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October 06
2021

ISSUE

Fall 2021

ENGINEERING MEMORABLE ACTION SCENES WITH SFX SUPERVISOR HAYLEY WILLIAMS

By TREVOR HOGG

 Images courtesy of Hayley Williams, except where noted. 
Hayley Williams

Movie and television productions are a way of life for Hayley J. Williams, who used work with her Oscar-winning father, Joss Williams (Hugo), before establishing her own special effects company. “One of the biggest recollections I have is going to visit the set of Judge Dredd in 1994,” states Williams. “Dad would show us his tests, things exploding, and the famous ABC robot he built standing in the corner of the workshop, which was a huge deal when you’re a child. When I was a teenager, I got some work experience with him on Sleepy Hollow and Mortal Kombat. That’s when I knew I would follow in his footsteps one day.”

Born in Taplow, England, Williams spent her adolescent and teenage years in Worcestershire and Maidenhead where her separated parents lived. “I grew up in the countryside where I enjoyed horse riding and being outdoors a lot of the time.” Family businesses are the norm in the special effects industry. “People grow up around it and come along with their parents and learn the trade,” observes Williams. “There’s an artistic mindset in my family. We’ve been in the film industry for many years. My father, uncle and my father’s uncle are all successful in their own right before me, so I naturally gravitated towards it.”

As a child, Williams was intrigued by how bridges and buildings were constructed and remained standing. “I was fascinated in how and who designed them, so I took an interest in civil engineering and studied the science behind design and construction – knowledge that became very useful to me in special effects today.” The high school student decided to pursue a career in the film industry, but her father had other plans. “My dad insisted I come into it with a skillset first. He said, ‘You’re not just leaving school and getting a job. I want you to go to college first.’ I chose to do mechanical engineering at Worcestershire College of Technology. Once I finished my full-time course, the offer was there for a job with my dad but, at that time, the college also offered to further my education and an apprenticeship. I took the apprenticeship with an investment foundry called Doncasters Precision Castings, who make airplane engine and gas turbine blades. I became a project engineer with them. After five years I felt like I knew the process inside out and wanted to get started in the film industry. 

 “Even though there are the explosions, fire, rain and other atmospherics in special effects, there is also a great demand for mechanical engineering, too,” remarks Williams. “The experience I’d gained in my education gave me a good foundation to train and build my way up to a special effects technician.” A lot was learned from her father. “My dad taught me everything he knew and saw the potential in me. He didn’t treat me differently just because I was his daughter. He pushed me hard and taught me well with discipline and respect for special effects. A huge thing I learned from my dad was how important testing and safety was but, most importantly, how to stand your ground when it comes to that.” Another mentor was Oscar-winner Neil Corbould, VES (Gravity). “Neil was good to me and helped me along my journey the same way my dad did. They’re both huge special effects supervisors, and I learned from the best. It’s wonderful to have their support and input.” 

A fully working mechanical clock was constructed on D stage at Pinewood Studios for Hugo. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Neil [Corbould] was good to me and helped me along my journey the same way my dad did. They’re both huge special effects supervisors, and I learned from the best. It’s wonderful to have their support and input.” 

—Hayley Williams 

Filmmaker Tim Burton has played a big role in the careers of father and daughter. “When Dad retired, I supervised for Tim because he knew me and my team,” states Williams. “Tim views his film crew as family and loves being surrounded by people he knows and trusts. The first film I worked on was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve gotten to know how he works, what he likes and dislikes. There are certain questions that I don’t need to ask because I already know the answer.” Special effects not only require technical expertise but artistry, too. “So much of what we do isn’t just about how we are going to achieve it, but also it’s

about the final look. We always test constantly before showing the director different variations, because what they’re looking for and what’s in my head maybe slightly different. Testing allows us to get on the same page as the director to help create their original vision.”

The belief that digital effects would completely replace practical elements has not proven to be true. “There was a point where visual effects felt threatening, and some special effects technicians believed it could potentially end an era for us all,” remarks Williams. “But now having been through that period we realized there will always be a harmony between practical and digital effects. In fact, I think it’s great now, as the dust has settled, as we all realized both areas are very much needed. We all have a role to play working in a symbiotic way, taking our live-action work and crossing over into digital. I’ve worked closely with visual effects supervisors over the last five years, and together we have come up with some great effects. You provide as much as you can safely and cost-effectively on set, and they can enhance it. You can work together and produce some beautiful-looking effects.”

Hayley Williams with her father and mentor, Joss Williams.

Williams takes part in making Dark Shadows for frequent collaborator Tim Burton.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on Annihilation for Williams was being able to be part of the creative decisions early on in pre-production. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Williams served as Special Effects Supervisor on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Williams assists her father, Joss Williams, in producing the special effects for Dark Shadows.

Advances in technology have made certain aspects of special effects faster. “Water cutting, laser cutting and 3D printing are essential to us meeting deadlines these days with time-scales and schedules getting busier with more demand,” notes Williams. “For example, where once we would be in the workshop cutting and building something for ourselves, instead now we have a full CAD team who will design our rigs with stress- testing factored in on computer and then send those files to fabricators and be back to us within days ready for assembly.” 

The Pacific was heaven for the special effects team, where Williams served as an administrator and technician for her father. “We went to Australia for 12 months to film HBO’s The Pacific,” recalls Williams. “We were so busy on that project, prepping and shooting countless bullet hits, large explosions, and constructing breakaway buildings that we then destroyed. It was early on in my career, and I was on set for most of the production. It was hard work, but we had a brilliant time, and I was proud to be a part of it as special effects then went onto win two Emmys as a result.” 

Hugo was a good lesson on the importance of atmospherics. “Smoke haze, steam vents and water drip rigs were all added to help create the final look of the old train station,” remarks Williams. “As well as the importance of atmospherics, we had to construct a huge, fully-working mechanical clock on D stage at Pinewood Studios. It was also extremely important to get the safety measures right with the children moving all around it. We made a number of large cogs with soft foam teeth. There were so many moving pieces to that rig, and it looked amazing. We went over by three months, which is unusual, but worth the extra input to get the final look as special effects won an Oscar for it.” 

Williams enjoyed how collaborative filmmaker Alex Garland was when making Annihilation. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Sci-fi thriller Criminal by Ariel Vromen was the debut of Williams as a special effects supervisor. “I had been assistant supervising for a while, and Neil Corbould gave me a break. We did lots of car explosions, bullet hits, some great flipping rigs, and I began to build my team up and get my reputation as a supervisor.” Projects have ranged from small scale to blockbusters. “My approach is the same in terms of getting the best effect for the budget that we have. I want to find out what the director wants to see, do some tests and get some feedback. We had some lovely gags to do on Holmes & Watson, but it was on a completely different scale to Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, where we were blowing up big castle wall sections and made huge air rigs to replicate downdraft on the flying Fey that were later put in as CG. 

Annihilation was a strange one for me as it wasn’t just a case of what the director wanted and we go out and make it happen, but this time I was more involved in the decision-making of the storyline from a special effects point of view,” states Williams. “I met with director Alex Garland and the team early on, and we sat in a room in London talking through the script. I had good input into items that involved special effects. It wasn’t a huge effects film, but was big enough. We went out to some beautiful locations, got some great shots, and Alex loved it all. It’s always rewarding when you get that feedback from the director.” 

“There was a point where visual effects felt threatening, and some special effects technicians believed it could potentially end an era for us all. But now having been through that period we realized there will always be a harmony between practical and digital effects. In fact, I think it’s great now, as the dust has settled, as we all realized both areas are very much needed. We all have a role to play working in a symbiotic way, taking our live-action work and crossing over into digital.” 

—Hayley Williams 

Williams with special effects technician Max Brown on the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Williams as a special effects technician setting up fires for Dark Shadows.

A personal highlight for Williams was being able to follow in the footsteps of her father and being a special effects supervisor for Tim Burton on Dumbo. (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Williams appreciates having a good professional team around her that can get the results needed for productions such as The Old Guard. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The special effects were designed to support the comedic gags in Holmes & Watson. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Along with working on blockbusters, Williams also been involved with productions such as Me Before You. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Williams was part of the Netflix production of The Old Guard, which had several female heads of department as well as director Gina Prince-Bythewood. There is still a long way to go in raising the presence of women in special effects, says Williams. “I have a few female special effects technicians on my crew, and I always encourage them. It still feels like a male-dominated department, but I hope that my success does help people to see that it is possible. I always try to accommodate young girls who want to start a career in special effects and bring them within our department to learn and forward their careers.” 

Charlize Theron is a force to reckon with as an actress and producer, states Williams. “She is awesome! We did a lot of gags on The Old Guard. The nice thing about that job was that we worked quite closely with the actors getting them amongst a lot of the practical effects. Safety being a priority, we were confident after enough rehearsing to have bullet hits flying around them and doors blowing in near them. It’s always nice to have the actual cast involved with some of those shots rather than it always being a separate pass with doubles. It looks better and more convincing to tell the story.” 

What is the secret to a long career in the movie industry? “It comes down to a few things,” observes Williams. “I have good working relationships with different producers and production teams. When they’re happy with the job that you do and the results show on screen, then you get called back. Another secret is having a good professional team around me that get the results. When those things come together and you’ve done a good job, it’s a nice feeling when the phone rings for your next potential project.” 

Williams enjoys the escapism of watching a movie. “I don’t like it to be too serious. I like the action and laughs. There is enough going on in life, so it’s nice to sit and watch a movie and escape from the world. For me, that kind of feeling comes from the Indiana Jones films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. A passion for action movies carries on when you become a special effects supervisor!” 


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