By KEVIN H. MARTIN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By KEVIN H. MARTIN
For over 40 years, Chris Corbould has been involved in delivering a very hands-on version of effects for some of the most spectacular action movies of all time. His entry into the field came while he was still in his teens during a summer stint on the rock musical Tommy, for which his uncle Colin Chilvers (later an Oscar and BAFTA-winner for Superman) was doing floor effects.
“After that, I realized special effects was something I wanted to do all the time,” Corbould explains, noting he soon landed a gig at Effects Associates, based out of UK’s Pinewood Studios. “Once there, I was apprenticed to a number of veterans and set to various tasks. I might be shaping something on a lathe one day, then helping build a specially engineered rig the next.”
During his tenure at Effects Associates, Corbould got firsthand exposure to many venerable old-school effects gags. “I learned the tricks for producing various atmospherics like rain and snow, and later on found out about the pyrotechnic side of things. My early career was one big learning curve, and all that provided knowledge that put me in good stead later. After 10 years or so, when you’ve worked with enough people to figure out the right and the wrong way to do things, you feel secure in starting to build on those established methods.”
Corbould was a trainee on 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, devising “standalone pieces, like ski poles that turn into guns.” With only one exception, he has worked on every Eon-made James Bond feature since, learning from miniature and physical effects maestros Derek Meddings and John Richardson, VES. “On Moonraker there were lots of interesting jobs for John,” he recalls. “Bond’s boat required the addition of a hang glider that deployed from the roof, plus there were mines that launched out the back. Decades later, when I attended the London Museum ‘Bond in Motion’ exhibit, I found it rather funny that in looking at this boat again, I could see all these pieces of welding I’d done on it.”
Down through the years, Corbould’s Bond assignments were a varied and ambitious bunch, including converting Aston Martins and Jaguars to four-wheel drive for Die Another Day’s ice chase and even articulating a four-story sinking house for the Venice-set climax to Casino Royale, which required a 100-ton rig. But during the ‘80s – a period when the Bond budgets, which had doubled on Moonraker, were more closely managed – he helped implement a number of ingenious yet relatively inexpensive solutions. For Your Eyes Only opens with Bond having to commandeer a runaway helicopter flying through a partially-constructed building. “We built the copter to operate from a hydraulic cantilevered arm,” Corbould reveals, “and that attached to a track, so we could give the appearance that Bond was actually within a full aircraft at this location.
“Then there was a whole separate issue for the follow-up,” Corbould continues, “when he impales a wheelchair-bound villain with the helicopter’s landing skid before dropping him down a chimney, all of which was also done practically and full-size. That required us to make a wheelchair that complied with all CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] regulations and specifications. By the time we were done, they could have legally flown that copter and wheelchair anywhere round the whole world!”
As is often the case with the most reliable cinematic collaborators, Corbould believes that a good script has to serve as the primary motivator. “You always read it thinking about how you can make it better,” he notes, “but that read can really inform your ideas, they have to spring from that core.” His first supervisory assignment, on the Pierce Brosnan 007 debut GoldenEye, involved just such an embellishment in response to a director’s inquiry, which resulted in a planned-for motorcycle chase in Russia to instead involve a full-size tank careening through Moscow.
Achieved partly on location, with the rest staged back in the UK, the tank chase was one of the more memorable set-pieces of the series, and shows how through careful planning, the impact of location work can be maximized without spending unduly on travel. “For A View to a Kill, we again did most of the finale at Pinewood as a blimp hits the Golden Gate bridge,” he notes. “We only needed a few establishing shots on location, having built the whole underbelly of the vessel out of steel and hung it off a huge crane, so we were able to do this with full studio controls in place.”
“When [Bond in For Your Eyes Only] impales a wheelchair-bound villain with the helicopter’s landing skid before dropping him down a chimney, all of which was also done practically and full-size, that required us to make a wheelchair that complied with all CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] regulations and specifications. By the time we were done, they could have legally flown that copter and wheelchair anywhere round the whole world!”
“I really like working with those who know how to balance the various aspects of effects work. There’s one mindset to do as much as possible in post, and while I admire the incredible things that can be achieved through visual effects, if you can use them in conjunction with a live effect, that can truly produce some very memorable, incredible results.”
For 1989’s Licence to Kill, Corbould was charged with coordinating one of the most elaborate and sustained chases in the long-running Bond series, involving a number of tanker trucks, nearly all of which wind up exploding as Bond carries out an uncharacteristically personal vengeance on his quarry. “Initially just finding the trailers and the tankers to shoot in Mexico was a problem,” Corbould admits. “We eventually had eight trailers and six tractor units, which had to be modified so they looked alike. There was also the matter of enabling stunt guys to do what they needed. That included creating a special release mechanism on one vehicle that permitted the driver to exit and get away to safety before a particularly large explosion.”
At one point, Bond cuts a fully-loaded tanker loose from its cab sending it careening down the side of a hill to slam into another tanker, causing them both to erupt in flames. When viewing the mayhem, one might conclude that the shot was executed with a ‘hope for the best’ freehand style, but in truth, Corbould carefully prepared and controlled every aspect of the tanker’s bumpy descent. “There was a link between the truck going up the hill and the trailer coming down it,” he reveals. “We had to sink 20 tons of concrete before attaching a pulley at the top of the hill, which ensured we could stop a move or reset as needed.”
Corbould has been responsible for many a mighty fireball, climaxing with a Spectre pyrotechnic event that went right into the Guinness Book of World Records, when Bond decimates Blofeld’s stronghold with a single well-placed shot. “Again, it’s very much a matter of figuring out every aspect in advance,” he acknowledges. “We’ll do five or 10 or sometimes even 20 tests beforehand. Seventy-five percent of our job is testing, not just to make sure we get the look right – a factor that is also dependent on weather, as the biggest blasts look more colorful when shot in overcast conditions – but also to ensure it will all come off safely.”
Corbould fulfilled a longstanding ambition with the Joker’s casual destruction of a hospital on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. “We had a very narrow window in which to shoot that one,” he says. “There was an industrial railway line 200 yards behind the hospital, and under no circumstances were they going to stop their trains, so we couldn’t wait for ideal weather conditions. Even so, I’d always wanted to blow up a building, and Chris afforded me that luxury.” He states that when on private property, testing with seismic monitors is essential, as is providing experts who can examine the data. “I can tell them that there are buildings 150 yards away and get a reliable answer about whether that will cause a problem. You can then tailor the blast to the specific limitations of a location, which means addressing environmental concerns; if you blow something up near water, you can’t use materials that will pollute.”
Prefacing further discussion of his work on Nolan’s films, Corbould declares his admiration for certain types of directors. “I really like working with those who know how to balance the various aspects of effects work,” he states. “There’s one mindset to do as much as possible in post, and while I admire the incredible things that can be achieved through visual effects, if you can use them in conjunction with a live effect, that can truly produce some very memorable, incredible results. With the Bond films and with Chris, I think there is a ‘Wow!’ factor that really comes through with big stunts and in-camera effects. And now, not having to hide safety cables, knowing they can be painted out, makes the work even more safe while upping the very ambitious look and scope.” He cites Tomb Raider’s training robot as an early example of how computer-generated VFX embellished what he could accomplish practically on stage with the articulated mockup, while also admitting there was a certain familiarity in aspects of the bot’s design, which clearly belies any thought that there could be a man inside providing movement. “It’s great fun to make up a robot. That one calls back in some ways to the robot I worked on [with Colin Chilvers] on Saturn 3,” he chuckles. “It seems like every director and production designer has an idea about what the machine should look like and how it should behave, and CGI helped us change the equation a bit on Tomb Raider.”
After meeting Nolan during prep for Batman Begins, Corbould was invited to view a model of the new proposed Batmobile, fashioned kitbash style by Production Designer Nathan Crowley. “Chris asked, ‘Can you build that full-size?’ I said that I could, yeah, but there would have be some compromises made. There was no front axle, so I had to change that, and then there was the challenge to get it traveling 50 miles per hour. In the end, my guys got it up to 100 [mph] – and when the vehicle did its big jumps through space, it could land intact, allowing us to stage these maneuvers 30 times safely and without damage. It was only due to sheer determination on the part of my crew that it wound up so solidly built. I was very proud of what we got on camera, and to be honest, Chris seemed quite over the moon about the results.”
He was initially less than optimistic about fulfilling Nolan’s intent for the truck flip in The Dark Knight, owing to the location selected. “Chris chose a street in Chicago that was located in the banking district and it was barely the width of this trailer’s length, so we had to be 100% sure it was going to go exactly as planned, and not flip or skid sideways into any of these buildings. The day after we flipped the truck, Chris was upset because somebody got a picture of it happening. And I told him I was thrilled about that, because people would probably want to see the movie more after knowing that this kind of thing was done for real.”
Another massive engineering challenge lay ahead for Corbould for his Oscar-winning turn in the director’s Inception. The fight sequence in which gravity becomes fluid within a hotel room hallway looks marvelously photorealistic, owing in no small part to Corbould’s efforts to allow the filmmakers to achieve nearly all of the sequence in-camera. “The action takes place in a 10-footwide corridor running 30 feet in length,” he reports. “It required a close collaboration with electricians, using slip rings to power the apparatus, which turned at 6 rpm.”
While that might sound like a modest rate of speed, it was anything but. “We found that the actors, including Joseph Gordon- Levitt, who was completely and utterly committed to pulling this sequence off, had to stop acting, because at that velocity, it seemed to become all about self-preservation!” Corbould also had to provide a means for the camera to negotiate the set in a sufficiently dynamic manner. “Chris and [Director of Photography] Wally Pfister [ASC] had requirements for the camera to move as well, so we mounted a track beneath the floor that allowed it to run remotely as everything got spun round.”
He feels strongly that his crew of regulars, some of which have been with him for 20 years, are in many ways “the real stars.” With the Bond films requiring effects teams ranging from 70 to 120 crewmembers to complete the most ambitious sequences, Corbould relies on key team members. On Spectre, Lead Workshop Supervisor Kevin Herd helped Corbould tackle another building collapse, seen during the film’s pre-title sequence, while Senior Effects Technician Dan Homewood and Effects Designer Jason Leinster oversaw the construction effort for an underground train crash in Skyfall. That required a pair of carriages to be attached to an overhead monorail track spanning most of Pinewood’s 007 stage, with cables linking them to a tractor that brought the train up to speed for its crash through the expansive set.
Beginning with Skyfall, Corbould added the title of 2nd unit director to his many skills. “I’ve wanted to try this for a while, and Sam Mendes trusted me enough to let me shoot the helicopter attack on Skyfall manor along with various blowings up. To have control over filming these action scenes is something I quite honestly adore, I just love it! Achieving the vision of the first unit director, and hearing him say, ‘That’s exactly what I was looking for!’ tells me that I’ve done my job.”
The Mendes/Corbould teaming was repeated on Spectre, and Corbould will be directing second unit on Disney’s 2018 Christopher Robin project [helmed by Quantum director Marc Forster.] Beyond that, he is also slated to handle these duties on producer Barbara Broccoli’s next non-Bond film, The Rhythm Section.
“Back in the early days of CGI, people said everything would go that route, leaving us physical effects guys with only a few years left,” says Corbould. “But in the interim it seems we found a happy balance between special effects and CG. The ultimate goal remains to make something spectacular, so I believe in using whatever combination of tools that work best to create that illusion. If that means CG for one particular aspect and practical for another, then by all means use them in concert, use them all.”