Whether it’s cruise ships, ants or roman soldiers, international production service companies and fixers tell Adrian Pennington about the weird and wonderful things they have procured for their film and TV clients
Every production is a unique challenge or, as Maria Fernanda Cristo, head of production services at Colombia-based Dynamo, puts it, “a little monster of its own”. Filmmakers all want to avoid repeating something that has been shown before. They will go the extra mile to devise a new shot in a new location, even if it appears on screen for only a few seconds. But those requests cannot be fulfilled without the expertise and specialist knowledge of production service companies and fixers.
“As a company, we must adapt to everything that’s thrown our way,” says Cristo. “It’s about working together with the client and local agencies to make their vision happen.”
Dynamo is both production services supplier for international productions — including Netflix’s Narcos and Ang Lee’s Gemini Man — and a producer, with 18 TV shows and 40 features to its credit, among them Monos and Tarumama.
For Peter Berg’s thriller Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg, Dynamo organised a drone shoot over Bogota’s main square, close to the presidential palace. “It’s like asking to fly a drone around the White House,” says Cristo. “No-one had done this before.”
It was a request that took some time but they achieved the shot with the collaboration of various government bodies. Dynamo also found other locations in the city and nearby to double for a storyline set in Southeast Asia. Berg even allowed Colombia’s president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, to try to shoot one of the action sequences of the film.
“Every time we do something new, whether it’s working with the military or a local city mayor or importing specialised theatrical weapons, we all learn something new. It paves the way to grow production in the country,” Cristo says.
The old adage might advise to never work with children or animals, but in the case of wildlife this suggested unpredictability doesn’t necessarily bear out, says Chris Brown, director of Tooth n’ Claw, a UK-based company that supplies animals for productions worldwide.
“What you’re doing is taking what an animal does normally and understanding their behaviour to put a camera in the right place. It’s not about animals performing tricks. You get them to go from A to B usually with food incentives. A set environment will be a huge stimulus for the animal — it’s playtime.”
Brown likens the job to receiving the punch line for a joke and having to work out what the set-up would be. “We rarely get the full script, only a sequence in storyboard form,” he says. “It’s then a problem to solve.
“You put the same effort into casting an animal as you would a human,” he continues. “It’s all about having a believable character to sell the story. If it’s a dog on a lead, then not so much, but if the dog is required to look in a certain direction, then, even if CGI is applied to make the dog talk, the head, eyeline and posture need to be right.”
Animal expert Chris Brown during the shoot for a commercial
For the Fox/Canal+ adaptation War Of The Worlds, the filmmakers wanted a sequence set on a crashed bus featuring hundreds of ants. “We filmed this with a macro lens on a table-top miniature and provided a nectar line to draw the ants from one side to the other,” recalls Brown. “They may be insects, but you still need duty of care — you can’t just sweep them away after each shot.”
Insects aside, the use of animals will incur a flat rate (depending on species), usually related to the number of training days required.
“We’ve supplied almost every type of creature, but it’s often the situation, not the animal, which is bizarre,” says Brown. “For a Bollywood movie set in the 12th century, we had the lead actor riding two horses in dressage formation with a falcon on his arm while flanked by 20 elephants.”
Marine co-ordinator Jason Martin can supply anything from sailing boats to cargo ships as well as a flotilla of support boats from which to film. The former South African Navy diver now gets sent on missions that sound like covert operations. “For the second season of Jack Ryan, Paramount flew me to Colombia where I put together a team consisting of South Africans, Americans and a local group,” he says. “From the pictures of the craft the producers were looking for, I contacted shipping agents located in places like Panama, Cape Town and London, with the vital statistics of the vessel and dates we needed it.
Frog Squad procured boats for Amazon/Paramounts' Jack Ryan S2
“It’s difficult to get an active working vessel,” Martin continues. “Few if any will stop work for a film. Even tuna boats will make more money than a production can offer. Cruise ships are the hardest in this regard, so most of the boats are in dock or decommissioned. Sometimes we strip them down and convert them for the duration of the shoot.”
Martin has a database of crew too, capable of sailing and diving but also working underwater. “It’s easier to train a diver to operate a camera than a cameraman to dive and not drown while trying to keep the camera steady,” he says.
His South Africa-based production service company Frog Squad is busy servicing One Piece, Netflix’s big-budget, live-action adaptation of a popular Japanese manga about pirates. “The biggest pitfall for producers is cutting corners and not speaking to the right people,” he says. “We have the experience to know what’s needed for an oil rig movie or a shark movie. The production will end up saving money because we’ve already done the R&D in how to make an airplane crash into the sea or how to make a ship turn over.”
Shooting on the open ocean is “prohibitively expensive”, he suggests. “Part of my job is working out how to balance VFX and in-camera shooting. VFX has a cost but so does doing it for real because you have to manage everyone’s health and safety on multiple boats. There’s a definite shortage of water tanks and those that aren’t busy aren’t necessarily located in the right place with the rest of the locations a show might need nearby.”
With two decades of armed service in the UK’s Parachute Regiment, UK-based Paul Biddiss is now a military technical adviser putting together bespoke training packages for actors and extras, advising on the type of weapons to use for period projects — and which companies supply them — to assist the director, costume, VFX and art departments.
“My job is to co-ordinate battles, advise the director and AD, train the cast, stunt crew and extras, and be on the director’s shoulder guiding them through any issues,” he explains.
“Military advising is 60% research; the remainder is your experience as a soldier. The mindset is nearly always the same whether the character is special forces or a roman centurion. The actual drills, the way you march and move, will be tailored around the weapon.”
For Apple TV+’s Foundation, Biddiss designed a unique drill system. “The guards were supposed to be like stormtroopers but had very cumbersome armour. The drill is part roman, part Napoleonic and some modern day. I combined all that into a movement you’ve never seen before and only those guys had ever done.”
The use of armaments on set is a significant issue since the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins while shooting the western Rust late last year. Consequently, greater attention than ever is being paid to handling weapons on set.
“You never mix live with blank rounds in the military, let alone in the film world,” says Biddiss. “The golden rule is never leave guns unattended. I don’t care if you’re an A-lister or an extra, the weapon always stays by your side.”
While there are very professional armourers and theatrical firearms trainers, he says not all producers do sufficient checks. “People should always do due diligence on everyone, from extras claiming to have military experience to people like me to make sure they are who they say they are.”
For a scene in Joe Wright’s Cyrano, soldiers were required to spin rifles and swords — the type of action you might see on ceremonial displays.
“To teach people to do that kind of continuity drill normally takes a long time,” says Biddiss. “What I learned on Cyrano is that dancers are the best people to teach. They got it in about an hour.”
Military technical adviser Paul Biddiss overseeing a rifle drill for Joe Wright's Cyrano
Case study: Build a bear
For a forthcoming BBC and Netflix documentary (working title ‘Our Universe’) Tooth n Claw was tasked with finding a hibernating brown bear to be matched with footage shot in Alaska.
“We designed a bear cave with four moving sides for camera access in a LED volume (virtual production facility),” explains Chris Brown, director, Tooth n Claw.
The animal itself, an 8 ft beast, was hired from a keeper in Hungary whom Brown had worked with previously.
“Firstly, the European bear is similar to that of North America. Secondly, it is a creature that has been bred in captivity and not in a small zoo enclosure either. It roams in an area of forest half the size of a football pitch. It is very used to human interaction –– even I could go in with him and feel safe.
In addition, we could stage the shoot at a nearby studio so the production came to the bear not the other way around. The welfare of the animal comes first. If we have to compromise, we won’t do it.”
The stage itself was ringed with a cage for protection of the crew while Brown and the bear’s handlers were inside. The camera was on a crane outside the cage able to be dropped in at any point.
“It all went surprisingly smoothly,” Brown concludes.