“There were occasions where we needed to take a wall out to allow for the back bulk of the camera. If we were moving into a room and panning to the left, we would take the right hand wall out once it was out of camera range, so that we could move the back of the camera round and also pull back if we needed too. The set was designed that way, the walls being locked together on the sides. You simply threw the locks and the wall lifted out, an advantage when working single-frame.”
A scene involving real rats emerging from a dry toilet bowl was planned for its shock value. Ron Crees shot masses of live-action footage on rats coming round the toilet bend. Unfortunately the only rats available were tame and looked much too friendly on film. The director had envisaged nasty sewer rats but since nobody keeps these in captivity the rats were eventually cel animated.
One of the most spectacular drawn sequences in the film was the shock wave sequence. This was animated by Steve Weston, who was also responsible for the flying sequence in The Snowman. It is interesting to know he did not use any rotoscoped footage for either film. “The only photographic preparation we did for The Snowman was to take some snaps of Brighton pier,” says Turner. “Steve then made a model of the pier because we wanted to get the detail accurate. This was used as a reference, not filmed or rotoscoped. All of the drawings were created by observation, skill and a good deal of imagination.
“We planned the route the Snowman was going take on his flight to the North Pole and this determined the landscape seen during the flight. He went via Norway with its spectacular fords, and on though the ice flows. The return journey was much quicker because of the time factor. He came down through Austria and across France. With that decided upon, Steve made a storyboard, and then animated it. He is a perfect technician.
“The shock wave sequence in When The Wind Blows shows similar craftsmanship. When the bomb goes off there is a long, complex pan round and up to the shock wave coming towards you. It is like a violent wind. Numerous things are blown around, a windmill collapses, cars crash, trains crash. Steve created all of that.”
As the shock-wave rushes towards Jim and Hilda’s house the action cuts to the model interior to show the windows being blown in. This was filmed in live-action. The explosion blends so well with the drawn animation of the shock wave you are not aware of the sudden transition. Next we see flying crockery and a flash-back to Jim and Hilda’s wedding. This was done to create uncertainty so you don’t know whether they are alive or dead. There is a similar approach in another scene where there is a track from the kitchen window through three rooms. It is silent and you are not sure if Jim and Hilda are still alive until the sound of Hilda’s cough. It was intended to make people think.
“One of the intents of the film is to show what happens if you are far enough from the bomb to survive the main blast,” says Turner. “If a large nuclear bomb were to drop on London it would take one minute thirty-five seconds for the shock wave to reach Jim and Hilda’s house in Sussex. That is how long the sequence lasts in the film. The shock wave blew-in the windows of their house but it wasn’t sufficient to destroy the house completely because of the distance from the blast.
“The shock wave is followed by a heat wave, which sets things alight. Similarly, the further from the centre, the less destructive the heat-wave becomes. The heat was only strong enough to destroy the paint-work. This is fact! The shock wave sequence was in the book but we researched in depth to ensure we had the details correct.”
The explosion was shot at a high camera speed and created with a strong air blast. In the early part of the film, while Jim follows the instructions in his pamphlet, he puts furniture against the windows of the room where they have built the shelter. A chest-of-drawers is put on top of everything and stays there for a large part of the film. When the shock-wave hits the house we get a glimpse of the chest-of-drawers as it is blown straight towards the camera.
“Air lines controlled by valves led to the back of the windows. We had a trough filled with dust and the lights were on rheostats,” explains Friswell “We turned over at 96 frames per second, flicked on the air valve and turned the rheostat up to give the bright red glow. With an air-blast of 100 pounds per square inch it was like hitting the set with an invisible hammer. Everything flew towards the camera.
“On a two foot set it only took the furniture a fraction of a second to cross the room. Even though the sequence was extended by filming at four times normal speed the furniture moved much too fast. We solved this by threading tungsten wires through the furniture and fixing it in such a way that when it was blasted forward the wire would slow it down. The fine wires eventually break, allowing the furniture to fly out of picture. The furniture was scored through to break-up in a pre-determined way, a standard procedure with effects work.”
“At the end of a days shooting we would get round a table, with a few drinks, and discuss ways of tackling forthcoming scenes,” says Turner. “We used a lot of lateral thinking. It was an extremely rewarding experience. We created all the model background shots in those ten weeks, and there was no need to go back for more.
“We hope the general public watch the film without thinking about the technical problems. The first thing you learn as a rostrum cameraman is to do a track and pan as if the track and pan does not exist. When you are doing effects work the same principle applies. If the storyline calls for something that would be uneconomic, impractical or impossible to create with normal filming then special effects will be expected to provide the answer. You might spend days on a shot, making an object act in a way the audience will believe is normal. Somebody who was not involved should be able to watch the shot without being aware of anything special, even though you have knocked yourself out to produce it. It shouldn’t stand out as a fantastic effect, not unless it is an abstract such as blowing up a miniature spacecraft or making Superman fly. The technique should never get in the way of the effect.”
Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)