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April 23
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Stunts, Special Effects and VFX: Anatomy of a LETHAL WEAPON Shot

By IAN FAILES

The characters leap from the building as a bomb is detonated behind them. (All images copyright © 2019 Fox)

The Season 3 finale of the Fox series Lethal Weapon features an incredible explosive sequence as the character Wesley Cole (Seann William Scott) and his ex-wife Natalie Flynn (Maggie Lawson) find themselves having to leap out a window from a building’s 34th floor – onto a wrecking ball – as a bomb goes off behind them.

The dramatic scene made use of live-action stunt photography at a Downtown L.A. apartment building, greenscreen elements of the hero actors, practical explosions and visual effects by CoSA VFX. VFX Voice asked the stunt, special effects and visual effects supervisors how they worked together to make the shots possible.

Storyboard frame by storyboard artist Michael Bayouth.

PLANNING A HIGH-RISE STUNT

Mark Spatny, Visual Effects Supervisor: “One of the guiding principles of the show is that if they can do something practically, they will. They’ve never once asked the question, ‘Would it be cheaper to do this visual effects? Would it save us time?’ Their thing is, can we do it practically? If so, then they’re going to do it. And if not, that’s when they call VFX in. By doing as much practical as they can, they stay true to the feel of an ’80s action movie, which is really important to everyone involved.”

Brendon O’Dell, Special Effects Supervisor: “What the script called for were two separate scenes, where one was a guy was being thrown out of a broken window. The other one was with Cole and his ex-wife; he shoots the window and then they jump out of it as the bomb goes off. Right off the bat we had to tackle how are we going to get that look of them going out of the real windows.”

Mark Spatny: “There was a storyboarding process, and then we went through the boards very carefully, talking about, ‘This shot is a practical shot, this is the rig for it, this is what’s going to have to be removed in post, here are the shots that are going to be greenscreen, what plates do we need, how are we going to shoot them, we’re going to have to shoot them from a drone’ – all those kinds of things.”

Tim Trella, Stunt Coordinator: “That sequence was tough just because we also had to rig the rooftop. We had to put all the wires 40 stories up because when they jumped out the window, the two doubles – the Natalie double and the Cole double – had to have cables on them. So we had to make a system where we could hang and suspend them without dropping them and then retrieve them. When we did it we went through a practical piece of glass that was blown before they go through it, so it looks like they’re pushing the glass right out.”

The greenscreen shoot on the Warner Bros. backlot. This shot features stunt doubles for Seann William Scott and Maggie Lawson.

Close-up on actor Seann William Scott during the greenscreen photography.

STAGING THE SEQUENCE

Mark Spatny: “One of the more complex parts that you might not think about that had to be planned was they had to pull the real windows out, which involved all kinds of specialized people and equipment.”

Brendon O’Dell: “On screen, you see the glass break apart into a million pieces, which is the tempered look. What we did was, we took their glass out, we put ours in, and then tinted it to resemble the look from the outside of the building. But this was actually a functional building, a real building that people live in. It’s a super high-end apartment building. It took the building engineers to approve it, first of all. And it required us asking a professional window company to come out on the window-washer rigs and take out the windows so that we could put our tempered glass in, our special tempered glass that we break for special effects.”

Tim Trella: “My rigging guys worked for three days straight on the rooftops in the pouring rain because it rained the days that we rigged it. We had probably 56 feet of truss up there and winches and cable. And then we hung a weight bag exactly the weight of each person and swung it out to see where it goes and to make sure the system’s safe, and make sure we do what we have to do until we put our stunt doubles out there.”

Brendon O’Dell: “My part of it in practical effects was to allow us to get the interaction of the stunt doubles breaking through real glass. We pyrotechnically broke the glass right before the stunt people hit it so that it gives you that shattered look of all the glass raining down.”

Tim Trella: “I was also the second unit director for the sequence. We had eight cameras going and a drone in the air filming. We rehearsed a couple times with the weight bag, and once everybody had seen how it would work and all the cameras were set, we actually put the action doubles on there and did it for real.”

A crane holding a wrecking ball turns out to be a saving grace for the duo. This shot shows the stunt doubles making the leap.

A final shot in which digital doubles were used to show the characters in peril.

CRAFTING THE FINAL SHOTS

Brendon O’Dell: “To get the part where they’re hanging from the wrecking ball, we went to the Warner Bros. backlot and that was where a fake mocked-up wrecking ball was suspended against greenscreen. In special effects, we did a lot of air movers and wind to simulate them hanging and jumping onto the wrecking ball. Then the stunts department had a system rigged to continue the shot out of them jumping out practically to them landing on the wrecking ball.”

Tim Trella: “Basically what we had was a crane with the wrecking ball on top of that. And then had the actors for Cole (Seann William Scott) and Natalie (Maggie Lawson) wired up on what you call a travelers system which is a high line above them, almost like a zip line, out of the shot. And then we control them on winches to pull them forward to match the shots of the doubles jumping out of the window.”

Mark Spatny: “One of the big challenges was Natalie’s open-back dress – the harness was fully exposed on that. So we actually had to replace her back in a bunch of shots because the harness was visible there.”

Tim Trella: “Sean and Maggie did a phenomenal job. They did a hell of a job hanging out there on wires. You’re in a harness, hanging up above the crew the whole time for five or six hours. It can be grueling. If they weren’t actors, they’d be incredible stunt people.”

Brendon O’Dell: “The explosion fireball you see as they jump out of the window was done on that backlot of Warner Bros. I did a series of fireballs as elements for VFX against greenscreen that were used to build into the shot.”

Mark Spatny: “The explosion is a combination of real elements and 3D. What’s right behind them is the real fireball that was shot, but then as we’re tapering off to the sides where the windows are exploding, what’s behind the exploding windows is CG because we needed the interaction with the lighting and everything on the glass. So ultimately it’s a combination of 3D debris, 3D glass, practical pyro and CG pyro.”

Brendon O’Dell: “Between stunts, special effects and visual effects, there’s always a great contribution from everyone. We always discuss the best ways to be able to achieve all our effects. So it’s a very close relationship.”


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