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How Mad Max Fury Road twisted real steel for effects computers can’t top

Every year, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. This year, each and every nominee offers its own unique inside look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams must use to pull off the visual spectacles that make for a big-screen blockbuster. In recognition of these five films — and one of our favorite Oscar categories — we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast, and taking a closer look at what made them stand out.

Previously, we looked at the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, which featured an artificially intelligent robot that challenged our perception of what it means to human. Now we head to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road to explore how director George Miller and the film’s visual-effects team brought the film’s high-octane race across the desert to life.

One of the most talked-about films of last year and a nominee for this year’s “Best Picture” Academy Award, Mad Max: Fury Road is like no other film in this year’s Oscar race — and not just because of its post-apocalyptic setting or the fact that it’s a sequel (two qualities that are exceedingly rare in Oscar nominees). Fury Road also happens to contain some of the year’s most spectacular action sequences, which are brought to the screen with a mix of practical stunt work and digital effects that merge all of the explosive shots captured on camera into the masterpiece that is director George Miller’s wild ride through the wasteland.

While much is made of the film’s practical effects — which feature fleets of vehicles careening and occasionally exploding across the desert while actors fly through the air between them on poles, platforms, and elastic ropes — Miller and visual-effects supervisor Andrew Jackson made extensive use of digital techniques to blend the footage of stunt crews’ performances and build some of the film’s most stunning sequences. In the end, more than 2000 VFX shots went into Fury Road, with Jackson overseeing work from primary VFX studio Iloura, as well as in-house studio Kennedy Miller Mitchell (dubbed “Fury FX” during production) and other teams.

“I’ve been joking about how the film has been promoted as being a live action stunt driven film – which it is,” Jackson told FX Guide back in May 2015. “But also how there’s so little CGI in the film. The reality is that there’s 2000 VFX shots in the film. A very large number of those shots are very simple clean-ups and fixes and wire removals and painting out tire tracks from previous shots, but there are a big number of big VFX shots as well.”

Possibly the biggest of those VFX-driven sequences is one in which Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa drives her massive war rig (a heavily armored tanker truck) into a toxic storm whipping across the desert in order to evade her pursuers. The truck and a host of smaller vehicles — including one driven by Nicholas Hoult’s Nux and carrying Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky — are quickly caught up in the maelstrom of wind and sand that rips apart several vehicles and sends both cars and their occupants hurtling through the sky.

Despite the ability to create the entire sequence digitally, Jackson insisted on a strategy that was applied throughout much of the film’s production: filming vehicles in action on location and then augmenting the photography with any necessary digital elements.

“You shoot the layout and vehicles and gradually everything might get replaced except the camera and the positions of where things were,” he explained. “You may end up with nothing left of what was actually filmed, but the shot still inherits something real from the plate you shot originally. I still believe it’s worth doing for that reason.”

According to Tom Wood, a supporting VFX supervisor on the film, the toxic storm was one of the most significant challenges the team faced in its quest to blend practical effects with computer-generated elements.

“Any of the cars driving on the sand and kicking up sand were live action on the sunlit desert in Namibia,” recalled Wood in an interview with Studio Daily. “We darkened and re-graded the plates and tracked CG cars onto them, but tried to keep as much practical as possible. Then we added 15 layers of CG dust and debris, ankle-deep streams of sand, knee-deep dust lumps, then mini-twisters and piles of rolling dust that engulf the cars and truck.”

“It’s absolutely amazing special effects. They had nitro canons blowing the cab into the air – it was just extraordinary.”

“I think there were 79 shots in the storm and five or six were all CG shots,” said Wood of the sequence.

One of the film’s other memorable scenes involved yet another frantic chase across the desert as Max, Furiosa, and their ragtag group of survivors find themselves battling a fleet of vehicles outfitted with all manner of low-tech weaponry, including enemies perched on long poles in order to swing from one vehicle to another in mid pursuit. Among the vehicles is a mobile oil refinery that meets a fiery end during the chase, and the explosion is witnessed by Max as he swings high above the desert amid a crowded landscape of retrofitted trucks, cars, and flailing bodies.

Once again, the chaotic scene was built on a foundation of on-location, practical photography that was later merged into a single, gloriously destructive sequence.

“They took that mobile refinery out in the desert and drove it remotely, surrounded by camera cars and a helicopter, and blew it up,” said Wood of the scene. “It’s absolutely amazing special effects. They had nitro canons blowing the cab into the air – it was just extraordinary. Then from those plates, Andrew Jackson went back out and shot equivalent plates for all the chase vehicles to be around it. Our work on those shots was a bit of environment – originally it was shot on very flat desert and George [Miller] wanted to see the start of the canyon around it – and then compositing the vehicles around it, with Max on a pendulum. We were not comp’ing or changing any elements of the actual explosion.”

The team’s insistence on filming everything practically even extended to seemingly small elements that added to the general flavor of the film.

One particular scene occurring late in Fury Road features a massive pileup that destroys many of the vehicles pursuing Max and Furiosa, including the speaker-filled truck carrying “The Doof Warrior” — a wild, goggle-wearing character attached to the truck by bungee cords who plays a flame-throwing guitar. One of the final shots in the crash has the guitar hurtling toward the camera in a scene that would almost certainly be created digitally if it was any other film.

Not so for Fury Road, though, which continued to initiate every shot — no matter how small — practically and then polish it up digitally.

“I thought the best we could do was at least shoot the guitar,” said Jackson. “It was all wires and flame throwers and had fuel lines that were broken and leaking fuel and various bits of wires dangling off. I just imagined that for real coming up to the camera and bouncing back. We set up a shoot for that where we hung the guitar from bungees on a cherry picker. I suggested that if you pull the guitar back and release it in exactly the same way it will always go back to the same spot. We released it and marked where it was going to and put a camera exactly there, so we could repeat that event and push the camera slightly closer.”

Not only does the process behind the guitar shot serve as a good example of the Fury Road team’s unique approach to visual effects in the Oscar-nominated film, but it also illustrates the way practical and digital effects can complement each other, with the latter making the former that much more memorable.

And if the VFX team behind Mad Max: Fury Road is fortunate this year, the strategy they used to create one of the year’s best movies could also earn them an Academy Award.

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony will air Sunday, February 28, at 7pm ET on ABC.