VFX artists are the unsung heroes of Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros. Pictures), tirelessly erasing the safety equipment that makes stunts possible and compositing the mountains and set pieces that bring the post-apocalyptic wasteland to life. Amid all the subtle fixes and worldbuilding spread throughout 80% of Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller's shots is one scene that is undeniably the product of beautifully-executed CGI: the fire-and-brimstone-filled sandstorm that aids both Max (Tom Hardy) and budding feminist icon Furiosa's (Charlize Theron) escape from the villainous demigod Immortan Joe and his fanatically devoted Warboys.
Visual effects supervisor Tom Wood of Iloura, the Australian VFX studio behind films like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are and Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby, came up with the concept for the storm that eventually made it into Fury Road after years without a plan for the beautiful and terrifying scene. "When I was handed the script, the artwork package was zero," Wood tells The Creators Project. "There were no sketches, no concepts for that storm at all. It was all descriptions in the script."
But Wood, drawing on seven years designing sandstorms (reaching as far back as 2008's Prince of Persia), nailed the look Miller was looking for: "He hadn't thought about the fuel leaking from the flamethrower car and loved that idea, that you'd get the spray, and then the flames, and continued explosions," Wood recounts. "So we had a shot of Max on the back of the car that had already been shot, or was about to be shot, at that time, but relit it with a lot more firelight...because of the potential, in this darkness, to have all this extreme light from the fuel burning."
His team fluctuated with the erratic schedule of the film—which you can learn more about in VICE's one-on-one interview with George Miller—at one point growing to 30 artists to build the immense sandstorm. Even with such a large team and Miller's constant feedback via production VFX supervisor Andrew Jackson, it turned out that Wood's biggest struggle would be against physics itself; specifically the Warboys flung into the chaotic eye of the storm.
"With those guys, he was really specific about them having to obey physics in a real way. He sourced a bunch of videos from the internet with car crashes, where people were actually being flung from cars. They mostly seemed to be Russian dashboard cam. Really unpleasant stuff, actually," Wood explains. "Rather than handing those around to our crew, we sourced some motorcycle crashes which were entirely narrated by the riders, so we knew that they were survivors, at least."
"But in those sort of extreme crash moments, or bodies being flung or being taken by strong winds in that way, they become ragdoll-like, and that was what George asked for, the ragdoll look." After dozens of tests and simulations using the Endorphin ragdoll physics generator, they realized they were continually disappointed with the way the catapulting Warboys looked. "There is absolutely no consciousness or life seen within them. With the motorcycle crashes, we were constantly surprised that people survived those, but we just go into this limp figure that flies and crumples on the ground, and then some of them even got up...We realized that what George was really asking for was real-world physics from the movies. If the rest of the movie is full of stuntmen overperforming, when you actually analyzed it, you go, 'Actually, nobody would do that.' Nobody would bicycle their legs through the air while they're jumping, but it looked fantastic, and it's totally the language of film."
Visit Iloura's website to see more of their work.