opened, and then, lots of people still thought there was a boat that did actually have a front that opened. Even the people who were originally going to supply us with a real tanker went to the premiere of The Spy Who Loved Me and they had forgotten they had not rented their tanker to us. They said to the director or the producer, ‘I can’t remember when you used our tanker.’ And he said, ‘We never used your tanker.’ There was never one shot in the whole film with a real tanker. We built our miniature tanker at Pinewood Studios; I had it built 63 feet long. It had a crew of three, all special effects men who ran it. We shipped it out to the Bahamas, and shot those scenes all at sea.”

Effects scenes reached a frenzy in 1979 when Moonraker jumped on the Star Wars bandwagon and propelled Bond into orbit. Meddings’s involvement with the series continued on and off, all the way up to Goldeneye in 1995, by which point the use of effects had settled back into a more conventional supporting role.

The Living Daylights - bridge hanging miniature

With Bond at the controls, the Hercules makes a bombing run on a bridge as Soviet tanks attempt to pursue their equestrian adversaries. The lower structure of the bridge was a hanging miniature constructed by a special effects crew led by John Richardson and Mike Lamont.

That’s not to say 007 didn’t serve up some spectacular action in the meantime, nor has he failed to do so since. In The Living Daylights, Bond drops a bomb from a Hercules transport aircraft on to a bridge in order to thwart an advancing convoy of Russian tanks. In this extract from Nora Lee’s article 007×4 in Cinefex 33, veteran special effects supervisor John Richardson describes the visual sleight of hand employed to create the shot:

“There never was a bridge like the one you see in the film. Well, there was a little bridge. Lengthwise it was the same as the one you see on screen, but heightwise it was at most fifteen or twenty feet above the river bed. We constructed a foreground miniature of the ravine and a different bridge. We used the existing bridge from the handrail down to the road level so that you could see vehicles driving along it, but everything beneath that was a miniature.”

This use of miniatures – ever a staple of the Bond movies – continues to the present day. In Skyfall, the explosions at both the MI6 headquarters and Bond’s family residence were enacted using models. Describing the former, here’s an extract from Joe Fordham’s article Old Dog, New Tricks in Cinefex 133:

“Chris Corbould’s special effects team built a 14-foot-tall, ¼-scale miniature representing the central tower and offices of the MI6 building, and then rigged the structure with pyrotechnics. Visual effects supervisor Steve Begg oversaw the element shoot at Pinewood Studios, using a pair of Arri Alexa cameras running at high speed. Peerless Camera Company then composited the miniature explosion into plates of the real Secret Service building photographed from Vauxhall Bridge, and blended the miniature with additional pyrotechnics and CG debris.”

Chris Corbould is a true James Bond perennial, having undertaken his first Secret Service mission in The Spy Who Loved Me way back in 1977. With Corbould and Steve Begg now confirmed as effects supervisors on Spectre, we can reasonably guess that the classic Bond blend of practical and visual mayhem will continue to wreak havoc across the globe for some considerable time to come.

"Skyfall" finale explosion

The Living Daylights photographs copyright © 1987 by Danjaq LLC, United Artists Pictures Inc. Skyfall photographs copyright © 2012 by Danjaq LLC, United Artists Corporation and Columbia Pictures Industries.