By IAN FAILES
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.
By IAN FAILES
When Special Effects Supervisor Dan Oliver was just a kid growing up in Australia, his favorite show to watch was The Dukes of Hazzard. A movie he saw repeatedly with his brother was Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior). “There were all the cars jumping and sliding and all the stunt action,” he recalls about those two pieces of entertainment. “I didn’t even realize that they were ‘special effects.’ I just thought it was a lot of fun.”
Perhaps the cars of The Dukes of Hazzard and The Road Warrior were a strong harbinger of the work to come. Indeed, many years later Oliver would supervise the special effects on Mad Max: Fury Road, a film for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Achievement in Visual Effects. It was a feat he achieved again this year for Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Of course, it’s a long way from watching special effects to supervising them. Oliver studied aeronautical engineering at university. “I’ve always been the kind of person who enjoyed fixing things and pulling things apart and understanding how they worked,” he remarks. “So, I went for something that fit in with that.” Starting in 1993, he got a taste of the film world.
“I got a part-time job assisting on a film with a Sydney-based special effects company run by Steve Courtley, who went on to [special effects] supervise The Matrix trilogy. I very quickly went, ‘Oh wow, so this is what a film set is?’ Then I realized that everything they do in special effects was based around physics and engineering and understanding how things worked. With my engineering background, all of that stuff made sense to me.”
That on-set experience was so exciting that Oliver didn’t complete his aeronautical degree. Instead, he launched into a career in special effects, beginning with on-set roles. At the time, Oliver took advantage of a bevy of Hollywood films that were filmed in quick succession in Australia in the late ‘90s, including Dark City, Babe: Pig in the City, Mission: Impossible II and Red Planet.
“I rose up through the ranks quite quickly and was soon running the set. I was a floor supervisor at a reasonably young age, so that made me think, ‘This is my career. I’m already getting paid pretty well. I’m in a supervisory role.’ And then being a floor supervisor, being on set all the time, meeting a lot of people. It was the coalface of filmmaking, making a lot of good contacts. That was a great way to start.”
Oliver credits Production Designer Colin Gibson for handing him his first big break as a special effects supervisor on Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin’s Nim’s Island (Gibson and Oliver would later work together on Fury Road). “Straight after that, I landed [the] Special Effects Supervisor [position] on X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That was a $100 million-plus action film starring Hugh Jackman. It was a big studio feature. That’s when a lot of things started taking off and eventually led to working with George Miller on the new Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Planned initially as an extensive special effects and stunt-filled shoot in the Australian desert, Mad Max: Fury Road moved to Namibia when the original location became too ‘green’ from unexpected rainfall. Working overseas proved tough for all of the crew and Oliver, who notes that the workload on the film was fun but intense.
“Fury Road was a hard job because there were a lot of big effects day in, day out. Sometimes you’ll do a film and even if it’s an action film, it might be a car crash one week, then gimbal work the next week, then a couple of weeks of smoke and bullet hits. But Fury Road had something big going on at all times. It was relentless.
“George wanted to shoot as much as he could in camera and wanted to do as many practical effects as possible,” Oliver adds. “We had to be prepared for that. But it was very rewarding when it was all over.”
The most challenging special effects sequence in the film, according to Oliver, revolved around a cavalcade of vehicles and an eventual massive fuel tanker explosion. “We had a two-trailer fuel truck that was rigged with hundreds of pyrotechnic events because George wanted the explosion to be like a ripple traveling up the truck. It also wasn’t the sort of thing you could have a stuntman drive – it was just too dangerous – so it had to be radio remote-controlled. We rigged it so it could change gears, it could brake, it could steer, it could do everything, really.”
On the day of the shoot, which involved multiple camera cars, helicopters and crew members in Namibia, Oliver’s team noted that there was a problem with the braking system on the truck. “Our second unit director, Guy Norris, was great. He said, ‘You’ve got to be happy before we go. Don’t feel pressured. Let’s come back tomorrow.’ So, we brought all this gear back, tinkered with it into the night and got it working.”
The final result – a huge orange, red and yellow cascade of fireballs emanating from the truck – was nothing short of spectacular, with Oliver remembering Miller’s reaction, in particular. “He was in Cape Town at that point. We sent the footage to him and he was ecstatic. It was one of those happy endings.”
Oliver also praises the subsequent digital visual effects work done on that sequence, overseen by Production Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Jackson. “Iloura did such a great job on that. They had to put all those vehicles back and add in extra people and elements. When you look back at it, it just looks real. You’re not questioning. It was a nice collaboration on that shot.”
Vehicles have certainly become somewhat of a specialty for Oliver, including on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In that film, the San Francisco accordion bus fight scene required an elaborate studio gimbal rig setup on bluescreen. This was to enable actors and stunt performers to carry out the fight amid believable bus motion. The bluescreen plates would be composited against San Francisco environments (that VFX work was done by Luma Pictures, which collaborated with Production Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend and Additional Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Farrell).
Both an airbag and six-axis hydraulic gimbal approach were used on set in Sydney to achieve the effect. “We ended up having two bus gimbals side by side on the stage,” outlines Oliver. “Some shots needed a lower amount of movement on the bus rig to enable all the crazy martial arts. So, that was the airbag gimbal operated by three or four guys using hydraulic valves. Others needed the bus to lean around corners and almost roll over and bend on its hinges. That used the six-axis gimbal, and was all run through our motion control computer.
“Here, we could watch the previs and then we would program a move based on what the previs was doing,” Oliver says. “Then we’d offer that up to stunts and they’d have their own feel for it. Once we captured a move that we liked, we could just play it over and over again, which gave the stunt team a consistency of movement while they climbed all over the top of the bus and everything.”
Oliver once again enjoyed the close collaboration with visual effects on the sequence, noting that Townsend and Farrell were keen to achieve as much of the bus fight practically as possible. “If you talk to any visual effects supervisor on any job now, they’ll always say, ‘Let’s shoot as much as we can of this in-camera.’ They’ve already got so much to do. It’s not like they’re chasing more work. They want it to look good, and they know that what looks good is when you can get as much in the frame as possible and then you enhance it or you do some rig removal or the parts that are too dangerous to do.”
An effect that Oliver supervised on Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man was vastly different to exploding trucks or careening buses – it involved causing a fry pan to start getting hotter, start smoking and burst into flames. Importantly, this was to happen all without anyone appearing to touch it all, since it was intended to look as if Elisabeth Moss’ character’s invisible taunter in the film was responsible.
“That was a shot that Leigh wanted to do all in one take with no cuts,” explains Oliver. “First of all, we rigged the stove so that we could remotely turn the gas up and down and change the flame size. Then on cue we started the smoke. For that we had a little mini tube running from behind the stove, rigged up into the back of the fry pan as low as we could to keep it out of shot. Then we made the fire burst into flame.
“It was a tricky little gag, but actually worked quite well. We managed to get it all in one shot. It’s always tough to make all those things happen on cue and make it safe for the actor to be right there in front of it all.”
Oliver’s most recent special effects supervision projects just happen to both be Chris Hemsworth starrers: Thor: Love and Thunder and Extraction 2. The latter film certainly harkens back to Oliver’s earliest days of admiring the car chases in The Dukes of Hazzard.
“There were all sorts of things in Extraction 2, like The Dukes of Hazzard, from flipping cars and cars blowing up and crashing cars and cars sliding through the bush. It’s in a totally different style to Fury Road, but Sam Hargrave, our director, is an ex-stuntman and wanted to do all the stunts for real. There will be a lot of visual effects in there, too, tying it all together, but we did everything we could practically. Just so many crazy car effects. It definitely links back to some of the stuff I enjoyed as a kid.”