The great thing about "Fury Road" is that George Miller comes full circle in a surprisingly powerful way, reminding us what was so brilliant about his post-apocalyptic vision in the first place while stepping it up with even greater visual and visceral force. Good thing, too, that he lured veteran cinematographer John Seale out of retirement because it was an invigorating journey for both of them.
"131 days mostly in Namibia. It’s made up of little pieces [2,700 cuts] like a Rubik’s cube and you couldn’t shoot the big master shots. The symmetry of the two road warriors (Tom Hardy and Charlize Thereon) is a nice addition. It was always a western on wheels but with lots of allegorical subtext," Miller explained.
Even more so with most of the action confined to Furiosa’s War Rig, which is like a steampunk stagecoach, accompanied by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. And the filmmakers couldn’t have shot it without a particularly mobile and light-weight set-up: Alexas and Canon 5Ds (as crash cams for action) along with the Edge Arm crane for total immersion.
"It’s a crane arm with a camera on it, which allowed us to get right in there much more kinetically," Miller continued. "It was like being in the middle of a video game. So to have things like that and to go out and do the film as old school practical without green screen and so on was exciting and very arduous."
Miller said the Edge is controlled by a "three-headed beast": the stunt driver, the crane operator who’s a grip working little toggles and the camera operator in the backseat who’s doing the same. "Then there’s me, the director, watching a screen. We’re all watching screens except the driver. The coordination is amazing: and you could go in there and get the most extreme angles inches off the ground, in the dust, up, or underneath the vehicle, right inside the vehicle.
"When we were able to hang Max between the wheels when Furiosa grabs him, that was Tom Hardy while the vehicle’s going at full-speed. And we were able to put harnesses there. But the Canons had enough resolution and even in Africa, if we smashed too many, we could go to the airport and buy them for about $1,500. If you wanted to shoot an explosion back in the old days at 96 frames a second, turning on the camera and getting it up to speed, and then getting the stunt triggered at the right time, and getting your crew out safely, was a big concern. There was also that extra risk that the film would run out had he missed the main action."
For Oscar winner Seale ("The English Patient"), who shot "Lorenzo’s Oil" for Miller, this was actually his first digital experience. He had little prep but with a great crew was able to get up to speed almost instantly. "I prefer to be more interested in what a camera’s recording rather than how it’s recording," he said. "As long as I can get an image I’m happy with, I’ll shoot it on anything, really."
Seale added, "The whole thing was unrolling and unraveling by the day…because this mobile Edge camera equipment made the movie. I was watching the dailies and it was amazing stuff — and there are 300 stunts. But I was worried that it was too good for our movie — too smooth and too commercial-like. But I was assured by visual effects [overseen by Andrew Jackson] that they could increase the amount of movement in it to match our bungee-strung main unit cameras in post. So I relaxed a hell of a lot. I’d say around 40-45% of our film was shot with that thing and we had two of them out in Namibia.
"So away we went. We had our LED lighting working so we could quickly change the lighting in one minute. And we had our bungee suspension systems [for the Alexas as well as the Canons] and we went back and forth. And we could change focus and bring the depth of field forward with really old lenses [to get the grungy look that Miller wanted]. And the rig was supported on the platform, so the shadows weren’t a problem and we could change those very quickly too. We had a very compact little shooting system of multiple cameras, lighting ability, contrast control, between the exterior and the interior."
But one of the best moves that Miller made was to ask Margaret Sixel, his wife, to cut "Fury Road." She normally does docs and intimate dramas but not action movies. "I knew she has a low boredom threshold and she always finds the elegant solution. And she’s very rigorous at putting the pieces together, and her fluidity was a big influence on me."
And what were some of the highlights for Miller?
"In terms of spectacle, I like the epic moments: the big explosions, the big crashes, the Pole Cats [the warriors swinging on 20-foot poles]. And then you put them up against the really quiet moments at night where people are talking about satellites and where there’s shows and an old female warrior showing the bag of seeds to somebody else. Or the smaller gestures: Max giving himself to Furiosa, just simply telling her his name and not sure she can hear him. It’s the contrast: the yin and yang," Miller said.
"Just in terms of technical pride, that big wreck at the end (SPOILER ALERT). We were talking about doing it in CG — too fake. Doing it as models — too fake. So we had to do it for real. It was one thing for Lee Adamson, the stunt driver, to roll it, but to land it in the sweet spot, between the two big rocks, right in front of the high-speed cameras, that was a high degree of difficulty. And we only had one take."
Just like the old days — only better. Which is why Miller was compelled to venture back into the wasteland once more.