Mad Max: Fury Road–Shooting the Opening

Just before principal photography began on the plains of the Namib desert, Miller gathered a small unit on Rossing Mountain to shoot the film’s opening sequence, which introduces Max as a ragged desert rat before promptly hurling him into a catastrophic crash, tipped off by a War Boy’s incoming Thunderstick.

In the driver’s seat of the Interceptor for the first time in more than 30 years, Guy Norris was ready.  “Guy was just 21 when we made ‘The Road Warrior,’ and virtually every time you saw somebody, it was him,” Miller reveals.  “In that film, he did a stunt called the T-bone, which is now quite famous.  All these years later, he wanted to take that stunt into overdrive, and roll a car more times than anyone has ever done before.”

The only catch was that in a film that unfolds in near-constant motion, Miller wanted to keep a steady camera, which meant the rapid-fire series of rolls would have to come to a stop right in front of the camera.  Norris had brainstormed the stunt with Dan Oliver and his co-special effects supervisor Andrew Williams.  They decided to reengineer a lever-triggered air ram, nicknamed the Flipper, to launch the Interceptor into a roll.  To trigger the stunt required precise timing and handling, so Norris volunteered to do it himself.  In an explosion of dust, he not only brought the car to a perfect stop on its mark, he rolled it eight and a half times—setting a new record for the highest number of wheel-to-wheel revolutions in a film stunt.

“The Road Warrior” was Norris’s first major film and he credits Miller with setting a standard that he took with him through each film that followed.  “My theory is that George is Mad Max, and we’re just experiencing this world through a character who is very much a part of him,” Norris reflects.  “He sees movies from the audience’s point of view, and I think he wanted to strap them to front of that vehicle with Max from the very first moment.  It was all there visually; my job was to figure out how to achieve everything George wanted to do.”

Deploying the production of “Mad Max: Fury Road” across the deserts of Namibia was staggering in volume alone.  At the height of filming, the company topped 1,700 crew, with an average of 1,000 people on set at any given time.  The whole operation required five 8 X 8 former German military transport trucks just to haul gear from location to location.  “It was a huge pyramid of people, and we never stayed in one location,” Mitchell details. “We had to move our base camp—which was the equivalent three football fields in size—six times over 120 days.”

Miller and Norris had enlisted warfare and weapons advisor Jon Iles, whose insight in military tactics and strategy became invaluable.  “He was part of the crew and became a sort of sergeant-at-arms on top of the War Rig,” Norris details.  “We would shoot for months and talk about warfare—how would you attack a convoy in real life?  How would you defend an armored vehicle?  And Jon’s expertise went from Iraq back to World War I and beyond.”

On a production of this scope, with stunts on this scale, safety was clearly key on the set of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  Safety officer Sean Rigby is a former stunt man, who understood the dynamics and physics of action movies, and kept a close watch on all the stunts and special effects that punctuated each shooting day.

When not riding along with the Edge Arm, Miller’s base of operations during shooting was a mobile “video village” bus set up by video split operator Zeb Simpson, with images from all units and vehicle-mounted cameras beamed simultaneously to its array of monitors.

On “Mad Max: Fury Road,” John Seale was working for the first time with digital cameras.  To engineer a day-for-night effect in-camera for the Night Bog sequence, set amid the desalination ponds at a salt factory on Walvis Bay, he learned a new trick from visual effects supervisor Jackson. “They had done tests and suggested we overexpose it two stops,” Seale recalls.  “That was against the grain because we usually underexposed two stops to get day-for-night.  But, printed down, it got us down a darker look, without a lot of noise in the shadow areas, and gave us a beautiful, moonlit effect.”

While stunts and gags were captured across multiple desert fronts, the film’s operatic armada chase was shot live on the vast expanse of Blanky Flats in Henties Bay.  For Theron, full immersion in Miller’s signature rolling thunder was nothing short of awe-inspiring.  “As an actor, you prepare for certain things that you have to do, but on this film, there were moments when you see things you weren’t prepared for,” she says.  “Like stunt guys doing these fight sequences on wires and poles, or watching real explosions, and you’re actually driving the War Rig—it was amazing to watch.  You realize you really are in a world.  There is no green screen.  This is a director giving you the opportunity to embed in a whole world.  That’s such a great gift.”

When the actors needed to be at the wheel during action-heavy sequences, the stunt team mounted remote drive pods to the vehicles, which allowed them to take full control.  One of the most brutal sequences—the hulking Buzzard Excavator plowing Nux’s car backwards through the sand—required a remote drive pod on the rear of the car rather than the front.  To make that happen, the wheels would need to be steered from the back, which required a complete redesign and re-engineering of the car’s dynamics by the stunt and special effects teams.

Mitchell notes that no matter what the action called for, the goal was always total reality wherever possible.  “That reality comes from having 150 vehicles in the desert, with hundreds of people performing on a daily basis.  You can sense how real it is when you watch it happen in front of your eyes onscreen.”

Sim Trav

There were times, however, when Miller had to bring the vehicles to a standstill to have greater communication with the actors during key scenes.  For this he had Sim Trav, a technique Miller himself pioneered on the “Mad Max” films.  Seale reveals, “George realized he couldn’t shoot a truck roaring across the desert and be able to guide and direct his actors.  So he and Dean Semler, who shot the early movies, invented Sim Trav by lowering the frame-rate, shooting it handheld, and letting the camera shake.  On this film, the special effects boys got their hydraulics and built these amazing rigs, so you can just rock the heck out of all the vehicles.”

With Sim Trav, Miller was able to keep real people in real cars even in the vortex of a massive toxic storm. The giant tornado that sweeps the vehicles up into its throat is, of course, 100% digital.  “There’s obviously no practical option for a shot like that,” Jackson says.

Jackson’s team used stills from a small fixed-wing drone and PhotoScan photogrammetry software to create textured 3D models of the Namibian terrain.  Plotting the GPS paths of the vehicles and cameras into these terrain models, they were able to merge the movement data, live action, and the digital wall of chaos into one complete, seamless image.  Jackson would ultimately set up a post-vis team of 3D artists, led by Graham Olsen and Aaron Auty, to render rough visual effects from the moment production wrapped, streamlining the effects process and allowing Miller to fine tune each shot before it was handed over to be rendered as finished visual effects.

Sound

Nearly half of the film takes place with the actors inside the cab of the War Rig, so the sound department installed rugged cases containing 12 receivers and transmitters from Sputnik Sound Systems, which could be multiplexed into one antenna to transmit up to two kilometers. A remote moving van also tracked with the tanker to record ambient sound effects from inside and out.

Miller observes that the internal drama playing out amid the non-stop action outside the War Rig created its own world.  “Here we were out there in this vast desert, and for a lot of the time, our cast was huddled together in the cabin of that vehicle like a little ark of lost souls, and that feeling seeped into the movie.”

For Theron, it was like working without a net.  “In a world of such dire straits as this, words are a luxury,” she says.  “But trying to get some feeling across without speaking, and in a very small space, you’re forced into a direction that is out of your comfort zone.  I give George a lot of credit for knowing how to reveal this film’s incredible emotional arc with very little dialogue.  I suddenly realized how much I had relied on words as an actor.  It also took me back to my days as a dancer where you have to tell a story with just your body, and once you made peace with that, it actually became very liberating.”

“The dynamics within the vehicle was almost like a silent movie,” Hardy adds.  “We were trying to communicate as actors a physical drama which is going on outside the War Rig with all these vehicles and explosions coming at you.  And then you have this Greek chorus in the form of the girls in the back.  And, at the same time, you’re trying to tell a story of a road to redemption.  George put us in that silent place in the middle of this cacophony of chaos, and we had to go there with him.”

For Hoult, it was sometimes challenging to remember he was supposed to be acting.  “George takes everything to the next level, and dropping into his world was an extreme experience, but also a life-changing one,” he attests.  “You’re driving in the middle of all these explosions, and seeing Polecats swing through the air and landing on trucks or motorbikes, and all you want to do is just watch it happen before your eyes.  But then you see there’s a camera pointed at you, and you realize, ‘Oh, man, they’ve been shooting me all this time.’”

All the actors dove into a rigorous training regimen to both discover and hone what fighting and stunt sequences they could safely do.  Prior to arriving on set, Theron had done significant strength training, primarily upper-body yoga and inversions.  “I look like a football player in this movie,” she smiles.  “But I hate the idea of scrawny little girls fighting men and then winning.  I wanted to look like I had tremendous upper-body strength because there was so much physicality in the movie.”

Her biggest test was the hand-to-hand combat that breaks out on the sand between Max and Furiosa, with Nux and all five Wives entering the fray.  This scene, like the armada siege, was shot on Blanky Flats over the first three weeks of shooting.  Furiosa is caught without her mechanical arm, which meant Theron could not use that hand throughout the sequence.  “When you’re in the throes of a big fight scene, the adrenaline’s pumping, and you’re just trying to be an animal, surviving,” she relates.  “You don’t realize how much you use your hands, and it’s hard to get yourself off the ground with just one.”

Theron worked with Dayna Chiplin and principal fight choreographer and weapons advisor Greg Van Borssum to perform the fight herself.  “Charlize was constantly saying, ‘I can do that action better,’” Miller remarks.  “She has incredible attention to each detail, in everything from how she fired her weapon to how her hand moved on the stick shift.”

Norris observes that Hardy likewise developed highly nuanced body language for the role.  “You could watch him with the sound off in this film and know exactly what’s happening.  And Tom did so much action himself—climbing on top of the War Rig and running along its length, hanging from his feet inches off the ground—that’s all Tom.  Whatever we thought Tom could safely do, he would do.”

“Tom has the raw energy of the rugby player,” Miller adds.  “He is one of those actors who will try anything.  His favorite saying on the set of ‘Fury Road’ was, ‘Let’s try it and see what it isn’t.’  And he’s exactly right.  It’s a way to free yourself as an actor not to be afraid of failure.”

For the actor, the key to Max’s physicality is that he’s not made of steel.  “Everything costs in this world,” Hardy says.  “That’s a symbiotic theme throughout George’s Wasteland.  It costs a human being.  There’s pain.  And it’s technically very uncool to be a superhero that hurts.  But if you smash your face into the dirt, you have to play it.  This is tough, so I make it look tough.  That really earthed it for me, to physically accept vulnerability.”

Hardy and his stunt-double Jacob Tomuri were true partners throughout the film, working closely to divide up Max’s considerable stunt load.  But Hardy credits Tomuri with the majority of action Max sees—particularly his face-melting entry into the armada.  “Jacob did the gnarly stuff,” Hardy demurs.  “I just did a bit of hanging upside down, which is still pretty gnarly.  But my exposure to great speed on front of the car was probably about 30 or 40 miles-per-hour, tops.  Jacob, on the other hand, was exposed to far greater speeds, and not just going forward, but in reverse, and doing 360s on numerous occasions, with explosions and gunfire.  So, to be fair, I had it pretty easy.”

Miller remarks that at times, it was difficult to tell the actors from the stunt team.  “We tried to meld the two, particularly in the War Boys and the Imperators.  So, in many ways, we had our own off-camera Fury Road, as it were.”

Throughout production, a 17-strong team of local rehabilitation experts worked around the clock to maintain the film’s locations during filming.  After the “Mad Max: Fury Road” production left Namibia for additional shooting in Cape Town, the rehabilitation team spent three more months restoring each location to its original beauty.

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