By Henry Turner
In Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment ofthe Die Hard saga, Detective John McClane goes up against a computergenius bent on destroying the information infrastructure that runs theUnited States government — and ultimately the society as a whole. ButMcClane is an old-school kind of guy, uncomfortable using the Internetas a weapon, and much more reliant on his fists or a .38-caliberfirearm. He often depends on the skills of 20-something whiz kidcomputer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) he’s ostensibly supposed toprotect. While this plot allows for plenty of excitement, from anotherpoint of view it serves as a metaphor for the production of the filmand for modern trends of digital filmmaking in general. How much hasdigital technology spoiled the excitement of classic movie action? Nowthat the novelty factor is gone, do we really want to see CGI, whereone of the main pleasures lies in detecting the granularity ofpixelation?
Director Len Wiseman thought not, hence he brought onveteran SFX supervisor Mike Meinardus to handle the action sequences,and the result is a SFX/VFX mix that astounds the senses.
A keyaction set piece is a car chase that begins when the computer hackervillain shuts off the traffic lights on a busy city street, causingmultiple crashes. Chased by a helicopter, the car driven by McClaneenters a toll tunnel, and that’s where the real — actually real —mayhem begins.
“We did a lot of that tunnel stuff all practical,”Meinardus says. “All those car wrecks, and the cars that flip, and theone flying through the air and landing on two other cars, all that wasall done for real.” In the sequence, traffic is allowed into the tunnelon all lanes from both ends, causing myriad head-on collisions. Whilethe tunnel itself was comparatively short and used CGI extensions, theaction was shot entirely with real cars. “The only thing the VFX guysdid was erase some cable rigs,” Meinardus adds.
The tunnel itselfpresented technical obstacles because it had large vents in itsceiling. Meinardus took advantage of this by mounting his cranes on theground above the tunnel, and passing cables through the vents. “That’show we ratcheted those cars through the air and pulled them without youseeing anything.”
At one point a car caroms off the front of atruck, flies a hundred feet through the air, and smacks into twooncoming cars, barely missing the two lead actors. While the actorswere put in digitally, the car action was entirely real, requiring sixweeks of rehearsal. “The hardest part of that gag was that the tunnelwas only 19 feet tall, and we had to get a car to fly forward flippingsideways over a hundred feet without hitting the ceiling of the tunnel.We made a special rig where two ratchets pulled the two cars in, sideby side at a certain time, and then we had another high-powered ratchetthat picked the other car up, and when it got about five feet in theair, other ratchets pulled it sideways and a cable tripped it loose andstarted it spinning. Once you see it up and spinning the cablesreleased, otherwise it would have wrapped itself up.”
While many ofthe cars in the sequence were driverless and drawn by cables or steeredby remote control, plenty were driven by members of Bill Young’sPrecision Driving team. Young attributes the film’s mandate for realismnot only to Len Wiseman but to Bruce Willis. “He wanted it to be morerealistic, like the old Die Hards we did.” Young’s stunt drivingexperience dates back to his work with the legendary Bud Ekins onBullitt, arguably the most famous car chase in film history. Sincethen, Young has created memorable chases in scores of films such asMission: Impossible, The Italian Job, many Bruckheimer/Bay productionsand other large action films where real driving thrills are required.
Tocreate the stunts he starts with model cars. “You get little cars on abig mock up table and plan it out thoroughly. Then on Lower Grand atthe tunnel we did a walk-through so everybody knew where they’re goingto be. Then we get in the cars and do it slowly, both to work out themoves and to plan for the camera — maybe a SUV is going to block thecamera so we put a lower profile car in. We rehearsed for hours.”
Youngused about forty cars for the tunnel sequence, yet on film there seemto be hundreds. “You have to remember that with the cuts you canreverse it and multiply everything.” Rapid editing also contributes tothe illusion of scope and speed, but it’s mainly the driver’s skillthat creates the illusion of near-miss action.
“It’s not about howyou race the car because you drive at about 40 miles per hour. Thething is to not hit the camera — to pass by two inches from the camera,that’s what it’s all about. We don’t do stunts at 60 or 70 mph, but 40and 50 tops. Everything is under cranked and made to look faster. Youcan’t do a spin-out at a high speed and be able to catch up with theother picture cars.”
It is surprising that with all this actionthe tunnel suffered no dings. “We don’t damage anything,” Meinardussays. “All of the rigging we do is over these big trench plates, andwherever we had the cannons go off that flipped cars, those cannonswent off on the trench plates, and the flying cars landed on the trenchplates.”
One of the biggest logistical problems lay in the fact thatthe tunnel was open for regular traffic during daylight hours. “We hadto strike everything every morning. We were only allowed to close itdown at nighttime hours. So it was a total re-rig every night.”
Thescene climaxes when Willis’ car sails into the air over a toll boothand crashes mid-air into a helicopter outside the mouth of the tunnel.Done in one take — “We only had one helicopter,” Meinardus says — thegag required months of planning. “I didn’t really want to do it therebecause it was right around all these high-rises. The helicoptercouldn’t get hit and pushed out of the way, it had to drop straightdown to cut with the part of the stunt guys, and not swing and hitanything. What we did was cable the car up a ramp built into the tollbooth at the mouth of the tunnel, with two ratchets. The helicopter washanging from a cable in the middle of the street. When the car touchedthe helicopter, I literally blew it in half so the car would keep goingthrough it. It was all by eye. We were about 20 feet from the wholething looking straight at it watching for the right moment to cut itloose.”
The only digital effect in the scene is the spinning copter blades.
Thefinal action sequence in the film pits a tractor trailer driven byWillis against an F-35 jet, and is a terrific example of how setting aprecedent with real action makes the use of CGI and miniatures morebelievable. “We built a whole section of the freeway that the tractortrailer goes up, while the jet chases it and shoots it in half,”Meinardus says.
“We actually had a stunt guy in there, and webuilt a Lexan cage around him so he was totally safe. The freewaysection was built out of two foot thick Styrofoam and all done toscale. We made all the overpass columns and blew all that up — when thefreeway collapses it’s done with miniatures and CGI — but features ofthe collapsing sections where guys are jumping off are real and done toscale.”
Ian Hunter at New Deal Studios made the miniatures of theF-35 jet, and shot them using motion control. While portions of theF-35 footage were also CGI, Hunter explains that the matching isperfect because his models were built from files supplied by TheOrphanage.
“We had a computer controlled cutter cut a foam blockthat was the same exact shape as their CG model, and we used that togenerate the molds for our plane, so our plane and their plane wereidentical in shape, and that way when they inter-cut ou
r shots andtheir shots, there was no glaring difference. There was a differencewith the full-size jet section that was built, but you don’t see itwith the cutting.”
Hunter says that using miniatures and motion control has several benefits over CGI.
“First,the shots are completed faster and can be composited faster. And whenyou do the effects physically, nature is running the simulation foryou, so you inherit in the photography a lot of really good material.Plus, since the rest of the movie used physical effects — real stunts,real explosions, real car jumps and crashes — doing it with the largemodels allowed us to pack them full of pyro and get a lot of equallyrealistic visual material — crushing and breaking and flames scalingout nicely — all of the sort of render passes you’d expect from digitalare already there.”
Written by Henry Turner