VFX Voice

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.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


January 03
2023

ISSUE

Winter 2023

LOST IN THE MOVIES OF PETER WEIR

By TREVOR HOGG

Filmmaker Peter Weir. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Filmmaker Peter Weir. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Master and Commander production images courtesy of Disney and Nathan McGuinness. Fearless images courtesy of Flash Film Works.

One does not think about spectacle when watching the movies of filmmaker Peter Weir, who believes in infiltrating the subconscious with subtle visual and sonic cues, rather than overloading the senses with eye candy to create the desired mood and atmosphere for audience members. Even when digital and practical effects play an integral role in achieving the necessary epic scope, there is an organic quality to the image being presented on the screen. “The most work that I did with special effects or CGI was Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and that was quite something to make [ocean scenes] look real. Most of the oceans are composites. We were only at sea for 10 days,” notes Weir, who received an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards for a career consisting of 13 films, six Academy Award nominations, and being a key member of the Australian New Wave that turned a cinematic hinterland into an internationally renowned film industry.

Shooting in the water tank built for Titanic in Rosarito, Mexico, was the preferred option for Master and Commander, which takes place during the Napoleonic War. “It was probably one of the most difficult films I ever worked on,” remarks Russell Boyd, who reunited with Weir after two decades and received an Oscar for Best Cinematography. “There were an awful lot of mechanical special effects in it like water explosions, all that fun. I remember about six weeks before shooting started, we all looked at each other and asked, ‘How are we going to make this picture?’ because there were so many variables. Everything was scaled up. The visual effects certainly played a part. It was a huge learning curve for all of us, but in the end, we stuck with our guns. Peter made the most genius call by commissioning these huge models that were 1/6th scale to be built at Wētā Workshop, which I believe that the studio didn’t want to do. They wanted to digitally create the boats, and it honestly would have been a disaster because those models turned out to be fantastic.”

Good fortune occurred when shooting plate footage. “The Endeavour replica was sailing around Cape Horn from west to east during our pre-production time, so I managed to get a cameraman on board,” Weir remarks. “It is hard to buy 35mm or high-quality visual shots of the ocean with swells or huge waves all around. People shoot on 16mm, [camera operators did] in the old days anyway, or on inferior digital video cameras. He didn’t get the storm but did get some fabulous ocean plates with big swells. Those were valuable for Asylum VFX [the visual effects company].” The only time CG ships appeared was in the wide shots. “Peter was so precise in what he wanted,” recalls Nathan McGuinness, former Creative Director/Visual Effects Supervisor of Asylum, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. “He came in early in the meetings with an oil painting of that period ship in a storm. Peter goes, ‘I want the storm to look like this.’ That’s exactly what I used as my reference.”

Weir standing in front of the HMS Surprise, which was shot in the same water tank that was built for Titanic.

Weir standing in front of the HMS Surprise, which was shot in the same water tank that was built for Titanic.

“It was a monolithic compositing show,” McGuinness states. “We had 17 Flames running. Everyone was doing their roto and sitting there sifting through all of the ocean plates we had and blending. What we did was to create two or three master shots that were exactly what Peter wanted and that then helped us to control the look. [Editor] Lee Smith and his team were in my building, so we were together. That took the communication [concern] of not knowing what the editors are doing completely away.” Digital double work was minimal, McGuinness observes. “We did shoot libraries of doubles so that we could stack them onto the ship, especially for the models and anything that wasn’t live. Also, we were able to take pieces from what we shot off of the live shoot with the crew on and put that on the models.” There was a limit to what could be done on set with the actors. “We mapped it all out, had the actors go everywhere, recreated that layout with the explosions going off, and drop-comped it all in,” McGuinness describes. “We would pick up the elements that were needed, like the wood, embers and the cannon fire. We had libraries of footage that the compositors could grab and add in. We had a lot of atmospherics.”

Miniature Effects Supervisor Richard Taylor examines one of the miniatures constructed for Master and Commander at Weta Workshop.

Miniature Effects Supervisor Richard Taylor examines one of the miniatures constructed for Master and Commander at Weta Workshop.


Visual Effects Supervisor Nathan McGuinness shares a moment with Weir while producing the visual effects for Master and Commander at Asylum.

Visual Effects Supervisor Nathan McGuinness shares a moment with Weir while producing the visual effects for Master and Commander at Asylum.

A real-life plane crash was recreated for Fearless, but Weir does not view it in the same light as his nautical adventure. “Oh, that was a different thing,” Weir explains. “That was in the earlier days before CGI. There was a company in Los Angeles [Introvision International] that specialized in making these plates for you, and they were very good. When Jeff Bridges is standing on the roof of the building, they built the actual corner of the building at the studio and then made up plates of the traffic in the background and seamlessly married them. I could see it through the camera in that case, so we were able to fold in the background into the viewfinder. For the plane crash, I bought materials that had been used for a plane cabin, and we created a lot of it in the studio because it was mostly interior, so you could create the chaos and debris.”

Orchestrating the special effects, which included dump tanks to add to the realism.

Orchestrating the special effects, which included dump tanks to add to the realism.

Ocean plates and live action footage of Russell Crowe are composited together.

Ocean plates and live action footage of Russell Crowe are composited together.


Water cannons were utilized to get the proper interaction between the ocean and ship.

Water cannons were utilized to get the proper interaction between the ocean and ship.


Some shots were captured using a gimbal and bluescreen rather than in the water tank.

Some shots were captured using a gimbal and bluescreen rather than in the water tank.


Water tanks in action during principal photography of Master and Commander.

Water tanks in action during principal photography of Master and Commander.

Introvision International altered a model that had been previously used for the television movie Miracle Landing. “We shot it upside down so that anything breaking off would fall down to help make it look like it was blowing away,” remarks William Mesa, who was the Visual Effects Supervisor on Fearless. “All kinds of wires were connected to little parts of the plane body so when the camera started rolling, we could pull off luggage compartments or different windows to make it look as if it’s being ripped away. Then we shot many different plates from various angles with Jeff Bridges and the boy next to him.” Plates were shot outdoors. “We had a truck with a VistaVision high-speed camera mounted on the roof and crashed through a cornfield as fast as we could possibly go until it got all clogged up underneath.” Weir wanted the passengers to see that the plane was out of control. “For a lot of the shots, we used a Sabreliner jet, took the door off and mounted a VistaVision camera in it,” Mesa states. “Then we made runs back towards Bakersfield and literally took that plane upside down and then back up again. I almost got sick doing it!”

The roof of a 12-story building in San Francisco was the location for when Jeff Bridges’ character stands on a ledge. “We couldn’t get certain angles there because the set was way inland to the actual building,” Mesa explains. “Plus, the ledge was much higher than the real one. Jeff could climb up on top of that and be totally safe. The biggest concern was for me to shoot the plates hanging over the end of the building and looking down. It was a safety concern for the camera. But we worked that rig out.” A number of onlookers appeared in the surrounding windows. “Tons of women would put up their phone number saying, ‘Call me tonight,’” Mesa comments. “The production manager had to go over to the building and tell them we couldn’t do anything because all of this stuff was in the background; that ended up delaying us for a while.” The set was reconstructed inside a studio. “You go through a certain process of having to get what you call ambient light,” Mesa adds. “[DP] Allen Daviau left it up to me to light a lot of that, then he would go in and tweak the lighting on the face to be the look that he wanted it to be.”

An intricate series of wires was connected to the miniature to make sure that the pieces came off at the right time for Fearless.

An intricate series of wires was connected to the miniature to make sure that the pieces came off at the right time for Fearless.

Experimenting with visual and sonic trickery such as camera speeds and earthquake sounds date back to the adaption of Picnic at Hanging Rock. At the turn of 20th century, a group of school girls disappear upon entering a mysterious volcanic formation in Australia. “Not only did the film not have an ending, it was a whodunnit with no ending,” Weir observes. “I had to somehow strive to make it so that you want to live in the mystery. But to do that I had to make it dreamy and not overemphasize the investigation from the police.” [Cinematographer] Russell Boyd finds it inspiring to work with a director who is adventurous with camera angles. “Peter has always liked to experiment with using different lenses and different heights with the lenses in getting a shot, and the speed of the camera. He likes slow motion just to heighten one little mannerism or a little movement. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, when the girls were crossing the river, we shot in 32 frames, which gives it that slight motion effect.” Lens distortion was utilized to create an impression that a magnetic field might be present. “There was a bit of that,” remarks John Seale, who was the Cinematographer on the film, as well as on The Last Wave and Gallipoli. “Also, the use of the rock formations, finding a face and having it quietly sitting in the top left corner where the audience might suddenly say, ‘Did you see that?’” There are voyeuristic shots. “It’s as though the rock is watching and preying on them,” Seale says. “The simplicity of girls walking up to a rock enhanced by Peter Weir is something awesome to watch.”

A miniature plane engine was placed outside of a helicopter and shot from the perspective of a passenger for Fearless.

A miniature plane engine was placed outside of a helicopter and shot from the perspective of a passenger for Fearless.


Visual Effects Supervisor William Mesa with Weir for the studio shoot of the high-rise sequence in Fearless when Jeff Bridges stands on the ledge, which involved Introvision plate projection.

Visual Effects Supervisor William Mesa with Weir for the studio shoot of the high-rise sequence in Fearless when Jeff Bridges stands on the ledge, which involved Introvision plate projection.


Preparing a shot of the interior of the miniature plane used for the crash sequence in Fearless.

Preparing a shot of the interior of the miniature plane used for the crash sequence in Fearless.

The desert crossing scene in Gallipoli was practically shot with Weir accompanied by 1st AD Mark Egerton as he talks to his lead actors Mark Lee and Mel Gibson. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

The desert crossing scene in Gallipoli was practically shot with Weir accompanied by 1st AD Mark Egerton as he talks to his lead actors Mark Lee and Mel Gibson. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Weir on the set of Picnic at Hanging Rock with actress Rachel Roberts, where he experimented with camera speeds and sound effects, such as earthquake rumbles, to create a sense of otherworldliness. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Weir on the set of Picnic at Hanging Rock with actress Rachel Roberts, where he experimented with camera speeds and sound effects, such as earthquake rumbles, to create a sense of otherworldliness. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)


Cinematographer Russell Boyd composes a camera angle for The Last Wave starring Richard Chamberlain, which was actually shot in the underground caverns situated below Sydney. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Cinematographer Russell Boyd composes a camera angle for The Last Wave starring Richard Chamberlain, which was actually shot in the underground caverns situated below Sydney. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)


Weir directing Lukas Haas for the train station scene in Witness. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Weir directing Lukas Haas for the train station scene in Witness. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)


Weir made his Hollywood directorial debut with Witness, where he bonded with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Weir made his Hollywood directorial debut with Witness, where he bonded with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Visions of an impending disaster dominate the narrative of The Last Wave where a criminal defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) discovers that he has a mystical connection to his Aboriginal clients. “At the time,” Weir states, “I was influenced by reading the works of Immanuel Velikovsky, who believed the world is changed often or several times by catastrophes, which were acts with bodies from space at one time or another, like from asteroid collisions or coming close to stars that moved out of their alignment. I also wanted to talk to these Aboriginal elders which was the most interesting part of making the film.” Seale believes that Weir always looks for that ethereal sense he can get out of a normal emotion. “The Last Wave was full of that right from the word ‘go’ because it was from the imagination of a man that comes into reality,” Seale explains. “Peter invented a tracking shot we called the ‘imperceptible move.’ The camera moves in almost subliminally so that the audience sitting in the theater would feel as though they were leaning forward, that something is going to happen. The two grips would sit down on opposite wheels of the dolly and turn them by hand so the camera was so gently moving forward. Once it got awkward for one of the grips to turn the wheel without taking his hands off of it, the other guy on the other side would take over, keeping it moving while he re-positioned his hands for the next bit.”

Gallipoli was all about honoring the memory of the Australian soldiers slaughtered during the infamous World War I battle that left a permanent scar on the nation’s psyche. “When I went, you could walk around the battlefield,” Weir recalls. “There are bullets and broken bayonets. The trenches had fallen in, but you could still see trench lines. Having gone through the experience of that day at Gallipoli on my own with no one around, that was it. I swore that I would make this picture for them as a sort of war memorial.” Special effects handled the explosions and guns. “It was a bit of Australian ‘what if?’ because when we’re in the trenches and the shell explosions were coming down the hill towards us,” Seale remembers. “There were actually giant packets of dynamite in the ground and we all got shell shocked! The trench walls were shaking and starting to collapse. We had to have earplugs in because of the compression.”

Weir pauses a moment to reflect while making The Way Back. (Photo: Simon Varsano)

Weir pauses a moment to reflect while making The Way Back. (Photo: Simon Varsano)

Boom operator Jeffrey A. Humphries stands by 1st AD/Executive Producer Alan Curtis, who is shouting “Action!” next to Russell Boyd and Weir while shooting in the Galápagos Islands for Master and Commander. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

Boom operator Jeffrey A. Humphries stands by 1st AD/Executive Producer Alan Curtis, who is shouting “Action!” next to Russell Boyd and Weir while shooting in the Galápagos Islands for Master and Commander. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

 

The silo death scene in Witness was achieved practically with a stunt double and a hidden oxygen tank and mask. “The farm belonged to the family called the Krantzes,” Weir states. “I asked Mr. and Mrs. Krantzes, ‘What’s that?’ They said, ‘It’s a grain silo. We store it up top, open the lever and drop what we require at various times.’ Then I said something like, ‘Can you go in through this door?’ They replied, ‘Yes, but I wouldn’t want to be in there with the door closed. If any grain fell, you’d suffocate. You have to wear a mask or something because the dust is harmful to the lungs.’ I thought, ‘My god, what a weapon!’ We quickly reconfigured it all, and Harrison Ford loved it.”

McGuinness describes his Australian countryman as a legend. “Super in the moment. You spent a lot of time in awe with the experience and nature that he had. Peter was calm and astute. You felt good being around him, which was always the case. He always thought of everybody. Peter always remembered everyone’s names. Always respected everybody from top to bottom. You could see the human side of Peter as well as commanding a full production under a lot of pressure. It was a high-pressure movie with a lot of pressure coming from all sides. Peter pushed through it.” Mesa was intrigued by how Weir works. “Before we started anything in pre-production, he interviewed everybody,” Mesa observes. “There were people who did not make it on the show because he knew that they were going to be problematic to him. And what it does is make a great experience in making the movie.”

Reflecting on his attitude towards filmmaking, Weir states, “My approach had been that I wanted [to do to] the audience as I had done to me by other filmmakers [to feel like] I really was there. I really believed it. And so, when I walk outside, I’d used to joke and say, ‘I don’t know where I parked the car. I’m so lost in the movie, I can’t remember real life.’”

A gimbal used for the HMS Surprise during the making of Master and Commander. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)

A gimbal used for the HMS Surprise during the making of Master and Commander. (Image courtesy of Peter Weir)


Weir directs Jeff Bridges on top of a high rise in San Francisco during the making of Fearless.

Weir directs Jeff Bridges on top of a high rise in San Francisco during the making of Fearless.


Weir and Cinematographer John Seale sweat it out in the jungles of Belize while shooting The Mosquito Coast. (Image courtesy of John Seale)

Weir and Cinematographer John Seale sweat it out in the jungles of Belize while shooting The Mosquito Coast. (Image courtesy of John Seale)


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

MEET THE 2023 VFX OSCAR CONTENDERS IN A YEAR OF VARIETY AND VARIABLES
03 January 2023
Profile
MEET THE 2023 VFX OSCAR CONTENDERS IN A YEAR OF VARIETY AND VARIABLES
Previewing the top prospects for this year Academy Award for Best Visual effects
2023 GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE: THOUGHT LEADERS ON THE VFX AND ANIMATION SUPERHIGHWAY
03 January 2023
Profile
2023 GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE: THOUGHT LEADERS ON THE VFX AND ANIMATION SUPERHIGHWAY
Industry leaders weigh the future of VFX and animation.
VFX CONTINUING EDUCATION: WHERE DO VFX ARTISTS GO TO KEEP LEARNING?
03 January 2023
Profile
VFX CONTINUING EDUCATION: WHERE DO VFX ARTISTS GO TO KEEP LEARNING?
A look at several upskilling paths for VFX artists.
VFX COMPANIES LOOK TO THE METAVERSE FOR NEW VIRTUAL WORLDS TO CONQUER
03 January 2023
Profile
VFX COMPANIES LOOK TO THE METAVERSE FOR NEW VIRTUAL WORLDS TO CONQUER
Shaping the VFX industry’s role in an evolving Metaverse.
CREATING WAVES WITH AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
03 January 2023
Profile
CREATING WAVES WITH AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
For James Cameron, visual effects are his craft.
cialis online buy cialis