VFX: 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Issue: May 1, 2015

VFX: 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

SYDNEY — Mad Max: Fury Road, the new feature from Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures, marks the return of director George Miller, who created the original and hugely-popular Mad Max/Road Warrior films and helped launch the career of Mel Gibson. The latest release stars Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky, who is haunted by his turbulent past, and wanders the barren landscape on his own, trying to survive. 

Max gets swept up by a group of women who are trying to flee a tyrannized desert Citadel — one where a brutal ruler restricts water, keeps the population as slaves, and uses women for his own breeding purposes. Charlize Theron stars as Imperator Furiosa, who leads an escape, taking over a massive War Rig vehicle, meant for transporting fuel, which she instead uses to hide fellow escapees. Like past Mad Max films, there’s lots of action, including fights with make-shift weapons, high-speed chases in unique hybrid vehicles, and of course, dry and dusty desert landscapes.

Australia’s Iloura served as the sole VFX house on the film, handling upwards of 1,700 shots. The studio is known for its work on Ted (Ted 2 is in the works), as well as on the recent Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge out of Water film. Post had a chance to talk with Tom Wood, who headed up VFX teams at Iloura’s Melbourne and Sydney studios. Here, he details the facility’s work on the feature — one that director George Miller doesn’t necessarily see as “a visual effects film.”

POST: Did Mad Max: Fury Road overlap with Iloura’s work on the Spongebob movie?

WOOD: “We have two offices: One in Melbourne, south of us here in Sydney. It’s a two-hour flight between the two, so we are fairly separated. The Melbourne office specializes in character animation and the Sydney office, more general effects. We were fortunate enough to secure the Fury Road job back… I don’t recall how long it was? We did 30 months of post. It must have been 2012. And in between the Spongebob film came in to Melbourne. They were fortunate to get that as well.”

POST: What is you’re role?

WOOD: “I am actually full-time here, with Iloura, but we’re looking at that whether I am full-time or retained. There aren’t that many shows going through Australia to support us all. We have to go further afield.

“I wasn’t the VFX supervisor for the whole show. That was a guy called Andrew Jackson, who’s been on it six years. I was brought in as someone with a little more experience. Iloura/Sydney was being set up. It started as Method/Sydney, and we amalgamated the name from the Melbourne branch.”

POST: Does Iloura pretty much focus on features?

WOOD: “We do have enough features to keep going. We are doing Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt at the moment, which is a huge show. We have been doing a lot of little local moves. We did an Anton Corbijn movie - Life. Australia has a very busy and active film industry. There are lots of shows coming out all the time, for the population. They all need a little bit of work, so we have these filler jobs that come in all the time. I am about to work on a Sean Penn show that is picking up here.”

POST: Describe Iloura’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road?

WOOD: “We were the sole vendor. [Kennedy Miller Mitchell], the production company got together some guys and did about 200 shots in-house. We did the rest. There are 1,695 in the show.”

POST: How did Iloura break down the different shots?

WOOD: “Because it was such an elongated post period, it was very much lead by George. We were given the ‘toxic storm’ sequence first, which is the big twisters and a very dark sequence. It was shot on a very open, flat, sunny desert, and we had to fill in every thing around it — dust blowing on the ground, dust that they drive through, and pretty much replace everything in the shot, including cars and actors. But because he cut it sequentially, we were given a scene at a time to work through. At any one time we had maybe three to four scenes running. In terms of breaking it down with any one type of shot, it wasn’t really possible to do that.”

POST: What are some of the VFX highlights?

WOOD: “The toxic storm, both approaching the storm and inside the storm are pretty significant pieces of work for us. Pretty much inside the toxic storm, apart from very close ups of the vehicles, it’s full replacement, or lighting, to relight cars for the darker lighting set up inside the storm. 

“George presented this as a non-VFX film, and it is pretty much a non-VFX film, except that we’ve touched almost everything. It’s contradictory. Most of the stunts are real and really extreme and visceral, and shocking some of them. I think we did about 20 shots where we had to put in digital stunt doubles. It was just too extreme for them to actually achieve in-camera.

“We did character animation — people tumbling off cars, falling on the ground — that kind of thing. Cars impacting each other, with actors very, very close by. That kind of impact became a CG impact or a CG actor. George’s impulse is to go for a CG impact rather than a CG actor, which I think it correct.

“The rest of it was pretty much environments. We went to Namibia to shoot — Southern Africa — which is a pretty extreme environment. There are huge dunes and huge rocky desert canyons, but when we got into post, none of it was big enough for George. So it had to be reconstructed from source photography and made bigger.”

POST: One would think the shoot would have taken place in Australia?

WOOD: “Before I came on — three of four years ago — they set out to shoot it where they shot the other ones, which was in Broken Hill, in the outback of Australia. I think they went out twice, where it had rained the week before — where it never rains — and the desert bloomed. They had to cancel the shoot twice over, so they bit the bullet and went to Africa.”

POST: What tools does Iloura rely on for feature VFX? 

WOOD: “The top end of tools — we are running Maya and Nuke — pretty traditional, mainline VFX tools. What we have been doing, we used Endorphin for rigid body simulations, for the stunt men and actor simulations. And we used PhotoScan to create a lot of the environments.”

POST: That’s VFX, based on photography?

WOOD: “There is a lot that goes on between the PhotoScan and getting it into a shot, but it was a very, very useful initial start. Andrew Jackson, the supervisor, had shot specifically huge areas of canyon or individual rocks or landscapes for that to be done. We had the resources to complete those.”

POST: Is Iloura working on other film simultaneously?

WOOD: “It was never the only show going through. Because of the prolonged post period, we had at the maximum, probably 100 people working on it, which is not a huge number. We shuffled people between the two offices too, as the workload picked up in one and dwindled in the other and vice versa.”

POST: Do the two offices have different expertise?

WOOD: “The Melbourne office has done Ted and is doing Ted 2. They do really specific character work. Here, the Sydney office does more generalized work. We don’t like to be pigeonholed.”

POST: Are the tools similar at the different studios?

WOOD: “They have Maya and 3DS Max and Nuke. 3DS Max is used for characters.”

POST: How was Fury Road shot?

WOOD: “It was all shot on Arri Alexas.”

POST: How would you describe the look of the film?

WOOD: “It’s really a very traditional visual effects approach. George presented it as a film devoid of visual effects, which it is clearly not, but it has the look of an achievable movie — apart from the toxic storm sequence. Everything else, if you stretch the imagination slightly, it’s all pretty achievable with stunts. A lot of the stunts, where you say, ‘I don’t believe that.’ They actually did it!”

POST: Were you working with an edited version of the film, or just scenes?

WOOD: “When we set out, [George] cut the first two reels and locked them and said, ‘Those aren’t going to change.’ So we had all the visual effects from those two reels, and that included the toxic storm. The initial Citadel build hadn’t actually been shot yet, so there were some blank patches, but he was adamant that that wouldn’t change, and he pretty much stuck to his word on that. We watched the movie the night before last and it’s tightened up. It’s the same cut, but it’s tighter. He had it all in his head, but it took him a long time to cut it and turn it over to us.”

POST: Why did it span such a long time?

WOOD: “I think it’s because he’s in change. It’s his product and he’s the producer and director.”

POST: With the success of the original films, is there much anticipation for this new film in Australia?

WOOD: “Absolutely. There is an ownership to Australian movies that the Australian public have. When they do well abroad, ‘It’s an Australian movie,’ and that’s very heavily promoted and supported. The anticipation here is huge!”