The complex set piece was done in two four-day shoots – a “pre-crash,” where the kids can be seen making their own film, and a “post-crash,” after [production designer Martin] Whist re-dressed the set. Production captured many shots, both during and after the crash; for the actual impact, a total of nine cameras were used: four manned, and the remainder unmanned crash cams, such as Eyemos, placed in harm’s way (though all survived undamaged).
The sequence was planned out with Visual Effects Producer Chantal Feghali and Industrial Light Magic Visual Effects Supervisor Kim Libreri (with effects produced under direction of ILM effects legend Dennis Muren). ILM Animation Supervisor Paul Kavanagh created a simple animatic previsualization.
“It was mainly to block out basic action beats,” Libreri explains. “But J.J. had this great idea, given that it was such a large scale environment. Instead of pre-determining everything, he knew what the basic beats were, which he had drawn on little mini-boards. That was our beat sheet, to ensure we were shooting everything in the right order.”
Whist also built a 6-foot by 3-foot model, which enabled the team to envision where things such as cranes, crash cams and explosion events would be set.
“That was where we discussed the best angles for the camera, and where the kids could run,” Libreri recalls. Abrams still added cameras/moves on the actual day, insisting he didn’t want to bleed the scene of its reality through previz and storyboards. And Muren concurs, noting that a lot more was discovered on the day than VFX had anticipated. “You really want to leave directors and cameramen open to what they feel on the set,” Muren says. “Because the movie’s better that way.”
The crash, filmed on the “post-crash”-dressed set, involved capturing the “locomotive” (a green screen vehicle with a headlight, like that of the CG vehicle that would replace it) acting as a ram and smashing through the depot set. The ram was pulled through at a fairly fast clip (about 40 mph) by a cable attached to a crane.
Stationary cameras, of course, were not a part of the equation. In fact, Carr-Forster, shooting from the 50-foot Technocrane on the Maverick, was able to keep the scene’s focus on the kids, despite all the wild mayhem.
“So many other directors would use the explosion as the primary object,” Anderson says. “But J.J. is the kind of storyteller who uses the people as the primary object, and the explosion is almost secondary to the scene.” Anderson’s B-camera was on Steadicam on a dolly track, following both the train ram and the kids, and being pulled by grips moving at the ram’s speed. Libreri says it was like “a Ben Hur chariot Colin was on, to get some high speed motion, following the kids.”
(via Mystery Train : ICG Magazine / Showcasing the members of the International Cinematographers Guild)