In a storied career, involving projects by various leading industry auteurs, Australian visual effects supervisor Chris Godfrey has tended to end up working on either war films or musicals—though he doesn’t know exactly why. Teaming up with director Mel Gibson on his triumphant return to filmmaking, harrowing WWII tale Hacksaw Ridge, Godfrey had his work cut out for him.
Working down under, on a budget of some $40 million, resources were limited; and yet with Godfrey’s help, and the commitment of a steadfast ensemble, Gibson was able to put on screen one of the most immersive war films in recent memory. Below, Godfrey gives a detailed look at the process of the visual effects supervisor, gory inspirations, and the integration of visual effects with makeup and prosthetics.
What attracted you to Hacksaw Ridge?
Look, I’d be lying if I didn’t say Mel Gibson. It’s hard to say no to a man who, with everything outstanding—everything you hear, and all the rest of it—he’s an exceptional director. Also, I’ve worked with [producer] Bill Mechanic before, many, many years ago. I did Moulin Rouge! and Bill was the head of Fox Studios at that time. For some reason, I tend to get a lot of war films and a lot of musicals, and I haven’t quite figured that out. I tend to get a lot of war films and musicals and I’m not sure why. That seems to be my forte.
Mel is an exceptional director. Who wouldn’t want to work with him? I’ve worked with Terry Malick, I’ve worked with George Miller, I’ve worked with Mel and I’ve also worked with Baz [Luhrmann], so it’s a really interesting group of directors.
All things considered, Hacksaw was fairly low budget. How did that affect your approach to visual effects?
Effectively, we started with not enough bullets, is the reality of it. A war film with not enough bullets, so it was a tight film, but it was so worth telling. You get the budget that you have to work with. Because of that, a lot of things—bullet hits, explosions—had to be pulled together with visual effects.
The ground row underneath the escarpment was about 300 kilometers away, and then the top section we built as a much smaller area, and then we had a portion of it in the studio. So we had to tie all those together. Everything from the top looking down was an extension. Everything from the top looking across became an extension, or hidden by smoke. There was a lot of things, because of the ramifications of the budget—a lot of it fell under visual effects towards the end. There were hero moments, like where the big explosions fell off, and I directed the explosion sequence. Then were other things which were clean up, pulling them together. A lot of the things that, if we could have found the right location, if we could have found the right situation, but rarely you ever do…From what I understand, they’ve almost made their money back on the sales so far.
Where does the process begin and end with visual effects?
I was brought in with the other heads of departments. Generally, visual effects come in a little bit earlier than that if it’s possible. With Baz, I’ll come in when they’re scripting. With this, they already had their scripts. I did an interview with Mel, got the gig and then they bring me in and then we talk, and you pull apart the script as a group.
There’s certain things, like where the very first explosions happen—you know, the anticipation when he puts his hand on that guy’s knee? That was a scene that Mel was particularly interested in, where they just evaporate. From the waist up, after about the first bullet, it’s all computer graphics. To get the effect of seeing into the head, I got one of our guys who does prosthetics to get a melon baller and literally hollow out what the effect would be, or what hole would be left. He even put in bone, he put in tongue, he put in some jawline, the lip, the mouth. Then, he gave that back to us as stills. We scanned that and that became the basis for it. We scanned the base of the head, we scanned the bodies. We couldn’t build it in any other way; it’s so visceral, you can’t approach it in any other way. We had to just slice them at the hip and then build everything in 3D above that.
There are certain moments that are very specifically 3D or visual effects. The rest of it is a game play where you say, okay if you do the first three close squib hits, I’ll handle all of the background, which is CG. It’s a negotiation.
Did Gibson contribute specific ideas for how or when your department would come into play?
The worst thing that can happen is if a director gets involved in the technology of the visual effects, so Mel was very instructive as a director. He can explain what he wants, he can explain the feel of how he wants something, and then it’s up to interpretation.
With things like the explosion sequence where they first go up on top of the hill, we came up with the look. We started off actually using what was called the “box bombs”, which were black and you could basically run through one of them. The issue became, there was too much of the black sitting there, and so I changed that out, and instead we used five liters of fuel in each of those. Now the big explosion sequence, when it starts off, I think it’s 75 explosions in 11 seconds, shot-fire speed. In that one sequence alone, we can [use] over 300 liters of fuel. We had 15 layouts with gelignite, so it was a big setup. It took three days to line up the one shot, and once you’ve got a shot like that, you can’t stop. Mel had no input into that whatsoever, we complete it because we know our trade and then we show him the end results.
He does know what he wants to do—he’s done this all before. One of the statements that he did make, which I think was very interesting, was he wanted to be between the bullet and the gun all the time. That was the definite thing we had to achieve; we had to be close enough in to see the attack, to see the bullet, to see the wound. That’s hard. If you stand back and you’ve got people falling all over the place, and there’s random hits and they’re way off in the distance, that’s easy. Bring them up close and actually have bullets hits that go through people, and there’s blood that comes out, bits of their fabric that move, that’s a lot more complex. That’s sort of in the area that he wanted to be. It made it a difficult dance because we were limited in what we could spend, but we had a very definite plan of what we wanted to achieve.
During the shoot, what do your responsibilities entail?
We had a split unit—main and second unit. I generally stayed on main unit. War films are an odd thing. With a war film, what you need to do, from a visual effects point of view, is stand back. If you’re doing a Star Wars film, the visual effects stand forward and they say, “To do this, we’re going to have to do this, this and this.” With a war film you’ve got 200, 300 guys on set who are all running around attacking each other, and the worst thing you can do is actually stop it.
So apart from two instances, it always became a situation where we were going to trim later, not plan early. Also, there’s a lot of things which are serendipitous in that, because you also take advantage of the fact that certain things will happen. There’ll be blowups, there’ll be whatever, there’ll be wire removals, and so you can’t really pre-plan those.
How did visual effects integrate with makeup and other practical effects produced on-set?
The prosthetics are really good—Shane [Thomas, makeup designer], at the outset of this, went and found all these really gory images from wars, from car accidents, from suicides. It was interesting that after a while, you became a little bit desensitized to it. Larry [Van Duynhoven] looked at those and made removable prosthetics. We did also have, on top of that, some amputee victims that we dressed, and it’s an odd thing. One of the interesting thing we did do on this that I hadn’t done before, hadn’t tried before, was when the Japanese were finally shot, the majority of them are bare-skinned, and we actually tracked wounds over bare skin at the end—bullet hits. I’ve never seen that on another film before.
What stands out about Hacksaw, in comparison to other war films you’ve done?
I suppose the major thing is the battle scene itself; it’s a gruelling battle. The first part of it runs for almost 11 minutes. What was very surprising to me was it had such a strong response with women. My two sisters rang me up last night, were praising the film. It has a very strong response because it’s also married in with the fact that you have to have that level of violence to counter that level of despair.
There’s almost a texture to the way [Gibson] plans these things out. He had a very definite plan as to the pace that it went at. Mel’s done a lot of action stuff and it does show.
The other thing, too, that Mel is very different at, was that Mel would get down on the ground himself. His knees are totally shot, and Mel would get down on the ground and he’d go, “No, no not that.” He’d jump down into a foxhole and go, “I want it more like this.” He put the effort in, he put the action in, and he put himself in those situations.