Fury Road: the camera department reveals all

Although the fraught, obsessed crusade of Mad Max: Fury Road is defended by evil PR ninjas, genius cinematographer John Seale and his camera team took an audience of SMPTE professionals through the e
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Although the fraught, obsessed crusade of Mad Max: Fury Road is defended by evil PR ninjas, genius cinematographer John Seale and his camera team took an audience of SMPTE professionals through the experience of making the film. The 3D story alone is extraordinary.

Fury Road – the dust settles

ACS rewarded delegates at the SMPTE conference with a real treat at the end of three days of engineering papers and discussions when DOP John Seale, Action Cinematographer David Burr and Stereographer Paul Nichola, supported by Camera Department Coordinator Michelle Pizanis wrangling over 400 still photos, told – for the first time to a public audience – the story of shooting Mad Max – Fury Road.

The flavour of those stills can be found on The Mad Max Forum; some come from the ACS website.

The shoot that wasn’t

The fourth Mad Max film has been in the pipeline for ten years. It was rumoured at first to be conceived as a 3D animation, but work began several years ago when Producer/Director George Miller and Dean Semler (who was DOP on the production at the time) brought Paul Nichola in to plan a 3D live action production. Paul had recently completed Australia’s first 3D film Cane Toads – The Conquest, and those cameras were used for the first round of 3D tests. The operation, and the results, convinced Miller that convergence (the setting that determines the plane that appears to be on the screen, not behind it or in front of it) should be adjusted in postproduction.

Responding to George Miller’s brief “I don’t want 3D to get in the way of the shoot”, Nichola looked at the cameras and 3D rigs used by James Cameron for Avatar, and felt they were too delicate to cope with the dust, debris and speed of a Mad Max shoot. He began to build a prototype rig more or less from scratch, based on 2K Dalsa 4M-60 industrial cameras. It was too big, and a second version was produced. It used only prime lenses, had an umbilical cord to the data recorder, and hosed compressed air to keep dirt and dust off the front lens and filters. They built not one but twenty of these to cover all eventualities. Tests were shot at Broken Hill.

Then everything stopped for a year to allow Kennedy Miller to concentrate on finishing Happy Feet 2.

Resuming work later, Nichola built a more robust recording system. Data would be recorded in RAW format. Recorders and signal processing units for deBayering etc were built into dust-proof, heat-proof, chilled metal boxes. It wasn’t an elegant look, but as Nichola said “we weren’t building a camera, we were building a movie solution”.

The plan was for a single camera shoot, but with multiple ‘pods’ so that as each shot was taken, the next set-up was already being prepared, and the next, using several cameras, but one at a time.

The missing dimension

Then it was announced that the film would no longer be shot in 3D.
Miller had concluded that a different approach was needed. Warner Bros apparently agreed to a proposal to convert the 2D shoot to 3D in post production: a process which Paul Nichola said he would now recommend over shooting in 3D. However it appears that the first release will be in 2D only.

Meanwhile heavy rain had greened the Broken Hill landscape, and it was decided to relocate the shoot to Namibia, in south-western Africa. The hundreds of production stills shown by Michelle Pizanis during the talk showed an atmosphere of dust, glare and haze that will be ideal for the story – and were clearly a continuing challenge for the production. The coastal strip is often cold and foggy at dawn and dusk, but only a few kilometres inland there is consistent heat, and blue skies.

At the same time John Seale took over from Dean Semler as DOP. Dissatisfied with the low dynamic range of the Dalsa unit – inadequate for the harsh light in the desert – Seale chose the Arri Alexa, on the strength of good reports he’d read (admitting it was his first digital feature shoot), and was lucky enough to get Alexa Plus and Alexa M cameras used by Roger Deakins on Skyfall.

Many of the techniques already planned and engineered for the heavier 3D cameras would still be used, with the Alexas making much lighter work of it all. Nichola had set up a bungy-cord support system for some hand-held camera set-ups, and these were still used, though the rigs had to be removed in the middle of the day to eliminate shadows. Dominating all the action shoots though were two Ultimate Arm Edge rigs: 7metre long gyro jib arms which came mounted on huge 4WD vehicles and their own crew from the US.

Seale also persuaded Miller to shoot multi-camera, and claimed it had paid great dividends in the editing, providing many more alternative cutaways etc.

Action!

David Burr took over the narrative to describe the action (or smash camera) unit. The unit, directed by stunt coordinator Guy Norris, used multiple DSLR cameras, mainly Canon 5Ds and some smaller Olympus cameras. They used as many cameras as they could prep in the time for any action shot. Burr estimated that they smashed about a dozen 5D’s, showing photographs of some of the wrecked bodies and lenses. It turned out that the Olympus cameras tended to stop recording on impact and failed to save the file, whereas data could be extracted from the Canons, however badly damaged. They started using Pelican cases to protect the cameras, but since many were unavoidably visible in the shot, smaller, uncased units proved easier to remove digitally in post production.

For one shot they constructed an 18 ft long brick-lined trench in the ground to completely bury a crane, which moved down from full height to below ground as an armada of vehicles sped over the camera.

Seale commented that the huge crew, up to 1,500 one day (apparently the most reliable body count was based on the number who sat down for lunch) was very international. Many Australians were cautious about the film, having previously accepted jobs and passed on other productions, only to find the Fury Road shoot delayed time and again. The Action Unit alone numbered as many as 300 people on some days.

Some (more) of the challenges

The film is framed in standard anamorphic. George Miller insisted that the main character in each shot was always exactly in the centre of the frame. “line up the red dot on her nose” he would instruct. Seale explained that the editing would be very fast, “though not quite as fast as The Bourne Ultimatum“.To help the audience, Miller wanted the subject to be in the same place on the screen from cut to cut, to avoid the need to search the large screen. Although this limited his ability to compose a shot, “It should be possible to follow” he thought. It was easy to reframe and resize in the Digital Intermediate, he commented.

Forty per cent of the film is shot inside the cab of the truck, which typically had seven people in it: it was an ongoing challenge to keep audience interest in the film, and crew out of shot.

The dust levels in the desert varied dramatically from day to day and from shot to shot, depending on time of day and the amount that had been stirred up or blown up: this was a challenge for continuity, and most shots were having layers of dust added digitally, and the sky adjusted in colour.

Although all action was shot live, the chase vehicles were often not moving on the set when actors were in shot: a couple of stills showed actors hanging onto stationary or shaking vehicles, surrounded by wind machines.

No-one was shot by a bullet on set. Instead of a burst of blood spilling onto a fresh clean shirt for every take, the actor simply acted being hit, and blood was painted in digitally later. This allowed for more takes and fewer bruises.

On going digital

This was John Seale’s first digital shoot. Asked if he would return to film, he was adamant that digital was the way to go: he’d said so earlier and “got into trouble with Kodak”, but had been convinced for years that the future was digital. He mentioned several interesting things he’d learned:
“There’s a man called the DIT. What’s his job? He controls – no he has an opinion on – the exposure. I still walk around on set with an exposure meter, and people would ask me what I had it for. It’s my security blanket. The DIT looks at the curves and sets it from there.”

“He told me to shoot two stops over for a day-for-night scene we were doing. Two stops over! Now we have serious trouble here, I said. On film you’d never shoot two over. But he explained that if you grade the scene down for night, then need to bring a face back up so you can see it, then you’ll get a lot of noise if you shoot under. So shooting over gives you that headroom and you can print up and not get noise.”

“There are a lot of speed changes in the film, mostly done in post. There’s not much dialogue in this film so it’s easy to change the speed of shots. There’s one shot we did at 1200 frames per second. The guy came out with the camera from Sydney, and spent a week here on location waiting to do the shot. We did one take, George said “that’s it, OK”, and he went home again. “

On the rolling shutter effect in some DSLRs: ” Oh – Jellocam”. Not really a problem. You know, I’ve always maintained that we shoot for audiences in the mid-west, not for our fellow cinematographers. You can get away with murder so long as you keep people involved in the story.”

“In fact, the fast cutting in this film eliminates a lot of problems. George knows the power he has in post production follow-up, and he knows exactly where he wants his picture to end up”.

“We didn’t roll on as digital shoots are supposed to do. George knows exactly what he wants from a shot: he’s editing in his head as we shoot. So he’ll call “cut” as soon as what he wanted was done. It could be very frustrating if you’ve just got everything going along”.

“The DOP’s role is diminishing: so much can be done in post. You’re not a magician any more.”

Mad Max: Fury Road, is currently in post production at Kennedy Miller’s Kings Cross studios. A release date has not been announced yet.

Dominic Case
About the Author
Dominic Case was the Technology Manager for the Atlab Group for many years, and on the Board of the AFC during the period that the NFSA was a part of that organisation. He also worked for the NFSA briefly as head of the Film Branch, and for a year as Development Manager. He gave a paper at the last SMPTE conference on the difficulties faced by film archives in the digital era.