This year’s Oscars race for Best Visual Effects pits a lone Best Picture nominee — Dune — against three films whose sole nod comes in this race — Spider-Man, Shang-Chi, and Free Guy — as well as No Time to Die, Daniel Craig‘s last entry in the James Bond franchise.
A historical quirk: since 1978, when Best Visual Effects became a fully competitive category, a Best Picture nominee has never lost that particular Oscar to a non-Best Picture-nominated film — except once. The year was 2015, which happened to feature three Best Picture nominees (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Revenant) that arguably cannibalized the “prestige” vote, leaving space for Ex Machina to pull out a surprise victory.
This year, Dune is considered the prohibitive favorite to win this Oscar, as it has support across the below-the-line branches of the Academy given its eight craft nominations, and 10 overall for the film. Still, No Time To Die pulled off an upset victory for Best Stunt Ensemble at the SAG awards, so it’s always possible there could be a similar surprise in store come March 27.
Below the Line spoke to the film’s Special Effects Supervisor, Chris Corbould, and the Virtual Effects Supervisor, Charlie Noble, about their work on the film as well as the Oscars race and working with director Cary Fukunaga. The conversation centered around the opening car chase in Matera, Italy, as well as the sinking of a fishing trawler off the coast of Cuba.
Read on for Below the Line’s interview with the Oscar-nominated effects supervisors for No Time to Die.
Below the Line: Congrats on the Oscar nomination! For the uninitiated few, can you explain the difference between Special Effects Supervisor and Visual Effects Supervisor?
Chris Corbould: I’m the Special Effects Supervisor, which means I do all the in-camera practical effects. It can range from atmospherics, wings, fog, explosions, and all the other rigs (big mechanical rigs) that are involved with achieving what we see in camera. It’s stunts.
Charlie Noble: It’s a huge collaboration between the two departments. We pick up where they leave off, and essentially fill in the blanks. Chris and Lee Morrison, the stunt coordinator, were instrumental in designing the car chase in Matera at the beginning. A lot was actually captured in-camera in this film. We are heavily involved in the process with them to see where they’re going to take things, and where we can help out. Our work is all computer-generated effects, to augment what was achieved in-camera.
Corbould: I have to say that VFX were crucial to the success of this film. It was a great marriage between the two. Charlie and his team produced over an hour of visual effects and it touches almost every moment of the film.
BTL: What was your reaction to your big SAG win and to the film’s Oscar nomination?
Noble: It’s the first time in 44 years that a Bond film has been nominated for this award, so we are thrilled to achieve this nomination.
BTL: Tell us about the nuts and bolts of your creative process and how you get started on a project like this featuring huge car chases?
Corbould: It starts with a line in the script. “A car chase occurs in Matera.” We talk to the director, Cary, and ask him what he wants, and try to make it more emotional and exciting than what is in the script. I went out to Matera 13 times with the stunt coordinator to try to map out the chase. There were some fantastical ideas. At some point, we had cars going off into the ravine, and Union Jack parachutes coming out of the car, and the cars going over rooftops, but when we saw what the emotional ending of that scene was between Daniel and Lea, we decided we did not want it to be over the top. The key moment was that end, the emotional scene in the car where they talk [and] they bond, and then they get through, somehow. We could have done the sequence five times longer.
BTL: How many cars did you destroy for this film?
Corbould: None, actually. [laughing] We started with 10 — two real ones and eight replicas Aston Martin made. They were identical to the real ones. We had two that a real racecar driver was driving from the roof with Daniel and Lea inside, so we could get the real effects of real G-forces filming what was happening to them. We had two fully kittied up with gadgets, and four that the stunt guys just drove around the whole city in total safety. We planned routes all around a town that is not good for high-speed car chases, that evolved to have carts and horses, not Astin Martins and DB5s at high speed. We had to deal with what would come up in front of the shooting unit. Sheep. And this is a town that was thousands of years old. The art department had to build actual concrete barriers in case a car spun out, to respect the architecture [and] preserve the church they had there that was hundreds of years old.
The first unit was there for 10 days and the second unit four weeks. In post, we had 14 weeks for the whole film, about 8 to 9 weeks for these shots.
BTL: Tell us about the VFX component of this critical opening sequence in the film.
Noble: All the driving stuff is a good example of the collaboration between our departments. We start with wide shots, the cars driven by stunt drivers and stunt passengers. Whenever we see those in the film, our group has to swap out Daniel and Lea, so we put in CG versions of them. And then when we get closer shots, we have cameras near them, all over the DB5 car, but there is a pod driver driving the car on the roof, so we have to paint the actual driver out of the picture. The cast is inside the car, being thrown around realistically, for real, at 60 mph. That’s the thing with visual effects, more than half the frame is real, the problem is too much is in the frame. There are a lot of cranes to erase. A lot of tire skids on the street.
Once you get even closer, into dialogue inside the car, we move into the stage of adding the movement that is real. So when we have the stunt drivers driving the cars all over the city all day, we had IMU devices in the car — essentially motion sensors that are picking up how everything moves inside the car, the vibrations. We add that real motion over the scenes with Daniel and Lea, so that the car is rocking around exactly as they were on location. The cars are actually moving on the stage by replicating the motion that the IMU devices captured, which is really cool. It’s a three-prong tack: the stunt drivers, the real actors being driven around by another driver, and the cast on a stage with the car moving. And these IMU are highly-specialized and record highly-accurate data.
BTL: Let’s talk about the opening sequence on the ice, or the sequence where they escape Cuba and are in a trawler that eventually sinks. How did those come to be?
Noble: The opening, pre-title sequence was beautiful. All shot on IMAX, which is why it looks like that. With IMAX, it’s much more resolution, much more real estate on the negative, much more lead time to get a hold on the scans. Similarly, the Norway ice was very pretty. We did travel out to the frozen lake in the middle of nowhere, where the production designer built a fully functional house inside and out and we shot for a few days. We are dealing with changeable weather and lightning. We drove cars on it. Then it got dicey — the ice was thinning out. Carey wanted thick, steel ice, so we added that effect a tad, we tried to polish the top of the surface too with an actual machine and the machine sank. So we had to replace the surface with CGI there. Added a little snow on the trees in CGI. Chris added SFX snow for the closeup scenes, but the wide shots are VFX. We played just a tad with the sky, to get that sort of three quarter pinky look. With a lot of this film it was mostly on camera and then just a touch-up, and keeping true to the original quality of the shots.
Corbould: For me the biggest collaboration was the trawler sequence and he’s forced down into the engine room, right? And the villains escape, not without doing a big explosion in the boat, causing it to sink. We did a real explosion with trawlers in Jamaica, twice. Thankfully the trawler survived both explosions because we had them made of steel. It was tricky because our shot was from the helicopter, and we had to get the plane right.
The trickier part was inside the trawler. So we put the entire engine room on a rig that moved 360 degrees on its axis, but could also sink. We built that rig and rehearsed it with Daniel and Jeffrey [Wright]. It was fine but you’re sinking into a tank of water, and it became claustrophobic. We wanted to make sure the actors were confident that they would not drown to deliver their performance. We got them confident, and then involved a lot of compressed air, which totally shocked them. It really shocked them, you could see it in their faces. The water was bubbling. And then finally he comes out, and we hand it over to Charlie to finish up the exterior shot. Basically to extrapolate what we had done into CGI.
No Time to Die is currently available to rent or buy online, and you can watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette on the film’s visual effects below.