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A Special Effects Life Is The Life For Me...

Special Effects Prop Making for King of Thieves

0530hrs, misty dawn over the car park of Elements Special Effects, the red sky is signalling that it will be a hot and beautiful summer day, not that many of the special effects crew now assembling will get much time to admire the day. 

With several film and television productions on the same day, roll call has not changed much since we were all apprentices together many years ago. The more senior SFX Technicians give the younger members of our team their orders. These orders will include the essential equipment needed for the day as well as the morning tea order. All of the equipment is checked and double-checked any kit forgotten can have serious repercussions even wet weather clothes.

Last briefing over and the first of the vans rolls out carrying Team 1, they are off on a tough day. Over the past few weeks they have developed and built a mechanical rig for Lightbox’s documentary production, Tell Me Who I am. The rig will fire a camera platform with an operator down a rail with a motorbike alongside. At a set point the motorbike detaches itself and will continue to travel on its side to its stop position, while the camera and operator are brought to a safe gentle stop further down the rail. After the bike releases the pyrotechnics hidden underneath will fire to provide the sparks and smoke required for the effect, and these will need a compact power supply and wiring that all needs to be hidden on the bike itself. Moving rigs have many parts that fingers can get caught in; this one also has to control the start and stop of the move without creating too much energy that could hurt the camera operator. Crew 1 will spend most of the day testing the rig with a planned 8 runs to realise the effect, Health and Safety will be a key consideration throughout the day.

Crew 2 are next out, along with an entire rain rig they are towing a four-foot aircraft engine driven wind machine for Vanity Fair. Their charge today is wind and rain in a small country village, with a touch of frost and snow effects in a garden for the last shot of the day. Sounds easy, “bread and butter FX”, but as always I suspect that this crew will be up against it as well. The rain equipment is heavy and so they are the biggest crew, include into this a 5000 gallon water bowser, local traffic and public with three set ups through the village, a church yard a garden and a cottage front door the SFX Supervisor will be working hard to organise all the elements. The water bowser will need to be parked as far away as possible so that the sound department cannot hear the massive pump needed to drive the rain machine. The location department will insist that no hoses should cross roads and the effects team will want the minimum of hose out so that they can move quickly between the locations. Compromise and negotiation are the call of the day for the SFX Supervisor of Crew 2.

Finally the last crew move off their stand. This crew are the envy of the other two crews as their day is a build and test day in Ealing studios. Over the past few weeks alongside the motorbike rig, our workshops in West London have been transformed into the infamous Hatton Garden Vault for the film King of Thieves. This is a hyper detailed full-scale model, with a specially built section of concrete wall to enable actors to drill through during filming. In fact it was so detailed every security box had its own number.

Last night the model was packed into 40-foot trucks and driven off. Today Crew 3 will unpack it and reassemble it on the stage. Whilst the art department get to work finishing, production and stunts will be given a show and tell of how it all works by the SFX department. 

The model has been tried and tested at Elements workshop but it is only now when all the different departments not to mention the star studded cast get together that it will be really tested to its limits and there is always that moment of inspiration that has to be catered for when someone says “I know it’s not designed to do this but wouldn’t it be cool if it did?” 

At 1430hrs Crew 1 sits back and watches the first run of a motorbike, camera and operator thunder down their rig. The bike detached and flew off with pyrotechnic sparks flying as planned everything stopped in the right place. Seven more runs and then Crew 1 can start the process of taking it all apart knowing it will never be used again-such is the way with bespoke Special Effects.

Crew 2 at 1830hrs are rolling the last of their hoses away, having discreetly down sized the equipment being used throughout the day to just two single rain stands for the last scene and a hose to wash the snow effects away with. Just before lunch the quiet country village had borne the brunt of a rain rig (or rain machine as we are frequently asked to provide), creating a howling gale with 8 monsoon rain stands delivering up to 1000 litres of water a minute-it was torrential! The knowledge that location had had the drains checked meant that the effects team could go all out without the fear of flooding the village. The water bowser had moved twice over lunch once to refill and then onto its new position. Crowds of passer-by had watched as the epic rainstorm that has been planned for the past month was stopped on the command of cut. “A bit like being God,” the 1st Assistant Director remarked.

Back at Ealing Studios as everyone drifts home the sound of metal grinders can be heard from the stage, yes someone had a great idea and now it’s down to Crew 3 to facilitate it before morning, who said they would have the easy day.

At 1930hrs all the crews have returned, Crew 3 have checked their kit for the morning, Crews 1 and 2 have unloaded and put the necessary equipment on board their vans for tomorrow a sense of satisfaction is in the air. 

From props, to models, mechanical SFX rigs to weather effects and pyrotechnic SFX no two days are quite the same for our London SFX crew at Elements Special Effects.

Productions mentioned:

  • Lightbox, Tell Me Who I Am.
  • Mammoth Screen, Vanity Fair.
  • Working Title Films, King of Thieves.