Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould reveals the secrets of the DB5 scenes, Land Rover chase, sinking shots, and…EXPLOSIONS!
Warning: this article contains spoilers
Chris Corbould has worked on 15 James Bond films, and has been the special effects supervisor for nine of them; No Time To Die is his latest. And amongst all that intense practical effects supervision, he has slowly been transitioning into second unit directing, an area he now plans to concentrate on.
Luckily, the latest Bond outing sees Corbould go out with a bang (and a fair few incredible crashes). In this befores & afters interview, he explains the set-up and execution of a number of No Time To Die’s huge effects sequences—from the donuting DB5 to the final intense explosions. We also talk about the move into second unit directing.
1. How to make a DB5 do donuts (and shoot M134 mini-guns)
James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) appear to be pinned down in an Aston Martin DB5 in a square in Matera, Italy, until Bond activates the car’s defences, which include swirling donuts, smoke and the operation of mini-guns.
Chris Corbould: We refer to it as the Donut Square purely because that’s where he does his donuts. There were two or three ideas for how he escapes and the Donut Square was something I came up with, which I thought would get every Bond fan out of their seat, shouting and hollering, clapping their hands, which I think it did.
I think it was really tense, the way he’s sitting in there and the bullets are thumping into the window and he’s not doing anything. And then that magical moment where he says, ‘Okay…’. The guns come out, and then he goes into that spinning round with all the smoke. I’d always had it in my mind that that was going to be a massive moment. So we really went to town.
We shot it with second unit first, without the actors. It was three days of just donuting around and us blowing up charges. We had to be respectful of the buildings around there because some of those buildings were 1,000-plus years old. So what we actually did was clad the buildings—three foot, four foot down, that was all our cladding with all our bullet hits in. Then above the three or four feet was the 1,000 year old building, which helped us in many ways because then when we wanted to do another take, we just took our bit of cladding off, put another pre-rigged bit of cladding back on, and within an hour, we could go again.
One of the things we did have to do was make sure that the guns were always lined up with where the bullets were going off. For that, we divided the square into eight sectors. And then each one of those eight sectors had a sequencer firing box, which we could time. So we did a lot of time tests of how long it took the car to do a single donut. Say it was 20 seconds, then we knew that for each one of those segments, as soon as there was a gun lined up, we’d press a trigger and we knew that it was six seconds until it lined up with the next segment. We would rig the timing box so as soon as you press the button, all those hits went off in that six seconds, and then the next sequencer box took over for the next six seconds.
We’d spend a lot of time with stop watches going, ‘Right. Okay. Do the donut.’ And we always waited. We didn’t start the bullets as soon as it went into the donut. We always waited until it had had one revolution. We knew then that we were at the ideal speed and that’s what he was going to stick at. The other thing we had to do was, we had the bullets all coming out the side. And they had one camera looking along the side so you could see the bullets coming out the side, the gun lining up and the background. That took a little bit of working out. We actually had a little turntable under the front wheel with all the trigger points for these sequencer boxes. And because it had to be so spot on, as the wheel went around, it triggered a little trigger when it was absolutely lined up with a segment, which then triggered the sequencer box. Then as the car went around a bit further, it triggered the next trigger.
We did it with the second unit many, many times, and then Daniel came up and we did some more with Daniel. And Daniel actually donuted the car around the square, and with Léa in it too, and very successfully. He’s a great driver, Daniel. We can actually drive a car with no driver in there, remotely, from a driving pod. And we’d practiced doing donuts remotely so that if Daniel didn’t feel up to it or didn’t want to do it, we could sit Daniel and Léa in the car, then we could do it from off the set just with a stunt driver doing it as if he was in the car. So we had quite a few contingencies to get that shot.
One of the things we had to keep doing in Donut Square was taking out the tire marks, because as it’s spinning around, you’ve got these circles of tyre marks all the time. We just washed them all down. We were ready to go in a short while. Matera is a fantastic old city and the townsfolk really embraced us, but a lot of the streets are polished stone. So we were worried about, no matter what compound of tyres we looked at for the DB5s, there was always that worry that we wouldn’t be able to get the most out of it because of the grip. So Lee Morrison, the stunt coordinator, decided that every time we needed a lot of traction, he would spray a well-known soft drink on the floor and let it go tacky. Weirdly enough, that gave him just that little bit more traction.
2. Land Rover Defenders, off-road
An off-road chase scene in Norway takes place involving Land Rover Defender 110s.
Chris Corbould: Lee Morrison and I went up to Scotland several times to find locations. There was that great opening when the Land Rover Defender’s first appear and they actually fly through the air. That was done for real and looked tremendous. And then we come down the hill and cut through the river and introduce the helicopter.
They were prototype Defenders. So they weren’t what you’re seeing on the road now. We had to work very closely with Jaguar Land Rover. We fitted roll cages, small fuel tanks, fire extinguisher systems, the battery isolators, and all the stunt harnesses so they could strap themselves in. They’re rally cars, for want of a better word. They could quite easily do six or eight rolls down the side of a hill and they’d get out and have a laugh about it and get in the next one and carry on.
When they go into the wooded area, that involved special effects fog. We also did the shot where the Defender hits the log. It bottle-noses over, hits the log, and does that great shot where it flies end over end, which involved a nitrogen cannon.
3. A sinking ship
A trawler with Bond and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) rolls over and begins sinking. The sequence was filmed in the underwater stage at Pinewood Studios.
Chris Corbould: That was one of my favorite rigs. I actually adore rigs and I took total control of when we shot that because I loved it so much. It was like a rotisserie that could rotate 360 degrees, but also it went down into the water. So we played around with the stunt guys for a long time and I shot a lot of videos of what I thought could work. We introduced a little compressed air into it. What I wanted to see and what was interesting to me was seeing all the staircases all of a sudden at weird angles, while all the time you have the bubbles that are coming up the same way. To me, it gave it a really, really cool look.
Daniel and Jeffrey were in there and were fantastic. We had lots of safety panels. Daniel was quite close to Jeffrey in there because it wasn’t that big inside. Then when the water started to come up, it very quickly got very claustrophobic. But it’s all a case of getting the actors in there, getting them confident. We had panels that although they looked solid, you could just push off with your hand if you felt that it was getting too much for you. All credit to Daniel and Jeffrey in there, they really sold it. I think unfortunately they did such a good job that nobody noticed the rig that was sinking it. That’s what we’re trying to achieve, so God bless them.
4. The trawler explosion
A shot of seaplane flying away from a fishing boat also shows the vessel exploding in the background.
Chris Corbould: That was a real trawler, a real boat, which they desperately wanted back afterwards. So having said that, it was really built strongly. It was an all-steel boat. So we would’ve had to have done something seriously wrong to it to damage it. But we still had to show it the respect it deserved. So we did many, many tests back in Pinewood Studios before we even went out to Jamaica for ourselves.
The critical thing with that one was hooking up the plane with the explosion, because it was a real plane and a real boat. It was shot from a helicopter. And I think the first time we did it, it was just not quite in the right place. So we did it again and then nailed it
5. The final explosions
Bunker-buster bombs fired from a Navy ship target silos/caverns on a secret island base.
Chris Corbould: That end explosion we did for real on Salisbury Plain. It was a series of three explosions, which together were enormous. The great thing about those three explosions as one were we were out in the middle of Salisbury Plain and there was no windows around to break. There was no camera crew. It was just locked off cameras and three thumping great explosions.
It all had to be scaled up from where the camera was going to be in theory, behind Daniel on the stage. And we had to measure out the exact distance that the bunkers would have been had it been the real set on a real island so that it all tied in and gave the exact right look to it. The first explosion, I think, if I remember rightly, was 300 yards away, the second one was 200 yards away, and the last one was 70 or 80 yards away. So the last one actually blotted out the whole screen. Each used about 40 kilos of high explosive and 30 to 40 gallons of fuel.
Moving into second unit directing
Among Chris Corbould’s other special effects supervisor credits, he has also been the second unit director on such films as Christopher Robin, Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Rhythm Section. Not all of these involve heavy SFX work, but that’s exactly what Corbould is aiming for. He’s hung up his hat as a special effects supervisor to extend elements of what he had already been doing, and more. befores & afters asked him about the move.
b&a: I’m really curious about your entry into second unit directing. I guess some VFX supes or SFX supes do do that occasionally when they’re called on to do it, but you’re jumping into this solely now, right?
Chris Corbould: Yeah, very much so. I mean, it’s not a natural progression for special effects guys to go in. Normally, stunt guys somehow get a lot of breaks because they’re designing fights and designing car stuff. So, for some reason they seem to get a much easier ‘in’. There’s also been quite a few visual effects supes who have gone into it. Special effects is pretty unknown.
But for years and years and years, I’ve been dreaming up huge sequences for films. I think probably the tank chase in GoldenEye all came from my idea. The train crash in Skyfall came from me. Sam Mendes rang me. I was still in Los Angeles, finishing off Dark Knight Rises. He rang me one night and said, ‘Chris, I’ve got this really great pedestrian chase under London.’ But he said, ‘I just want one jaw-dropping moment.’ So that’s what came out of it.
I think the pivotal point for me was that I got called into a meeting with producer Barbara Broccoli and Sam Mendes, and they weren’t happy with the ending of Skyfall. So Sam said, ‘Can you go away and think about it and see if you come up with something different?’ So I came up with a helicopter attack on the house and subsequently the house blowing up. And they all loved it. So Sam says, ‘Right. Go away and do a previsualization with the previs guys,’ which I did and came back. He tweaked a few things. And at the end of it, he said, ‘Right, Chris, I want you to go and shoot all the second unit stuff now.’ So, that was my entry into it, and I absolutely loved every minute of it.
For so many years, I’d been giving my ideas over for somebody else to shoot and most of them did a wonderful job, but it was still never what I quite saw in my head. So, all of a sudden to be given a chance to shoot something you’ve dreamt up, my world came alive. And ever since that day, that’s been where I want to head for. I was a bit pigeonholed because whenever I’m doing the effects on the film—and they were normally quite big effects films—the producers were always worried that if I got too involved with the second unit, the special effects would struggle or suffer.
I’ve been doing it 47 years, so I’ve done my dues. I really enjoy the whole process of running the second unit and directing the second unit. For me, I just totally come alive again. I like everybody on my sets to have a great time, come in with a smile on their face and go home with a smile on face. There’s the stresses of getting the shots, but I try and avoid all the stresses of being shouted out or shouting at people and making their life hell. I’ve worked on a lot of second units over the years where it’s been miserable. So that was one of the other things, I wanted to make sure that we had a great time and we’re proud of what we did.
b&a: I was going to ask you, what have you found easy in terms of the transition and what have you actually found quite hard, maybe even unexpectedly hard about it?
Chris Corbould: I don’t think I have come across anything that’s hard about it. For me, second unit, it’s less stressful than being a special effects supervisor! And I’m dealing with a lot of people. When I’m doing special effects, I’m responsible in making sure that 100, 120 people are in the right place in the world at the right time with the right equipment. I just turn up as the second unit director with just the ideas in my head. Then I’ve got teams of HODs around me who make it happen. It’s less stressful for me and more enjoyable.
I think I’ve been on six films now as second unit director or parts of it as second unit director, and I haven’t come across a film yet where I haven’t walked away having enjoyed every single minute of it and everybody else enjoying it. I’m guessing there’s going to be times where maybe I don’t quite get it right what the director’s wanted. And some of them will react different to others. But I’ve been blessed with working with people like Sam Mendes, Marc Forster who have all been really trusting and had total confidence in me and just said, ‘Go and get it. Go and shoot it up. Just go and shoot it. And as long as you shoot something that resembles what I have in my head and I’ll be happy with it.’ They’ve given me the freedom to go and do that, which is great.
I can’t wait to really get stuck into something big and exciting. And it doesn’t have to be action. For Christopher Robin, I was second unit director and there was one explosion in the whole film. And yet I found it really thrilling to do some of the visual effects stuff where you’ve got five creatures around the table who are not there, but you are doing the camera moves as if they are. I absolutely adore all that.
Become a befores & afters Patreon for bonus VFX content