Mad Max: Fury Road–Thrilling Opening Sequence

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.