Director Steven Spielberg and his platoon of effects experts discuss the visceral impact of Saving Private Ryan's D-Day sequence.
by Ron Magid
There have been few cinematic depictions of combat as vivid and uncompromisingly accurate as that portrayed in director Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (see complete production coverage in AC Aug. 1998). But the picture's aesthetic approach also took its toll on those responsible for its special and visual effects it's hard to feel giddy about creating the perfect explosion or fatal wound while knowing that somebody suffered such trauma in real life. Consequently, Ryan was both a privilege to work on and the most grueling of projects, blending the work of veteran practical special effects supervisor Neil Corbould with some 40 digitally enhanced shots from Industrial Light & Magic's visual effects supervisors, Stefen Fangmeier and Roger Guyett.
Spielberg is one of a very select group of directors who has pushed the lexicon of cinema through visual effects. Beginning with Jaws and continuing through Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones trilogy and two Jurassic Park films, he has always sought ways to more effectively reach his audiences via visual trickery. But when Spielberg unleashed this ability in the wrenchingly emotional Ryan, the experience was universally devastating. "We all determined very early on that we wanted to affect people in a way that would maybe show them the nature of war for the first time," Spielberg offers. "[We also decided] that we would risk not entertaining anyone or not having anyone attend any of the performances. One of the nice things about having my own film company, DreamWorks, in collaboration in this case with Paramount, was that figuratively speaking, we were the bank. That gave me a lot more courage than if it habeen somebody else's money. We all weighed the risks against the results and thought, 'Well, it's worth the risk.'"
However, Spielberg was far more risk-averse when it came time to shoot the picture's combat scenes. Safety was a key issue throughout production. "I was very lucky to have Neil Corbould as my physical effects supervisor, because he worked as fast and as safely as I felt I did," the director says. "Neil had an amazing crew, Trevor Wood and Clive Beard, and that triumvirate was just like an assault team." Corbould practically grew up on movie sets. As a teenager, he landed his first job in practical special effects on the 1979 version of Superman, working for his uncle, the legendary Colin Chilvers. He then gained experience working for Martin Gutteridge on The Elephant Man, Amadeus and the musical Little Shop of Horrors, and later collaborated with John Richardson on the James Bond films A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights and License to Kill, on which he received his first floor supervisor credit. Corbould served as a senior technician (or floor supervisor) on Cutthroat Island and Cliffhanger, then graduated to special effects supervisor on The Fifth Element (for which he earned a British Academy Award), and the upcoming action thriller Entrapment. His next project is director Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandal epic Gladiators, also for DreamWorks.
While concluding practical effects work on the U.K.-based Event Horizon just before joining Ryan, Corbould discovered that Spielberg would arrive in England only a few short days before shooting was to commence. He immediately suggested conducting a video conference between England and L.A. to find out exactly what the director expected. But even after this electronic meeting of the minds, Corbould still couldn't guess at the challenges that awaited him.
The day before shooting of the D-Day invasion sequence commenced, Spielberg walked the Irish beach that would double for Normandy with Corbould, telling him what he wanted to see. It wasn't what the latter expected. "I was a bit worried," Corbould allows. "We were gearing up to [shoot the sequence in] short takes. But on the beach, Steven said, 'I remember seeing this Japanese film in which from the beginning of each take to the end, there were bullet hits, so as soon as I shout 'Action!' and until I shout 'Cut!', I want to see bullet hits.' Suddenly, I thought, 'I haven't got enough squibs to do that!' That threw us into a mild panic for a while. We had enough squibs for about a week of solid filming, but there was a mad rush to get more sent over from America."
It wasn't simply for the sake of spectacle that Spielberg wanted hundreds of bullets to be hitting the sand of Omaha Beach throughout every shot. In Saving Private Ryan, the combat is not just a setting for the film, but a living, breathing character. "War is a physical energy, a kind of three-dimensional momentum," Spielberg opines. "In that sense, when you go to war, even though the combatants are far off and often invisible to the eye, what they are pouring down upon you has physical manifestations, and I think that's very symbolic of chaos. It's a kind of physical obscenity to have that kind of firepower rained down upon you. It's a beast, and I tried my best to fill up every square foot of Omaha Beach, as well as the town of Ramelle, with the manifestations of war."
That goal required a record number of squibs: just over 17,000, by Corbould's count.
Although Corbould is used to working in situations where he only has one or two takes to make an effect work, Ryan was more complex because of the elaborate choreography involved in the battle sequences. For safety purposes, no live rounds were used near the principal actors or the hundreds of extras provided by the Irish Army. "The sheer volume was the hard bit," Corbould says. "Almost all of the explosions and bullet hits on the beach were practical. We would rehearse with Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast time and time again until everyone got it right. Everyone had to know their cues and know where and when to run, including the camera guys, who were running around filming it all. Between takes, we had eight or nine guys lying on squibs at the same time, so it was a tough spot."
Huge volleys of practical bullet hits on land and in the water were simulated by using nothing more than air. "We put a large grid of air pipes in the water, and dug the beach up and put in two or three thousand feet of air pipes," Corbould states. "We then put solenoid air valves on synchronizing switches, so that when we pressed a button, groups of 20 solenoids would pulse out air pressure. With this system, we could have actors and stuntmen walking through all of the bullet hits without any danger."
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