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Deliverance: Society of the Snow

Visual effects proved to be a critical component in this complex production visualizing the harrowing true 1972 tale of human survival in the Andes.

Joe Fordham

All photos courtesy of Netflix

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 751 hit turbulence at 18,000 feet above the Andes, on October 13, 1972. Minutes later, the 32-seater Fairchild FH-227D passenger aircraft slammed into a mountain, and a forward section of the fuselage plowed into a glacier in the Valley of the Tears. The fate of the survivors — 17 of whom emerged from a 72-day ordeal — has been chronicled in books, documentaries, stage, TV, and feature films, including Alive [AC, June ‘93], photographed by Peter James, ASC ACS.

Nearly 50 years after the event, journalist Pablo Vierci’s account La sociedad de la nieve captured the attention of filmmaker J.A. Bayona. The resulting Netflix production, Society of the Snow, became a passion project for many of its crew. “It was for me the perfect storm,” comments cinematographer Pedro Luque, SCU. “This was a director I admired. But also I'm from Uruguay, and I never thought that I’d have the opportunity of shooting this story that is so important for my country. Uruguay is a young country, about 200 years old, and we have only three and a half million people. We don’t have a tradition of big stories, but this happens to be one of the biggest survival stories in the world. When Bayona explained his approach, it was groundbreaking because it was based on a book that was so sensitive, and not as ‘factical.’ I knew that I had to honor this story that I knew so well. At the same time, we needed to take the audience to a level of emotion that they had never experienced before.”

The story is focused on the perspectives of three Flight 751 passengers — Numa (Enzo Vogrincic), Nando (Agustín Pardella), and Roberto (Matías Recalt) — not all of whom emerged alive in 1972. To capture the narrative’s visceral nature, the production shot on location in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, followed by more accessible snowbound sets at a ski resort in Spain, stage work within refrigerated sets specially built for the production at Pradollano, plus stage work for the crash scenes at Netflix’s Tres Cantos studios in Madrid.

To plan strategies for integrating scenes shot in Spain into footage captured in the Andes, Bayona turned to El Ranchito in Spain — visual-effects collaborators for many of his previous productions, including The Impossible (2012) and A Monster Calls (AC, Nov. ‘16). “We started thinking about the mountain valley months before we went out to the location,” recalls visual effects supervisor Laura Pedro, who accompanied the shoot and oversaw VFX with El Ranchito founder and visual effects supervisor Félix Bergés. “We started building low-polygon geometry and photographs of the valley to figure out positions we needed to build a photogrammetry model for use in CG extensions.”

During preproduction, Bayona spent a month rehearsing his ensemble cast in Barcelona using a mockup of the aircraft wreck. The camera team meanwhile prepared by reviewing previous cinematic mountain expeditions including Baltasar Kormákur’s 2015 production Everest [AC, Oct. ‘15] with Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC. “I spoke with Sal about shooting it,” recalls Pedro Luque. “That was one of the modern references we had to watch because there are not that many movies that have been made in the actual mountains. This was my fourth movie in the snow. So, I knew about working in the cold, and treating lenses and cameras in a certain way so they will perform. Like many of the crew, I lost weight on the shoot. I was eating — unlike the actors who were on a strict diet — but the metabolism works so fast at high altitude, I lost 25 pounds.”

Benegas Brothers Productions, high-altitude filming specialists, helped mount establishing scenes with principal performers and climbing doubles in the Valley of Tears. The filmmakers carried a stripped-down kit into the Andes, with no lighting and only a small generator for recharging batteries, limited to what they could haul on a three-day hike to basecamp. Luque used Arri Alexa Mini LFs with anamorphic lenses. Aerial shots included helicopter perspectives using a Shotover gyro-stabilized platform, a DJI drone, and an Octocamvision Alta X quadcopter shooting with an Alexa and Panavision Super Speeds — which achieved shots at 13,450'.

“The Mini LFs performed very well,” adds Luque. “The key element was, when it was super cold, to turn them on in a warm space, allow them to warm up, and bring them out to the cold. [In the cold] LED external monitor screens can get ‘lazy’ as the LED crystal gets more dense. Using the viewfinder, that gets foggy, so we used eye-piece warmers. Temperatures were way below freezing, so we avoided bringing a cold lens into a warm environment because water condenses and then freezes immediately to the metal. But we had storms, hail, snow, and fog at high altitudes — and we never had a camera issue. Our 1at AC, Guillem Huertas, took every measure possible to make sure that we were shooting non-stop. One of the key elements that Bayona asked for was he wanted us to be ready for the actors. These actors had a lot of preparation, and we worked on a weird border between documentary and cinematic filmmaking.”

The Andes shoot set a visual language for the film. “We went on a journey with light that followed the emotional journey of the actors,” says Luque. “The Valley of Tears was overwhelming, especially the difficulty of traveling from one spot to another. The light was changing all the time. There’s very little oxygen, so the light is super hard. And then suddenly when the sunlight hit the clouds as it was setting everything became orange, pink, or lavender. It surprised me, the richness.”

In Sierra Nevada, Spain, production designer Alain Bainée reconstructed three other crash-site sets. Cortijo de la Argumosa ski resort in Güéjar Sierra served as a base of operations. In a 300-square-foot backlot area adjoining the resort, special effects supervisor Pau Costa mounted a section of the crashed aircraft on a mechanical rig, resembling a scissor lift in a trench, which allowed the filmmakers to position the fuselage at controllable depths of snow cover. Bainée’s construction teams also built duplicate crash-site sets in a snowbound setting at 8,800' in Pradollano, and on a mountainside elevation at 10,000' in Laguna de las Yeguas.

VFX nested crash-site sets into the vastness of the Andes. “When Laura was on location with the director of photography and the director,” notes Félix Bergés, “it was the first time that we had a real feeling for this valley. It is huge. In Europe, there is nothing like it. For instance, in Sierra Nevada, the valley had more-or-less the shape, and 300 meters [984'] to the West there was a mountain wall that was 200 meters [656'] high. In the Valley of the Tears, that wall was one kilometer [3,200'] away, and it was one kilometer high!”

El Ranchito planned digital set extensions using a previsualization tool built in Unreal Engine, which calculated geological disparities between the Andes and Spanish sets. “In Uruguay, as in California, mountain systems go from South to North,” Bergés explains. “In Europe, mountains go East to West. That made lighting difficult. In our application, we could position a camera in a model of the Valley of the Tears and see the lighting. And then, when we were in the other sets in Spain, we could calculate the time and the direction that we’d have to shoot to recreate that lighting.”

The UE previs tool was used as a laptop reference on set. “In the Valley of Tears,” relates Laura Pedro, “we worked with the Benegas Brothers, Jota, and Pedro to help plan backgrounds for shots that they wanted to shoot later in Spain. In Sierra Nevada, we’d bring in backgrounds from the Andes, and we could tell which background was correct. If Pedro specified a certain lens, we’d check that on the app, and we’d show him how it would look as if we were in the Andes. We didn’t use that all the time. We wanted Jota and Pedro to be able to shoot whatever they wanted. We were there just to say, ‘Do whatever you need. Whatever you want, we are happy.’”

“We could jump from one to set the other,” adds Pedro Luque. “In Spain, we were in another hemisphere, further from the equator where the orientation of the sun instead of traveling north, went south. And the shape of our valley [in Spain] was the other way around, so sunset in Sierra Nevada became the Andes sunrise. All those elements had to work together. The previs was invaluable.”

El Ranchito’s mountain valley composites — assisted by collaborators at Twin Pines Love VFX, Lamppost VFX, Glassworks VFX and Miopia FX — were achieved with keying and rotoscoping, sourcing high-dynamic-range images, with no bluescreen or greenscreen background separations. “In Spain, we are specialized in this type of work,” notes Félix Bergés. “All our life we have tended to do movies with seamless, invisible effects. That takes a lot of care. It was particularly difficult because compositing white on white is not easy, and white with HDR is tricky. To create the sense of scale, we had to add a lot of very small details.”

Compositions included bold visual choices — handheld, super-wide — including a scene, nine days after the crash, when survivors hear a radio news report that search and rescue missions have ceased. “One of the first things that Bayona said to me,” recalls Pedro Luque, “is that he wanted to be free. I went ballistic with that expressionism, hugging the realism created by the precision of the production design and the beautiful invisible VFX. In the moment when the characters hear that no one is looking for them anymore, they go crazy. We got heavy into expressionism, wide, close, and shallow [focus].” Extreme wide angles were achieved with an Arri 12mm Signature Prime: “It covers the full frame, rectilinear, and it is T1.8, so it’s super-fast. We used that in Sierra Nevada. As Bayona gave his instructions to the actors, our camera operators — Juanjo López and Manuel Branaa — ran with him as Bayona was instructing cautiously, but precisely: ‘Go here! Now go there! Now put the camera on the ground!’ We followed the emotion, not bound to any style. I’m not dogmatic. I’ll jump from a Signature Prime to anamorphic [T Series], going by my heart. I know film school says don’t mix lenses on a scene. But this called for that. And all those shots have extended backgrounds of mountains from the Andes.”

In addition to capturing photogrammetry textures in the Andes, the VFX team recorded high-dynamic-range images in different lighting conditions around the crash site — from early morning through to night — which they later used in for LED volume work in Pradollano. Alain Bainée’s team designed a crash site set for the LED stage in a parking lot at 8,800 feet elevation. El Ranchito used the Andes plates to create 360-degree images of the Valley of Tears for a 91'x21' LED wall beneath an array of 150 Arri SkyPanels with heavy silk diffusion.

The filmmakers used the volume for an extraordinary sequence where Numa and fellow passengers Gustavo (Tomás Wolf) and Daniel (Santiago Vaca Narvaja) climb out of the valley, huddle on a mountainside during a snowstorm, and emerge from solid snow cover at sunrise. “We shot that everywhere but the backlot,” notes Luque. “Our third-unit/mountain-unit director Eivind Holmboe and his DP, Marius Kildalsen, both from Norway, shot parts of the expedition when the guys are caught in the blizzard. Very wide shots were in the Andes with a helicopter and climbing doubles going through the South Wall. Numa’s climbing, where he falls and all the snow lands on him, we shot in Sierra Nevada. For closer scenes, Bayona, me, and our two main camera operators shot the actors in Sierra Nevada. And when they wake up with the sunrise, that was in the LED volume.”

To accentuate the sunrise flaring into the lens, the production used a 2K tungsten Fresnel in full view of the camera — VFX later erased the light stand. “The Fresnel created a big flare. And then our wonderful dimmer board operator, Sandra Valencia, matched the color of the sunrise. We had real snow on set, a little bit of feathers floating around, and a little bit of wind. It was a mix of techniques.”

Accentuating the sunrise, VFX added tiny drifting frozen particles and cold breath captured on location. “During shooting in Sierra Nevada,” Laura Pedro explains, “there was a place in the canteen with a lot of humidity. In the early mornings, Félix and I made a small set there with a Blackmagic [camera] and we shot plates over a lot of days. That’s my real breath, composited in.”

One of the film’s most technically complex sequences, the crash of Flight 751, involved helicopter plates retracing the aircraft’s path, mechanical special effects on the soundstage in Madrid, and VFX that included animation of the Fairchild FH-227D. “The plane in every shot is CG,” notes Félix Bergés. “The real plane does not exist, even on the runway in Montevideo.”

El Ranchito animated and composited the aircraft into aerial plates that they enhanced with the encroaching storm and a key geological feature now missing from the impact site. “There used to be a trident of rocks, but there's now one little rock, and two others are broken,” says Pedro Luque. “We see that from Numa’s perspective when the sun comes out and hits his eye. And as the plane goes over there’s a side shot with the foreground of the mountain — that’s the actual Andes mountains with heavy VFX and more weather.”

To reshape the environment, El Ranchito generated a 3D model of the mountain peak and glacier, circa 1972. “It’s a huge block of ice,” explains Félix Bergés. “We shot a lot of plates in the present-day location and shrunk the ice back approximately 20 to 30 meters [65 to 100 feet]. The Trident we completely built from scratch.”

For aircraft interiors, buffeted by turbulence and then torn apart, Pau Costa’s team erected fuselage sets on gimbal rigs and, with stunt coordinator Alejandro López Estacio’s team, used wire rigs to tug passengers from the plane. VFX used one of the film’s few greenscreens for the severing of the fuselage. All other composites featured white screens out the passenger windows. “The most important part of the crash for me,” notes Pedro Luque, “was that the forces exerted on the actors were as real as we could [make them]. Pau Costa built a full fuselage that was good for turbulence. We started with the camera floating in the plane — so, as the plane shook, the camera did not. As the vibrations increased, we locked the camera to the plane so you see the movement in the frame. When the tail broke, Pau put one-third of the fuselage on another gimbal that had a bit of a freefall. We used wires for some stunts, but all of the forces there are real, with a lot of VFX. We added textures, throwing foam and rubber pieces at the actors, snow, wind, and air mortars. The tail-break was a complex shot with several layers. We used a Technocrane to give the impression that the tail went away. Then, we needed a lock-off for VFX to sever the plane, and so we did some programming on the camera moves. Each shot had its own solution.”

Seventeen days after the crash, two avalanches land atop the wreck. Bayona enhanced the terror of the debris smothering the survivors by keeping the camera within the claustrophobic aircraft cabin. Pau Costa staged the scene in Sierra Nevada using fake snow propelled by a battery of air mortars, combined with a mechanical rig that simulated the sudden occlusion of sunlight. “We needed a way to shut out all the windows,” says Luque. “I asked Pau if he could do that, and they built a hydraulically activated curtain that closed the windows of the plane. It felt like the snow went over it.”

Buried for two days, the survivors illuminate their cabin — an 18'x7' canted cylinder — using a cigarette lighter. To capture the extreme lighting and seemingly impossible depths of field, the production used T1.4 Panaspeed lenses with the Alexa cranked to 2,000 ISO. “We tried using LED lights instead of flame to be changed in post,” adds Luque, “but they didn’t work, so we used real flames. And then, we also used a lens that Bayona loves that is like a borescope.” The optical instrument consisted of a flexible snake of optical fibers designed for mechanical cavity inspections. “It’s a Chinese lens that’s super cheap, but it’s T14. We needed to bump the light quite a bit, bringing Fresnels closer as if they were a flame. And we also placed a couple of LED tubes to enhance the backgrounds.” VFX added drifting ice particles and occasionally used blends of 3D modeling and 2D shading to accentuate the performers’ natural emaciation and makeup effects.

In the film’s finale, as Nando and Roberto trek into Chile and summon a helicopter rescue, VFX assisted the arrival of helicopters above the crash site. “We had one helicopter and we needed two,” says Laura Pedro. “In one scene, we didn’t have the helicopter, so we added it in CG. But when the helicopter passed over the fuselage, that was 100 percent real.”

The rescue featured helicopter cockpit inserts on the LED volume, and views of Montevideo Airport that featured a redress of an abandoned Uruguayan terminal with set dressing enhancements. The film closes in a hospital with emaciated survivors, whom VFX subtly augmented. “The scene in the bathroom shower we did a little bit more thinning,” notes Félix Bergés. “We used VFX to help the bodies look more extremely damaged.”

The survivors’ secret — that they endured their ordeal by resorting to cannibalism — realistically but discretely made use of prosthetic effects furnished through the film by DDT Efectos Especiales. The frank depiction of mortality inspired the film’s closing moments, as the 17 young men share a meal in the hospital ward. “That final tableau refers to [Goya, or El Greco’s] The Last Supper,” says Pedro Luque. “It is a tableau, and the characters are eating. But we hear the voiceover of the ghost of Numa, which elevates the scene. They are finally at peace with their friends, trying to think what happened. But everything’s so strange, it feels like a weird dream. That gave me room to be more expressive, like classical paintings that have a religious theme. Bayona brings you to this point of the movie in such an emotional state. I don’t know how many times I have seen the movie; it always hits me.”

Tech Specs

Cameras | Arri Alexa Mini LF
Lenses | Panavision T Anamorphic (expanded for full frame), Panavision Super Speed, Arri Signature Prime, Laowa 24mm 2X Macro Probe

Director J.A. Bayona and cinematographer Pedro Luque, SCU spoke about the project in this episode of ASC Clubhouse Conversations, interviewed by Armando Salas, ASC:

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