The Mine chase – Please keep your hands in the car at all times
I’m not one for bemoaning the advance of CG effects over practical models and glass matte shots: if an effect is done well, that’s all I care about. However (!) there is something thrilling about the ingenuity behind old school methods; cramped filming, stop-motion matching to live shots, scaling down of water, and so on. A perfect example of all this occurs in the highpoint of Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom; the mine car chase.
Once Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) has released Indy (Harrison Ford) from the Thuggee spell and they and Willie (Kate Capshaw) free the child slaves, our heroes then attempt to escape through the temple’s precarious mine shafts in a rail cart, hotly pursued by the villains.
This sequence grew and grew from a basic outline in the script, to incorporate many spectacular gags, akin to a thrill park ride in the middle of the movie (it was actually one of several left over unused ideas from Raiders of The Lost Ark). One where live action and models had to match convincingly.
On set, director Steven Spielberg eschewed blue screen, instead under cranking the camera and shaking it in close-ups, running the cars through steam and smoke for almost tactile immediacy. Not exactly making ILM’s miniatures man Dennis Muren’s job any easier.
He chose stop-motion – not a problem. Balancing manageable scale to realism on camera was. The mineshaft sets needed to be large enough to allow personnel access to manipulate the cars and figures therein. Dennis Muren needed a camera small enough to fit through them:
“I came up with the idea of taking the back off a Nikon still camera and putting a movie shuttle in there, and running movie film through it.”
The motor drive was slowed down by two thirds. The magazine held fifty feet of film, equivalent to four hundred frames of Vistavision. Mounted on a pan and tilt mechanism, it filmed almost all the sequence.
“This thing worked great,” Muren went on. “And because the camera was now much smaller, our mine tunnels could be built at a lower cost. In fact, we just bought a lot of aluminium foil, crumpled it up to look like rock, and for $1.98 we got some great sets.”
Barbara Galluci and her team built the mineshaft sets in a large industrial premises across the street from ILM. Over a period of four months, each set pertaining to a certain stunt or gag would be assembled, photographed, and reconfigured for the next shot. As well as the tunnels, rails and carts, mini props were added, such as barrels, tools and tiny working tunnel lights suspended on string.
The mini passengers each had to be articulated. Eight puppets were built; Indy, Shorty, Willie, and several expendable baddies. Each puppet was created from an original clay sculpture by Phil Tippett. Armatures were fitted into plastic molds from his sculpts, before flexible foam was injected, then painted. Costumes were fitted and stuck on. Indy’s figure had to have the legs removed to fit in the cart. Tom St Amand, one of the stop-motion animators, recalled a visit to the live set in a interview with Cinefex:
“I noticed that the actors were also having a problem squeezing into the cars. Nobody suggested cutting their legs off though!
“Imitating people is the hardest kind of animation there is and we were trying to do it in the worst possible conditions. We had scenes where I had to animate six figures, all moving at the same time, going over lava, which I had to be really careful not to bump because it was all backlit gels with little pieces of cork on top to represent the darker part of the lava. The sets were cramped and we had to wear masks for four or five hours at a time. A couple of the shots were particularly tough, especially the one where they’re going over a trestle and the bad guys grab Shorty and start to pull him into their car and Indy has hold of his pants and the kid is suspended between the two cars being pulled back and forth.”
Crashes and derails were shot with larger scale models, using high-speed photography. A lot of leeway was given to ILM by Spielberg to come up with gags. VFX cameraman Michael McAllister:
“As soon as we got storyboard pages from Steven, we built little sets and shot a version of the sequence using this little video camera and this funky set, to see if it was going to play.”
Sound designer Ben Burtt rode rollercoasters at Disney after closing time, recording the sounds without the background music playing. He also looped the clicking of toy trains on tracks. ” The trick was to create the sensation that everything was going fast without the sounds necessarily rising in pitch.”
One of the most difficult aspects was creating a convincing sense of scale when villain Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) orders the water tank to be brought down, flooding the tunnels. A quarter scale replica of the set was built in ILM’s parking lot, with a huge water tank rigged to tip over and flood it, unleashing 11,000 pounds of water. The walls had to be sprayed with waterproof roofing material and the floor was heavily supported. To try and scale down the water, air cannons blasted the deluge to break up droplets.
And what better way to end a thrill ride than with a cliff-hanger? Indy and the gang run out of the cave, only to find themselves on a tiny ledge above a sheer drop into alligator infested waters. A mine car shoots out of the exit after them, propelled by the deadly torrent. A convincing matte painting enveloped the inserted actors in peril.
Another fine mess beckons – Holy smokes, Doctor Jones!
Originally posted 2014-05-21 17:02:02. Republished by Blog Post Promoter