‘He lost his head’

How they made Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper fight atop that train in ‘Speed’.

#speedvfxweek is brought to you by YellowDog
#speedvfxweek is brought to you by YellowDog.

Speed is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The 1994 film was a major showcase of multiple effects techniques – practical stunts, miniatures, CG and digital compositing (then, still fairly new), and…rear projection (not so new).

Rear projection is, in fact, a remarkably old technique in which an image is projected from behind a screen, in front of which the actors perform or the action takes place. It was used in Speed in the dramatic train-top LA Metro tunnel fight between Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), ending when Payne, the baddie, literally loses his head.

Nowadays – and even back then – such a sequence would probably be done on a partial set against blue or greenscreen. But for these Speed shots, rear projection was the chosen course of action and proved to be an effective one. It started with acquiring the moving tunnel plates that would then be projected onto the screen.

“I went out with the visual effects director of photography, Dave Drzewiecki, we with the cooperation of the LA Metro Underground, we strapped cameras onto the subway train in a couple of different places and just shot a bunch of VistaVision background plates from a bunch of different angles,” recalls Speed visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis. “And then really it was all done as an old school, rear projection, the way they used to do it in the 40s, 50s and 60s, right on through into the early 90s.”

It was just enough to say, ‘Oh boy, that had to hurt.’

Reeves and Hopper performed their fight scene atop a train top set in a studio, while the rear projection plates were played. Although Shermis says the results were suitable, he notes that it was “a royal pain in the butt, requiring a whole bunch of extra equipment, a whole bunch of gear and a lot of extra space on a stage.”

“Also,” he adds, “you literally lose two generations on that background. Now, it didn’t much matter in this case because it was all blurry, moving, streaky background footage. That’s because the rear projection was shot on film, and then the scene was shot on film. So, actually, you lose like three or four generations by the time yo got it projected.”

One solution to the lost generations was to shoot the background plates on VistaVision, which gave the filmmakers about twice the resolution of standard 35 millimeter four perf film. “So,” says Shermis, “while you lose that generation or two or three in rear projections, you gain a little bit by using VistaVision.”

Source: Alamy.

The ‘killer’ shot in that scene is, of course, the moment Traven holds up Payne’s head so that it collides with a tunnel light. It has the effect of knocking off – in a very quick shot – the baddie’s head.

“It was a dummy,” notes Shermis, who suggests that it “didn’t really hold up, but it is so short it didn’t matter. And one of the reasons that it is so short is that, first of all, nobody wanted a bunch of blood splatter going on. And then, it was just enough to say, ‘Oh boy, that had to hurt.’”

Explore our in-depth ‘Speed’ 25th anniversary coverage during #speedvfxweek, Coming up: the freeway bus jump, the crazy train miniatures and…’splosions!

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