Coordinating AC Michelle Pizanis Details the Cameras and Bad-Ass Rigs that Captured the Film's Kinetic Action
Some say the genius of George Miller's dystopian Mad Max franchise lies in the uniqueness of its genre-blending vision, equal parts post-apocalyptic morality tale, classic Western, and biker film on steroids. Others point to each film's relentless action, where the audience rides shotgun with road warrior Max Rockatansky, his gritty story in perpetual motion. Gearheads call out the parade of sinister Frankencars and trucks. In Mad Max: Fury Road, just out on Blu-ray, Miller is still firing on all pistons, the drama amped by Charlize Theron's anti-heroine Imperator Furiosa, Tom Hardy's Max reboot, some 200 custom-built vehicles and a strong feminist message. The driving force of Fury Road, however, is this installment's extraordinary array of practical effects and how Miller, cinematographer John Seale, ACS, ASC, and the large crew captured its many moving parts.
"You get on set with some directors and wonder how they ever got so far," says L.A.-based coordinating camera assistant Michelle Pizanis, who travelled with the crew to the Namibian desert for principal photography in 2012 and back to her home town of Sydney in 2013 for additional shooting. "But not George. He knows exactly what he needs and what he doesn't need. His vision affects every little thing during production."
Mad Max: Fury Road took more than 15 years to develop and spent 120 days in production, 84 of which were full days of shooting, says Pizanis. (Miller has said he was set to begin filming in 2001 but after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he shifted gears to direct Happy Feet, winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Animated Film.) "Every single stunt or effect you see had a practical basis," she says, requiring carefully calibrated setups and executions to maximize coverage and on-set safety. "George would try anything, but never once would they put anyone's safety at risk. It was always safety first. If a shadow fell on the wrong side or the light faded too fast, we knew it could be fixed in post. We didn't have any serious accidents out there, and I thought, 'Well, there's a first.'"
Charlize Theron (left) on location with director George Miller.
Not one camera failed as a result of the conditions on location either, says Pizanis, although there was plenty of back-up built into the workflow: Six ARRI Alexa Plus and four ARRI Alexa M cameras recorded to 11 onboard Codex recorders as well as in-camera to SxS cards. "Each camera was fully independent of one another," Pizanis says. "Each one had its own remote focus device and its own set of zooms so they could work independently but also at the same time so we could capture all of it." Cast, crew and cameras were at the mercy of the desert conditions, and Pizanis says custom casing and some extra rigging ensured the cameras would keep rolling no matter what. "During the African shoot, we fit the lenses with compressed airline systems to keep them clean and operational," she says. "And at the end of the day, after we wrapped, all the ACs worked for hours cleaning out the dirt and grime from the gears. We had a technician on set to check the jib and clean the gates and give the main cameras and lenses the all-clear for the night."
The Alexas were mounted to two fully loaded performance vehicles from Performance Filmworks outfitted with their Edge system, a gyro-stabilized crane that can rotate on the top of the car a full 360 degrees; camera crews operated the Alexa Ms in handheld mode from inside the cars. "We also ran two Steadicams side-by-side at all times," says Pizanis. The production went through an additional 14 Canon 5Ds in Africa, where about 70 percent of filming took place, and added Blackmagic's 2.5K Cinema Cameras and Nikon D800s when production returned to Australia for additional shooting. "Once the studio saw what George had done in Africa, they gave him more money to come back to Australia to shoot it all practically — to blow up the cars and destroy everything." The smaller cameras were rigged just about everywhere, says Pizanis. "We rigged them in the cars and in the Shape housing we used, and we rigged them inside brick walls that we knew the vehicles would hit. We got some great footage from those collisions."
The wheeled "Ledge" crane, flanked by the production's two Edge vehicles.
According to Pizanis, Miller's wife Margaret Sixel, the film's editor, loved the images John Seale was getting from what Miller and the crew called his "paparazzi" camera, his personal second camera with a long zoom that he'd use for hard-to-reach close-ups. "If George didn't want him using it, Margaret would be the first to say, 'Everything John's giving us is great. We just need more of it! Let him shoot with whatever he wants.' Eventually, George just let John go free and put that camera everywhere." Sixel ended up with some 480 hours of footage to edit and reportedly averaged just under 23 cuts per minute of footage.
Pizanis and first AC Ricky Schamburg tested a number of consumer cameras in Los Angeles to find suitable crash cameras before filming began. "Originally, editorial wanted a consumer-style look inserted on the 5D, to desaturate the image," she says. "But once we realized how George was using that footage and zooming within the shots taken with the 5D cameras, that look started to pixelate and lose quality. We brought the 2.5K Blackmagic Cinema Cameras on when we got back to Australia so we could record as high a quality as possible. We hooked an Atomos Ninja 2 up to the Nikon D800, but the only problem with using HDMI cables to attach it is if you happen to hit it during a stunt, after impact it doesn't render."
The smaller cameras were outfitted with Tokina's ultrawide 11–16 mm lenses, initially chosen to accommodate the 2D-to-3D conversion process in post. "We also attached a Blackmagic camera to a rig Tom Hardy wore at close range [seen at top]. Panavision, which provided gear and support, reconfigured the Blackmagic cameras so we could attach a block battery and let the camera run the entire time," something you can't do normally with the camera's locked battery system. "Panavision also helped us connect an external monitor so the DP could see the images as they came in."
The Ledge crane
Various octocopters and drone vehicles were tested in rehearsals for aerial shots, but were ultimately not rugged enough, or, with their open blades, deemed too dangerous to use around the sizable cast and crew. In addition to the two Edge vehicles, another moving rig was constructed to acquire high-angle tracking shots with the "Armada" as it traversed the desert. Called the "Ledge," in reference to the Edge arm that eventually became part of it, the crane supplemented the primary ride-along cinematography. "Initially these shots were going to be done with a drone of some sort," says Pizanis, "but back when we were shooting it was early days in the drone revolution and we couldn’t find one that was suitable."
The first outing with the Ledge, however, was a stunt in itself. "Action-unit key grip J.P. Ridgeway and the stunt rigging department commandeered one of the picture vehicles with a particularly wide wheel base and used it as a base to construct a 30-foot high tri-truss tower with a platform—our ledge—on top, from which our stunt coordinator and director Guy Norris could stand and operate a bungee-supported Alexa M," Pizanis explains. "The shots were great, although they all had some degree of float. We refined the idea by mounting the Edge Suspension Arm, stabilized Libra head and Alexa Plus to the tower and the problem was solved. It wasn’t something we used every day, but it was a great piece of equipment when the high angles were required," she adds. Norris supervised more than 150 stunt performers during the shoot, some of whom had Cirque du Soleil and Olympic training.
The rigged trench
The camera crew also put a camera crane in a trench to capture the action of the lead vehicles from yet another unique angle. "After the location was surveyed, a hole, long and deep enough to contain a 24-foot [Grip Factory] GF-6 crane, was dug and reinforced with a concrete floor and breeze block sides," says Pizanis. "The GF-6 and dolly were then lowered by construction crane into the hole. The dolly was attached by cables laid in tubes underground to another dolly and track on the surface, which was well out of harm's way. As the second dolly was pushed along the track the crane in the hole lowered (or raised). As the armada raced across the desert toward the rig, the Alexa Plus was lowered into the hole at the very last second, just an inch below the surface, capturing the underbelly of the lead vehicles as they straddled the hole—a very exciting shot!"
With so many cameras, angles and quick cuts, Miller chose to frame his film dead center, keeping each scene's most important action and the actors' eyes and noses locked in the crosshairs. "Amid the battery of fast cuts, the audience can continue looking straight ahead without losing sight of the primary action," says Pizanis. In the end, 3D is actually beside the point. "George was conscious of the 3D element and wanted to minimize audience eye strain, but framing this way with a lot of cuts draws you directly into the action, regardless of format. It's just extremely effective storytelling."
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