Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Behind the Scenes: Coronado

When a movie uses "from the Academy Award-winning special effects team that brought you Independence Day!" as it's main selling point, there's not much good in hoping for a plot as well. Actually, Coronado isn't so bad as all that. The plot is thin and the acting OK, and even though, effects-wise, this is no Independence Day, it's not bad for a rental when you need to kill a couple of hours. It's a low-budget effort, but some degree of care went into making it look good. Although the film crew seldom left the courtyard of an abandoned prison in Mexico during filming, the special effects team makes you think they were in lots of different locations.

Where this DVD really shines is when the behind-the-scenes features kick in. There are lots of effects secrets to talk about, including some great miniature work. Since the effects team is behind the whole picture, there is apparent delight in revealing how they did every little thing. It's a great primer in how a low-budget outing (1.2 million, reportedly) can be put to good use.

Miniatures were used in several of the main action sequences and a few other areas. The first two covered in the behind-the-scenes footage involve two army jeeps that are chasing the heroes. Both jeeps are destroyed in spectacular fashion, the first when a misplaced bazooka shot launches the jeep impossibly high into the air before crashing to the ground and the second that encounters a speeding train.

One thing that I really appreciate in the jeep sequences is the use of readily-available models instead of fully-custom miniatures. I'm a big proponent of using off-the-shelf components when possible and it's nice to see a famous effects company using this method as well. In this case, the effects team used 1/6th scale jeeps designed for GI Joe action figures along with a few Joes as driver and passenger. They did customize the miniature jeeps a bit to match the full-size versions they were shooting, including painting them and adding a convertible top.
If you're thinking that GI Joe toys aren't up to snuff, you obviously haven't looked into the scale accuracy of some of these toys. Besides, if Spielberg can get away with using GI Joes for a shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I guess others can as well.

In use, one jeep was blown up and tumbles through the frame as the truck containing the heroes speeds into the distance. The model was blown into the air using a compressed air cannon, which was highly effective when composited in with the live action segments. The second jeep was hit from the side using a compressed air ram to simulate the oncoming train, then composited in with footage of a real train. The commentary track on the DVD mentions that one of the GI Joes managed to lose his head during the train sequence. It's awkward to admit that I'd already discovered this on my own by examining that section frame-by-frame. Go ahead- call me an effects geek if you like.

Another model sequence showed the crossing and collapse of a log bridge by the heroes' truck. Two different miniature bridges were built in different scales. In one behind-the-scenes shot, a model truck is pulled across the miniature bridge by fishing line. Isn't low-tech grand? The bridge itself was rigged to collapse using hydraulics, so it could be recreated and collapsed the same way multiple times for different shots. The model truck came into play again during the scenes when the group explores an abandoned town.

There is also a sequence showing the large-scale (I think it was 1/4 scale) radio-controlled miniature tanks used for several battle scenes. One model was eventually rigged for explosions and destroyed. The use of these tank models was very effective.

There are a few other miniatures that are touched on, but unfortunately are not examined in depth, such as the ancient temple cave and the destroyed hotel miniature. I would have particularly enjoyed a better look at the temple cave, as the few moments of footage show someone crawling around inside the minature cave taking still photographs.

Coronado: movie - kind of lame. Behind-the-scenes segments - wonderful!

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