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Fury Road: a new desert storm

Mad Max: Fury Road editor Margaret Sixel on the practicalities of recreating George Miller’s famous dystopian world.

Caroline Baum: Can you talk about the special effects and how they amplify the look and tradition of Mad Max but using new technology?

Margaret Sixel: In Fury Road nothing defies the laws of gravity. This is not a superhero movie, so there was no flying through the air or magic wands…

By and large the visual special effects are invisible in this film, apart from the obvious toxic storm sequence (even here the many elements are real i.e. the War Rig, Nux’s car and the Flame Car) and the Citadel which is a mix of effects and set design.

There are no computer-generated vehicles, car crashes or even explosions. Ok… maybe one computer-generated crash!

For safety reasons, actors and stunt crew wore harnesses that were erased later. But all stunts are real. Visual special effects are used to enhance the shots. We ‘comp’ shots, using elements from different sources but combined into one image. Our visual special effects supervisor Andrew Jackson loved using the real thing rather than creating a fully computer-generated element. On set he would shoot real flames, water, dust, rock, vehicle elements, or skies all to be used later in post.

Even the interior cabin scenes were shot in a moving vehicle. This is naturally more challenging but ultimately far more effective. For various reasons some scenes were shot with green screen, using a ‘sim trav’ hydraulic rig. So these shots had to have background replacement and often have had additional camera shake added.

<em>Mad Max: Fury Road</em> star Tom Hardy with director George Miller Mad Max: Fury Road star Tom Hardy with director George Miller
There is a canyon sequence in the film and George was adamant that the location scouts find the right location. This was a big challenge. Visual special effects could have created it in computer-generated imagery but the sequence would have felt quite different.

So we have ‘messed’ with every shot – reracks, resizes, speed changes, sky and background replacement, rig removals, ground removals, digital intermediate colour manipulation using a baselight, but we still feel it is not a computer-generated movie. It is old school meets new school!

CB: Audiences are more visually literate than ever and used to the rapid fire rhythms of fast-cutting and video games so how does that influence the rhythm of the action sequences in the way they are shot and edited?

MS: I agree that audiences can process visual information faster now than ever before. Our brains are changing. Digital editing has also changed editing styles. It is easier now to experiment, manipulate the images and create multiple versions.

Fury Road is cut faster than the original Mad Max films but I have been told that it is very easy to follow the action. I was thrilled to hear this.

Charlize Theron stars as Furiosa in <em>Mad Max: Fury Road</em> Charlize Theron stars as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
George is well known for his classic montage rather than mise-en-scene approach. This is not a film shot by the Dardenne Brothers! To tell a story that is constantly on the move is very difficult so you have to break down scenes into achievable shots.

The multiple cameras also influenced cutting rhythms. I love multi-cam coverage. It can save the day.

We also sped up many shots in the film. Almost nothing remains at 24 frames a second. The fastest vehicle could only travel 40 kilometres on the desert floor in Namibia so everything in the dailies looked very slow. Speeding up shots is something George did in the earlier Mad Max films but the technique now is much more refined. In the old days it was either 24 or 12 frames. Now, within the same shot, you can go from 24 to 12 back to 18 frames a second.

The cutting style largely is dictated by coverage. There are no master shots so you have to create moments out of many ‘bits and pieces’. And once you have set up a certain rhythm you have to keep going. You can’t fall off the wave.

CB: What are the design details of the dystopian ‘steampunk’ world that most appeal to you in this film?

MS: It’s not quite steampunk. The older more robust technologies have survived. The computer chip didn’t. Everything in the Fury Road world is made from found objects and has been repurposed. George and production designer Colin Gibson put massive thought and energy into the look of the film. They applied the design philosophy rigorously. In spite of it being ‘after the Apocalypse’ they wanted vehicles, clothing, bikes, et al, to be beautiful and made with love. George often talked about cave paintings and how humans are hardwired to make art.

I love the human-powered treadmills in the Citadel, the Gigahorse with the dashboard made of the insignia of old cars, the wire skull steering wheel in the War Rig, the Immortan’s mask, the scarification on the War Boys’ bodies… and let’s not forget Furiosa’s mechanical arm designed by principal vehicle designer and storyboard artist Peter Pound.

CB: What does sound add to effects and the texture of high impact scenes?

MS: George often says ‘See with your ears, hear with your eyes.’

Initially George was adamant that we edit the action sequences silently – no sound effects, no music. The rhythm of the visuals has to work as best it can before being enhanced by sound and music. No hiding allowed. This also allows you to focus very intensely purely on the visuals and not be distracted by temp sound.

Once we have milked the picture edit, then great attention is paid to sound and how it can enhance the storytelling. It​’s not only in the high impact scenes but in the more subtle scenes for which sound adds another vital dimension. In the scene where Max meets the girls and the subsequent fight sequence, sound designer David White put a huge amount of work into the chain effects, the water effects and other Max ‘headspace’ sounds. The soundtrack knits the shots together and amplifies the whole immersive experience.