“The purpose of art is not to entertain. The purpose of art is to disturb,” declared director Costa-Gavras. Director Ed Zwick tries to do both with Blood Diamond, the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring thriller set in Africa, and letting its Western viewers in on the knowledge that while diamonds are sold as a girl’s best friend, some of them are scarcely friendly at all to the people who have to dig them out of the ground. Nor are the profits from diamond sales necessarily going to what passes for a “good cause” in Hollywood.Whether the film will actually result in less garish jeweled adornment at Hollywood’s award shows remains to be seen.VFX supervisor Jeff Okun, who’d previously teamed with Zwick on The Last Samurai, found himself in Africa for “an amazing filming experience and an amazing life experience. I’m just so glad it all cross-pollinated and ended up as both!”Okun’s job was to make the whole thing seem life-like, and not filmic at all. “We started with the same point of view we had on Samurai: If anyone sees any of the visual effects, then we’ve failed the movie.”And Okun’s not just talking about a shot or two. “In Blood Diamond there are over 300 shots,” he says. “Our main task was to create the refugee camp so that it was unquestionably real. In the film, Jennifer Connelly says, ‘This is what a million people look like…’ and we had 100 people there and miles of deep rich green African Savannah.”Sy Dutton at Illusion Arts did all our matte painting shots and he and his company did a fantastic job for us. He has been asked where he found a refugee camp of that size that let us shoot there. That’s the ultimate compliment in my book.” But Okun wasn’t only using matte paintings to open up the film. “We also created most of the landscapes by adding in the hills of Sierra Leone—skies, foliage, people, views and so on. The thing I learned by being in Africa was what an amazing land that is. I traveled a great deal due to my job shooting most of the aerial footage. This got me to places that no one sees, but more importantly, it gave me a realistic scope of the land, the looks, the special lighting that happens, and so on.”That process grew out of a way of working that Okun and Zwick developed during Samurai.”Last time around he found that we could add great depth and scope to a shot by setting up a blue screen and starting or ending the shot there. I also earned a great deal of trust from Ed when I promised him I could film material with a consumer DVcam—given certain limitations of the use of the material—and use that to fill out the big shots, and it worked. As a matter of fact, he was filming certain scenes in film and my unit was about a half-mile back using a Canon DV camera filming the same scene for inclusion in the wide shots.”But landscape-filling wasn’t the only use Okun and Zwick found for DVcam’d material. There was also the Sausage Factory.”The ‘Sausage Factory’ is a term that our line producer, Kevin de la Noy, brought to The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. It is a detailed blueprint of how to move an extra or action player through the system from arriving at work to delivering him to the set.”It maximizes what can be done in a very short amount of time while placing various safety controls at points within the system so someone who has not been properly trained to fire a gun does not end up with one that fires. Kevin is a genius at this type of thing and it really worked well.”What I found is that they all exit the Sausage Factory through the same door, so setting up a blue or green screen there makes it very easy to grab some of what I need for later without slowing the shooting down or keeping the people from boarding their transport to the set.”It actually saved our asses on several films and is now a standard thing to do for me on these types of films.” To say nothing of the fact it makes it far easier to put 100,000 refugees on screen, when the set in question is actually only holding 100.At what point in the production do Okun and Zwick start talking in the shorthand they’ve developed?”On Samurai and Blood Diamond I was hired very early and Ed and I start talking right away. He usually has me come down to his office and we begin with a one-to-two hour meeting discussing the feel of what he is after. Shortly after that, we usually sit down with all the department heads and spend several days in discussion about all aspects of the movie. Usually it would be the production designer, the DP, myself, Ed, and sometimes the stunt coordinator and/or special effects coordinator.”During these discussions we are free to really toss ideas around, look into how the lighting and look of the movie would be affected by various locations around the world, how big or little the scope of the film is, what the emotional colors are and so forth.”Does this intensive preproduction process lend itself to previs?”After the discussions, we generally go on a scout, the bunch of us, reconvene and go through it all again, but this time based on where we think we’re going to film. We can also begin to build little models, and begin the previs of the more complex shots. On Samurai we did a lot more previs.”But in the latest collaboration, hands-on experience substituted for a more extensive previs phase.”The production designer Dan Weil, DP Eduardo Serra, stunt coordinator Paul Jennings, special effects coordinator Corina Rosca, and I were all in Africa doing the preproduction, working extremely closely together, evolving ideas to present to Ed. We did more photo storyboards and little Quicktime movies that served as previs. Ed would look at these ideas and either accept them or come back with his ideas.”In the end,” Okun adds, “I have to say that the South African crew, the French/Portuguese, UK and German film crews and the UK stunts and special effects crew were just so good, professional, sharing and full of energy and passion that Ed got to do pretty much everything he wanted.”And judging from the enthusiasm he still has for the film long after production ended, one could say the same thing about Okun, too.
Written by Mark London Williams