Practical Effects: Jeremy Hays on <I>Call Of The Wild</I> & <I>Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood</I>
Issue: January/February 2020

Practical Effects: Jeremy Hays on Call Of The Wild & Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood

Jeremy Hays is a live-action special effects supervisor with more than 25 years of experience under his belt. He recently contributed to The Call Of The Wild, and was tasked with creating 1800s, Gold Rush-era, Yukon Canadian winter environments in 90 degree, Southern California desert conditions using real ice and various biodegradable and environmentally-safe fake snow products. This also included three large water features: an iced over river, in which a character breaks through the ice; an underwater filming tank with water movement and a ceiling of ice; and a large section of a flowing river near a cabin for Harrison Ford to pan for gold and canoe down.

Photo credit (above): John De La Vina

Additionally, all the animals in the film were digitally modeled and created in post, so all of their interactions with humans and their real world environments had to be created on-screen. For example, dog sleds had to be pulled by mechanical devices, and anytime the dogs touched something or grabbed something with their mouths, the items need to be motivated.

Hays also supervised special effects for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, and coordinated Leonardo DiCaprio's flamethrower scenes. He recently took some time to detail his work for Post.

How did you get involved with The Call Of The Wild and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood?

“Both Call Of The Wild and Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood were projects that came to me through relationships created on previous movie productions. Establishing strong working relationships with fellow filmmakers is essential to longevity in the film business. Trust and dependability, as well as hard work and flexibility, is crucial when so much heart and soul go into making a film - not to mention how much time and money is involved. Although I had to interview with Quentin Tarantino to get the job as special effects supervisor on Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, I was initially approached by producers that I worked with on Why Him for 20th Century Fox. After a fun and memorable sit-down interview with Quentin in his office, he agreed to give me a shot based mostly on our love of past films and my desire to work with serious filmmakers. 

“I was involved with The Call Of The Wild since the end of 2017. We began initial prep on the film and had to stand down temporarily while Disney and Fox worked out their new relationship. Once we began principal photography, I was involved for more than a year and a half on the project. The Call Of The Wild came to me through my work with producers on both the Daddy’s Home and Horrible Bosses movie projects.”

What were the films’ special effects needs?

“The practical special effects needs of Call Of The Wild versus a movie like Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood are vastly different. Call Of The Wild is a visual effects-driven movie, with digitally-created characters in virtual worlds that have to interface with real-world characters in creatively-designed sets within the real physical world. My job was to help create environments (snowy fields, underwater ice ceilings, flowing rivers, burning cabins, etc.) in the real world where the digitally-created dogs and real human actors came together to interact and perform in. Additionally, our job is to help motivate all of the real-world objects that the digital characters come into contact with. The practical special effects needs of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood were limited to in-camera special effects with real actors or stunt performers with very little visual effects help. Not to say that there weren’t amazing visual effects, including the virtual set extensions of the late 1960s Hollywood, but rather, there was just very little practical/visual effects interaction. Quentin’s approach was more the in-camera, old-school style of shooting of special effects.

“In Call Of The Wild, we helped create snow for both in stage and on-location sets. We provided wind, smoke, fog, rain, and various other types of atmospheric effects in the movie. We constructed a 300-foot long river with adjustable current flows for various scenes, along with portions of a frozen river that had breakaway ice sections to help tell the story of Francois falling through the ice and being trapped underneath the water. A burning, collapsible cabin had to be designed and built to be burned and reset multiple times. All the dog sled movement and any other movement created by the digitally created dog/real-world object interaction had to be simulated in-camera as well. Some examples would be Buck jumping on the girls’ beds, Buck busting out of the crate, Buck pushing Hal through the cabin doors, Buck busting through the ice, and Buck breaking the bar, etc.

“Some of the special effects needs of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood included various bullet hit effects, breakaway props (glass, the car doors that Bruce Lee gets slammed into, the breakaway phone and movie poster glass that smashed against the Manson girl’s face, the porch and the deck that the cowboy falls through in the high-fall stunt in Bounty Law, etc.), smoking cars, building the blue neon Van de Kamp’s windmill, constructing two mobile working oil field pump-jacks, and most notably, creating the WW2 era working flamethrower that Leo used in the film during his Nazi war movie scene and in the pool during the end of the movie.”

How did you achieve the desired results?

“To help create the snow on Call Of The Wild, we used multiple types of fake snow materials, but mostly chipped ice and cellulose (paper) snow. The chipped ice is made and distributed through a truck-mounted ice chipper. 300-pound blocks of ice are slid out of a refrigerated box truck down a chute into a diesel-powered chipper, which uses a drum with jagged teeth on it. The block of ice is chipped into shaved-ice style snow-like material and sent out a blower on the side of the truck. A large pipe is extended away from the truck and used to spread the ice all across the set. The cellulose snow is a fine ground paper product that is put into the hopper of a modified insulation blower and blown out onto the set trees and rocks to create that wintery look.

“Most of the physical effects created in the movie were things that had to be designed and manufactured specifically for this movie. Things like the flowing river, the burning cabin, the various mechanical devices used to simulate the movement of things Buck interacted with on set, the breakaway and floating ice sections, and the river tanks that they existed on - all were built from scratch to meet the very specific needs of the movie.  

“In Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, most of the tools in this movie were things that we designed and built specifically for the various scenes we were involved in. One, in particular, was the flamethrower that Leonardo DiCaprio uses in the movie. Quentin wanted the look of the flamethrower to match the dark, nasty burning fuel look of the flamethrowers that were used in WW2, but this was something that could not necessarily be done safely on a sound stage during filming. So we created a self-extinguishing liquid propelled flamethrower so that we could control when it fired and how much fuel could be discharged during filming. This was so it would eject the minimal amount of liquid out of the nozzle that would allow the flamethrower to still look intense, but there would be very little residual fuel left on the ground burning once the stream came into contact.”

Can you point to specific shots or scenes that were a challenge?

“In Call Of The Wild, one of the most challenging scenes was the scene where Francois falls through the ice and Buck jumps into the river to rescue her. The entire sequence would involve three separate water tanks. We constructed two 40-foot current tanks that could simulate a flowing river and covered the flowing water with a breakaway ice surface. One tank was constructed with a trap door mechanism that would allow the actress to stand on the breakable ice surface without breaking through, but then be released on a cue to allow her weight to crash through the ice and be swept away by the current. The additional 40-foot current tank had a breakable ice surface and an underwater lift platform that would allow the stunt performers and Buck to break up through the ice from underwater during Francois’ rescue. We also created a floating underwater ice surface that could be filmed from underneath and was equipped with a couple of entrance and exit holes that matched the holes created in the other tanks. All of the footage from these tanks helped create what would ultimately be Francois’ rescue by Buck.

“In Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, the flamethrower scene was the most notable. In addition to trying to create this device that the actor would be able to use to burn eight stunt performers safely during filming, the flamethrower itself became an iconic tool in the movie that Rick Dalton would use later to help defeat members of the Manson family at the end of the movie. None of the ending was scripted to have the flamethrower until after we began using the device on set in the first set-up. Quentin saw that it worked so well, he decided to write more of it into the movie.”