LAUNCHING giant, overpowered, monstrous trucks into the air, or sand dunes, or each other, is an impressive feat of danger-neering. But finding a way to film them in the middle of all that chaos is a far bigger challenge, even before you throw in the dust storms.
This is the job of key grips like Adam Kuiper, who’s been ‘gripping’ since 1999, after starting life as a factory-trained automotive engineer for Mazda. It’s a background that came in handy on his biggest film yet.
You won’t see the vehicles he built for Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen because they were behind, and underneath, the cameras, but they are impressive bits of engineering.
“Basically, the job of the grip is to put the motion in the picture,” explains Kuiper, who runs a company called Brownie-Grips in Sydney. “If the camera moves, it’s our job to make it move, so whatever the camera needs to be mounted on is our problem, and in this case that meant making vehicles that could not only keep up with the crazy cars we were filming, but accelerate past them, fly over the bumps and sand dunes, and somehow get a useable shot.”
Kuiper – who spent three years on the movie, including nine months sweltering in Namibia – built the prototype camera car out of a former Finke Desert racer he bought for $45,000, because he needed something both incredibly tough and absurdly powerful.
The final versions that made it to the African desert look like Martian rovers and carry gyro-stabilised wireless remote-controlled cameras that Kuiper jerry-rigged with twin 2000-watt leaf blowers to fire compressed air onto the lenses to keep the dust out of his shots.
Kuiper says his job involves a lot of lying awake at night thinking “how on Earth am I going to get that shot the director wants?” He buried cameras in six-foot trenches, to capture zooming trucks from beneath, and destroyed plenty of expensive gear.
“To film a big impact from the inside, we came up with what we call crash cameras, which are basically Canon 5Ds that we set up for the shot and then just smash something right into them at high speed. The cameras are destroyed and you have to throw them away, but as long as you can get the memory card out in one piece, you’re laughing. One shot could take us two days, plus the testing beforehand, and each of those shots would typically last half a second.”
Another challenge was making the film’s human stars look good. The special effects team built multi-positional driving pods that hung off vehicle cabins so the stunt drivers could do the actual driving while the star looked the part in the driver seats.
And when one of the giant American SUV camera vehicles blew its engine (“the boost was turned up so high it punched a piston through the block”), Kuiper’s mechical skills came to the fore.
“There’s chaos, suddenly we’re a camera car down, so I climbed up a ladder and looked out across this huge car park of vehicles we had and saw a (Land Rover) Discovery, with a twin-turbo V6 diesel and air suspension – perfect… but it just happened to be George Miller’s personal car. Everyone’s saying, ‘You can’t take the director’s car’; I just said, ‘It’s his movie, let’s ask him’, and he gave it to us.”
Nine hours later, Miller’s car was carrying a 500kg crane and camera on its roof, jerry-rigged with a wooden platform to help carry the weight. “It was a little bit top-heavy to drive, but it worked,” Kuiper says.
Mad Max: Fury Road is by far the biggest project Kuiper has worked on and, as a fan of the original movies, it was his biggest thrill.
“It took a long time to make, and my part of it finished back in 2012, so I can’t wait to see the final movie. It’s just got to be worth the wait. There’s a lot of expectation, so it’s really got to deliver. From what I saw of how George has made it, I reckon it will.”
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GEORGE Miller conceived the original Mad Max (below) and its outback mayhem while working as a doctor in a Sydney hospital emergency room, after he met Byron Kennedy at a summer film school in 1971.
Made in 1979, the film’s budget was a mere $400,000, but it grossed more than $100 million worldwide.
That remained the industry’s highest profit-to-cost ratio until The Blair Witch Project in 1999.