Director's Chair: Ridley Scott - 'Exodus'
Issue: December 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Ridley Scott - 'Exodus'

Ridley Scott is one of the supreme stylists of contemporary cinema as such oft-imitated and seminal works as Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma and Louise make abundantly clear. Now the three-time Oscar-nominated director, whose credits include Gladiator, Hannibal, Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, A Good Year, Prometheus, and G.I. Jane, has turned his attention to the trials and tribulations of the Old Testament prophet Moses, in the new epic production, Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Based on the Book of Exodus story, the film stars Christian Bale as Moses, along with Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton. It also stars plagues of frogs and flies, and enough VFX to keep a small army of artists and designers busy for years.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Scott talks about making the 3D film, which was shot in Britain and Spain, his love of post, and how you go about parting the Red Sea.

Post: What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“It was very ambitious, especially in the time it’s set in, but then I feel I’m so experienced by now I know exactly what I’m taking on board. And part of the thrill of it was to try and recreate this universe that’s set around 5,000 B.C. That’s the big challenge, and when I first read the draft that was sent to me, I realized just how very little I knew about Moses and the whole story. And apart from that, I loved the environment of ancient Egypt and these great characters like Moses and Ramses, so it became this very appealing project for me, and I really enjoyed making it.”

Post:  How early on did you decide to go 3D? 

“Immediately. I thought it was natural for 3D, and we used the 3ality Technica rigs and Red Epic Dragons. I’d had some experience with Prometheus and IMAX 3D, and so I decided to go again. And I’d worked a lot with [DP] Dariusz Wolski, who’s also shooting my current film, The Martian, and he’s a brilliant cinematographer who really understands 3D very well, having done all the Pirates of the Caribbean films and so on.”

Post:  What were the technical challenges and how tough was the shoot?

“We shot mainly on location in Spain, in the Canary Islands and Almeria, and in Britain at Pinewood. Spain was the big one, and then we had all the big landscapes at Fuerteventura in the Canaries, and the really massive challenge was getting up this enormous set, almost a kilometer long, in Almeria, in time to start shooting. We were delayed and then suddenly had just 12 weeks to get it all done, which is insane when you haven’t even broken ground yet! So dealing with all that was the big challenge — getting it all together and up and running. Once I had that, I knew that with all the VFX with Peter Chiang at Double Negative and also MPC, we were going to get it, whatever it took. Also, you’ve got more time for that — I had ten months for post compared with just those 12 weeks to get things up and started.”

Post:  The VFX are crucial. How early on did you integrate post with production?

“I start it all immediately, as we shoot. I always do. I edit as we go, which makes life a lot easier for everyone else. And Peter Chiang was always there on the set while I was shooting, and we were always talking, side by side, every night, about what visual effects we need in what scenes and what we expect of them. And I also do a lot of boarding. I start well before we begin, same as I’m doing right now on The Martian. I board it all myself, which makes it more accurate. They’re very instructive and they become the bible for everyone.” 

Post:  Did you do a lot of previs?

“We did quite a bit, with The Third Floor, and the biggest challenge was the previs on water, obviously, and then previs on plates, which I could only mount a few bits and bobs to make them work, and then everything else I knew had to be overlaid with visual effects. But you’ve still got to get things moving on-set in a fairly big way, so you have some interactive movement and light and wind, or something, before you even do all the VFX. So it’s quite a challenge when you deliver the picture and say, ‘OK, now lay on 20 million locusts.’” 

Post:  Do you like post?

“I absolutely love it, and I love every part of making a movie, from the inception of the initial idea on. I’m getting pretty good now at deciding what I’m going to make next, and I already know what I’m going to make next year. And I learned very early on that you’ve got to make up your mind very quickly. If you spend a lot of time pondering, you’ll end up having these three-year gaps, like a lot of directors, and right now I don’t have any gaps, which is how I like it.”

Post:  Where did you do the post? 

“We did a lot of post as we shot, so we were cutting in Almeria and the Canaries. We’d just set up in hotel rooms, and today’s technology means that by the time you finish the film you don’t travel with two million feet. I travel with digital output and data, and away you go. There’s no more giant circus with tin cans, and that really suits me.”

Post:  The film was edited by Billy Rich, who was assistant editor on American Gangster and Black Hawk Down. Tell us about that relationship? 

“He cut The Vatican for me, and as I was saying, I always start editing as I go, and so Billy was cutting with the dailies as they came in, and then in the evening I’d see how the cut’s going and look at the rushes. He’s not on the set, but close by, and I always have the largest screens I can get on-set — at least 40-inch monitors — and if we’re shooting five, six cameras, we’ll have six monitors in the video tent, all 3D as we cut 3D. And Billy has a huge screen where he cuts, with smaller monitors for the assistants.”

Post: How many visual effects shots are there in the film?

“Around 1,300 — so, a lot!”

Post: Was parting the Red Sea the most technically-difficult shot to pull off?

“Probably. It was very difficult, as first you have to find and shoot appropriate beaches and tidal areas that, at low tide, look like they could have been drained. And I wanted to make the middle of the gulf more into what is essentially black coral. So it’s a lot of prep, going from the sandy shore into this giant river. And when a gulf drains, like from a giant tsunami, you have all these rivers and rivulets you still have to wade across. So just by boarding it, you start to think about all the visual detail as the Hebrews are fleeing from the Egyptians, and we found these great locations at Fuerteventura.” 

Post: How do you approach filming a miracle like that? With ultra-realism?

“Exactly. I was very worried about it looking like anything other than ultra-realistic, as there’ve been so many magical movies in the last 15 years. If I see one more talking tree I’m going to leap off a building. So I couldn’t have anything like that, or clouds talking with God’s voice. I have to approach it realistically, as we’re dealing with a man who’s initially an atheist, who gradually and reluctantly edges towards being an agnostic, and it takes a very long time and a lot of events before he starts to question whether they’re controlled or just nature.”

Post: How important is music and sound? 

“It’s hard to overstate its importance. It’s everything. If you don’t have great sound and music — for most films, as some work well with just dialogue — it’s not going to work very well. And I’ve always had the added ingredients of sound and music. Even on my first film, The Duellists, the sound was minimal, but the music was very haunting. And then on Alien I felt we really needed major sound effects, and that’s when I discovered the threatening ‘Dolby rumble.’ I think it’s on every goddamn scene — it’s a wonder my bowels didn’t fall out! [Laughs]. We mixed this at Twickenham in this big new room which was great, as you need a big room for this kind of movie, and we did a Dolby Atmos mix and it does give you clarity and separation between dialogue and the other layers.”

Post: The DI at Co3 in London must have been vital. How did that process help? 

“They’d come down to the set a few times so they could show me where we were going with it. I used my favorite colorist, Stephen Nakamura, and we’d sit there and adjust and change a lot of things — quite dramatically, sometimes, which is what’s so great about the DI, but you’ve still got to get it fundamentally in the camera first. You can’t fix bad coverage in the DI.”

Post:  Did the film turn out as you had hoped? 

“I had a very clear vision of what I wanted... and it turned out great. I had a wonderful relationship with all my actors, and it was one of the best filmmaking experiences I’ve had in a while.”

Post's sister publication CGW shares its reporting on the VFX of Exodus HERE.