MATRIX: How did you get into this line of work?
JOSH: I’ve been around it forever, my family is involved in it. My father has been doing it for twenty some odd years, he’s a coordinator [Clay Pinney, SPFX Supervisor], so growing up I’ve been around it since I was twelve years old.
MATRIX: Do you remember the first set you were on?
JOSH: I can think of some of the early ones: The Man with Two Brains was a great set. It was a very, very obscure and very funny movie. I love the movie myself. I can remember walking onto the doctor’s apartment set, a really high tech apartment, where Steve Martin looks over at this doctor and he’s like, “Geez I figured being a brain surgeon you’d have a much darker medieval type house or something”, and the doctor goes, “You mean like this?” When he opens the apartment door there’s a full moat, a drawbridge and castle block walls. I got to play around on that set, and in the moat, right by the bridge, they had a fully articulated alligator. One of my earliest memories is sitting up in the permanents of that set playing with the controls of the alligator. I would sit up there and watch for when my Dad went to get someone to bring them to the edge of the moat and show them something, then I would hit the button to make the alligator jump out, and they would run off screaming.
MATRIX: What are more recent films you have worked on?
JOSH: We did Imposter, The Cell, Blue Streak, Godzilla, Volcano, Independence Day… it all turns into a big blur after a while. The Cell and Imposter were the most recent ones we did.
ZION LAVA POOLS
MATRIX: Now you’re here on THE MATRIX sequels; what are you working on?
JOSH: We’re making lava pools on the Zion Temple set. The lava itself is actually made out of methasil. We had it colored, then we played with different opacities and different consistencies, because the lava has to bubble and look somewhat like real lava. That was an interesting process, trying to get a large quantity of methasil mixed from our little tests here. The really challenging part of this project was coming up with a way to make an entire floor – the area of three lava pools, the biggest one being about 35 feet in diameter – out of clear material, which turned out to be lexan. Lexan can support the weight of the liquid that is on top of it, I think the smaller pool has about 19,000 pounds worth of liquid on it. That is pretty significant, but spread over the area that it is, it doesn’t work out to too badly.
The lexan stretches and flexes, and we used what I would call a floating post floor. Everything that went into the construction of the pools had to be clear, so they could light it from underneath with as few shadows as possible. We ended up going with 3 inch clear lexan supports all the way under the floor. Then we had to come up with a way to seam all the pieces together that would be water tight, and of course it’s all going into a 4 inch shelf in the foam set, which had to be rubber coated and sealed. I’ve done a lot of liquid on different sets for different types of pools, and it’s always a nightmare, there’s always a leak somewhere. I went into this assuming I was going to have methasil everywhere. I had some really good guys working with me, and we went really patiently and carefully, and the pools have come out far better than I could possibly have expected.
MATRIX: We’ve heard rumors the lava is edible.
JOSH: Methasil is typically used as a food product, as a food thickener. I think they used to use it in McDonalds milkshakes. It is perfectly acceptable to eat it, it won’t hurt you or anything. It’s made out of a cellulose, kind of a seaweed, and it’s very slimy, it’s very sticky, it’s very thick, and it’s kind of nasty when you get it on you, though it washes right off and it can’t hurt you at all.
MATRIX: There are huge drums of lava outside, how much did you have made?
JOSH: I ordered approximately 6,000 gallons. When we originally started talking about the kind of volume and depth the Directors wanted, they wanted to be able to vary it a bit. They wanted to be able to say, “Okay, that’s what three inches looks like, let’s add another two inches and add more light.” They wanted room to play with how the overall look would turn out, and we’re still fine tuning that now. Basically, I ordered enough to fill all three pools up to about 6 inches.
The final look will include a full crust covering each pool, which consists of lattice shape structures of AB foam we made and painted to look like black crust. There will be a mixture of that with cork sprinkled in between and in other areas, and then we’ll separate it out so it leaves nice long cracks in between the crusted hard parts of lava. I think that’s to give a look like the lava is not so hot it would sear your skin off, it’s a cooler look, like it’s all crusted over and not so active.
MATRIX: How deep is the lava?
JOSH: Right now it’s about 4 inches deep. It’s kind of tricky with opacity, because it starts changing color depending on how you’re lighting it, it’s a real balancing act. The thicker it is, the more shadows you can cover up but, obviously, the more light you need, the darker it gets. In each of the two smaller pools, I have 5 bubble sources, and in the larger pool I have 8 bubble sources. The bubble source is a solenoid attached to an airline that has a reservoir chamber underneath, which allows methasil to fill up each whole chamber. When the air hits the methasil, it actually drives a cylinder of methasil up through the pool and then lets it spread out, kind of like a big glurg of lava. It’s pretty funny when it’s running, it looks like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or something like that. It makes some great sounds too.
MATRIX: Will those sounds be used in the film itself?
JOSH: I have no idea. I would use them, but who knows? That’ll be the Sound Department’s and the Directors’ decision.
MATRIX: Have you been working for long on the lava project?
JOSH: This particular project I’ve been working on for about a month total, from its inception, where I sat down with the blue prints and started calculating the materials we would need.
MATRIX: What will be the finishing touches on this set?
JOSH: The lava pools in particular need to get dressed and lit. One of my guys and I will start dressing them with the crust, getting the bubbles and crust exactly the way we want them to look. I’ll get together with the Lighting Department, and they’ll set the lights. They’re actually going to have hot spot lights on the bubble area so they can dim them up and down, and it will look like the whole thing is pulsating. That’ll pretty much do it for the lava pools. We’re at a pretty good place, I left myself an extra day for any emergencies, like one of the graders running into the side of a pool, and then you’ve got methasil all over the place, or something like that. But thankfully (knock on foam or wood) nothing like that has happened yet.
We also have to have extensive fire protection on this set. During shooting, we’ll have 950 extras on this set, which is unbelievable, on top of which, they’ll be running around with 100 lit torches. We’ll probably have 20 fire extinguishers laid out around the set, and we’ll have four main fire hoses stationed with guys on them. The same guys who are taking care of that fire protection will come in every morning an hour or two early, and wet down this entire set, which has been covered in sand. The problem with the sand is it creates a ton of dust. The dust clouds are a problem for everybody visually, and the easiest solution is to wet down the sand.
MATRIX: What else has the SPFX team been involved with on the Zion Temple set?
JOSH: We built all of the 100 torches the extras will be running around with. The Fire Marshall [Capt. J. Michael Edwards] wanted the torches designed with a spring-loaded handle, so if an extra drops a torch (you can never imagine that happening!) it will instantly go out. We had to come up with the whole lever mechanism for that. During shooting we will have four SPFX guys in costume who will be handing out the torches, lighting the torches, making sure all the torch mechanisms work, and when they need to be out, making sure they’re all out. There will probably be 100 of the 950 extras holding torches, and that’s a lot to keep track of in a sea of 950 people. So we have prepped for that, getting the fire protection in place.
At the moment we’re doing all those last minute thoughts, going through checking the airlines and the whole air system in the lava pools, and getting ready for the sand to be wet down. The biggest last minute thing that sort of surprised us was the sand, finding out that we’d have to wet it all down. It’s a big project, I don’t know how many square feet this set is, but it’s a huge set. It’s going to take four guys at least two hours every morning before we shoot to wet it all down.
We will also have four crackers, which are big barrels with about half an inch of glycol based oil in them, and we run an airline into a ring in the bottom of the barrel, which agitates the oil, atomizing it so it turns into a mist, and floats through the whole set. We typically use something like that for very, very large volume areas like this. They’ll be in place on the set to get an atmospheric smoke/steam kind of thing happening. If they end up needing steam sources, we’ll probably bring in an F100 smoker, which is what we use for swirl smokes.
A variety of glycol based oils are made that you can put in them, beginning at quick dissipating, which literally looks like steam, because it stays in the air for such a short duration that it just comes up and disappears. That’s really great for steam effects, like if you have a steam pipe that’s shooting off steam, or whatever. Then there are long lasting fluids, which can stay in the air for up to an hour, without adding more. We use those for little effects, like if the Directors wanted steam coming off the lava pools, we’d probably bring in an F100 and plumb it into the edge of a pool somewhere. So we’re thinking about all those little last minute things they might call for.
Like I said, we have bubble holes plumbed into all of the lava pools, they’re solidly plumbed into the bottom and they can’t be moved. I thought it might be nice to have something I can pull out of my sleeve at the last minute if they ask for a specific source of bubbles, which I’m sure they will, because directors always do. I have made up wild bubble lines that can be hidden in the pool, and placed pretty much anywhere. They’re made from a big flat piece of lexan with a bubble cup at the end, and vinyl tubing running into the cup. I can slide that out through the lexan and it’ll still be totally invisible, everything is made out of clear material. The bigger sheet of lexan reads weight and surface tension once you get under the methasil, so that means it won’t move around, because it tends to want to float as soon as you fill it up with air. That will pretty much allow me to put a bubble anywhere they might want. If they bring the camera in close to the lava pit to feature it with an actor behind it, and they say “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could have a bubble right there”, I’ll be able to run back to my little cubby hole and pull out a magic trick. Things like that are what we’re working on right now.
THE AGENT JUMPS
MATRIX: What other projects have you worked on for this film?
JOSH: There have been an endless running string of projects. One of the other bigger ones was a car that was the center piece of the freeway crash scene, which was one of my first projects on this show. In that scene, there was about a twenty car pile up that ends with a big rig jack knifed, sliding down the freeway, kind of sweeping up all the cars. The scene begins with a police car with two policemen in it, and one of them transposes into an Agent. He climbs out of the window onto the police car (this is all moving at 50 miles an hour), and jumps from that car to a car we rigged. The Agent lands with such force on the other car, because he is like a super human, that it crushes in the entire hood of the car. The suspension drops, the fenders blow out, all the windows explode, the doors blow open and the last part of that sequence is the entire car actually flipping end over about one and a half times. We did all that live action with twenty other cars around it, and all kinds of other crazy things are happening to them.
That car was being towed by the camera car, and it actually had a guy driving it, so this car is literally coming apart at 45 to 50 miles an hour. I think the car went something like 180 feet before it even touched the ground, and when it landed it slid for another 200 feet. Meanwhile all these other cars are flipping and exploding and T Boning and crashing. We had two cars barrel rolling off pipe ramps and another canon car. It was a really big deal and everything had to work just right. There were about 5 different sequences happening at the same time, and it all had to be timed just perfectly. It was all spaced at about three 100ths of a second apart, if any one thing went wrong it would blow the shot. So it was critical everything went exactly when it was supposed to go, and all work.
MATRIX: How many of you worked on that project?
JOSH: Me and Arnie Verbiesen [Special Effects Technician] pretty much designed and built the whole rig so the whole hood crushed in, the fenders blew out, the bumper exploded off, the suspension dropped, all the windows exploded, the doors blew open, and the whole car flipped.
MATRIX: Can you give us some insight into how those different elements worked?
JOSH: The hood crushing in was on shivs pulled by a ram that had it’s own tank. We actually had five separate air tank systems built into the car that all did different things at different times. We had to have an air tank running to our own cylinder on the brake, which was an interesting thing too, the braking mechanism. The stunt guy, obviously, to control his speed had to be able to use the brake, but at the same time we had to have the brake lock on right before the canon went in the rear that flipped the car. The canon created a pivot point for the flip, but we couldn’t count on the stunt guy being able to hit the brake at exactly 4 cues – at exactly three 100ths of a second cue. So we had to come up with a system where he could still use the brake, but where we could also override it, and make absolutely sure the brake went on at a certain time.
We had an air tank that ran all of the front cylinders of the crushing part of the car, including the fenders ripping out and the hood crushing in. The whole front bumper exploded out of the car, kind of like the car got crushed down from above, and it blew the bumper out the front, so we blew the bumper pyrotechnically. The windows exploded because so much pressure built up inside the car it blew all the windows out, which was also done pyrotechnically. To blow the doors open we had two small canons with sandbag pushers up against a metal plate welded onto the door.
We built the prototype vehicle in Los Angeles, and we thought we had it all figured out, so we flew up to Alameda because it was the only place they would actually let us test in light conditions. We needed a similar asphalt surface as the runway out here [Alameda Naval Base] because we wanted to simulate exactly the amount of impact the surface of the runway would take up; a canon causes so much force when it comes out that it actually dents the ground. None of the places that had similar asphalt surfaces down in LA, would give us permission to test because, obviously, you leave a big dent in their asphalt. We had the prototype driven up here, and four of us flew up the morning of the test, and we did it on the runway out here (this is while we were all still based in LA). It went beautifully and we were all very happy. We flew back and sent the tapes of the test over to the Directors, they looked at it and said they hated the white smoke. We had used a 12 ounce black powder bomb in the car, and that created a ton of white smoke.
Now we were all asking ourselves, “What do we do?” Do we use smokeless black powder? But there are problems with that, because it doesn’t create anywhere near the force regular black powder does. We thought of all these different ways to go, and ended up deciding to go with a nitrogen canon, although we were kind of worried because none of us had ever done that on such a scale. It’s one thing to flip a car sideways or to flip something small with a nitrogen canon, but to flip a car end over that’s moving at 50 miles an hour is a bigger deal. The problem is getting the amount of power out quickly, it’s a little bit slower. When you’re using pyrotechnics, the thrust is instantaneous. It’s an air system, but we’re using nitrogen at that pressure – we used about 500psi on a 12 inch canon, it’s just a slower delivery. We ended up doing those tests behind our shop, down in LA. It required about a 300 gallon tank, a huge, huge nitrogen tank, which we charged right before each test.
When you looked inside this car when we were done, there were hoses everywhere: steel braided hoses, big giant black rubber hoses, wires, cables; it looked like a space vehicle. We had a full roll cage inside to protect the driver, because the stunt guy had to be there to steer the car and brake it. The vehicle had to be towed because the entire running mechanism – the drive train, the transmission, the engine, the gas tanks, everything, had to be removed from the car when we rigged it, so the only way we could move the car was to tow it. It was actually towed with the camera vehicle. We had to have someone in there who could control the vehicle and was on radio, so he could abort if necessary, because there were the other 15 or 20 cars doing stunts all around it. The poor driver, he got in and there was a huge tank beside him, door canons right under his legs, and there were explosions going off all around him. It was a really nerve wracking day, I definitely kissed the ground at the end of it.
As a matter of fact, they did it on the first take; it went off beautifully, although I was totally freaked the whole time they were doing it. The SPFX team had to be staged outside the freeway (which has about twenty foot walls) when they did the shot, because it was a very long running shot, and if you were anywhere on the freeway, then you were in the shot. We were in our chase vehicle, ready to come onto the freeway as soon as they finished shooting, so that if the pyrotechnics didn’t go off, we could immediately de-rig, because that’s obviously a major hazard.
We were all tense and nervous, then we heard them call ‘Roll’, and we could hear where the vehicles were as they were coming down the set. We could also hear explosions going off, then the first things we saw were car parts, little pieces of car parts, flying over the twenty foot walls of the set. I was like, “Oh my God!” We hopped on our truck and drove onto the freeway as soon as they called ‘Cut’. I had no idea of the scope of the shot until I actually saw the debris for the first time. I couldn’t believe it, there were cars piled up sideways, end to end, banked up against the wall, and rolled over each other. One car flipped so many times, it ripped all four wheels off the car. It rolled like twelve times in a row, it just went over and over and over. I rushed over to watch playback when we were sure everyone was safe and everything was cool, and the shot was beautiful. It was amazing.
Then it turned out that the three main cameras on the central car we rigged, all panned too early. About half way through the flip, they panned over to Trinity’s car, so the Directors wanted to shoot it again. We broke for lunch, and of course I stressed about having to do it again for the rest of lunch. We did it again, and thankfully everything went perfectly, exactly the way it should, and they got the shot.
MATRIX: That sequence must have been quite a big set up.
JOSH: It was huge. In just the Special Effects Department alone, I think we had five or six cars that had major things happen to them. We worked very tightly in conjunction with stunts, so nobody got hurt that day. There were cars towing fifteen feet long pipe ramps, which are giant pipe shaped ramps. I think the ones we were jumping went up to about three feet high with a little kicker lip on the end. There’s about a 6 inch diameter pipe the cars run into and they hit it just off center, so it rolls the car as they go. The cars towing the pipe ramps would crash into a car, a T Bone crash that stopped them dead, then they had another car coming in right behind them that hit the pipe ramp and did a full roll off it. I think one of the pipe ramp cars went about 300 feet before it touched the ground.
To give an idea of the scale and the speeds we were dealing with, these stunts were done at 45 to 50 miles an hour. That’s a really big deal, even if you’re dealing with just one car by itself going off a jump doing a barrel roll. In this sequence there were 15 or 20 cars all doing different things, and everything had to be synched up. One crash totally depended on the outcome of the next crash coming up. R.A [Rondell] was the Stunt Coordinator on that, and he was amazing. He choreographed it so well it came together perfectly, it’s going to look amazing on film. All the playback I have seen is just incredible stuff.
MATRIX: Were you prepared to do another take, if necessary?
JOSH: Those two takes took up the full day, and that’s how many takes we prepared for as far as Trinity’s car, and the car Arnie and I designed. Those were the main cars up front in camera, everything else was going on around and behind them. That main scene where we had a huge pile up was set up for two takes, and that’s all we planned on doing. We would have gone back and rebuilt everything if we’d had to, but they got it in two takes.
MATRIX: Thanks Josh.
Interview by REDPILL