Swordfish’s hugely challenging key effects shot wasn’t finished until one week before its cinema release – here’s the inside story of what happened.

Last month, we ran a piece looking at the incredible opening explosion in the 2001 blockbuster Swordfish. You can find the full piece here, but the brief summary is that the visual effects put on screen were the most complex in the history of Warner Bros. What’s more, the work went to a small Canadian company called Frantic Films. In spite of having a staff of under 20, it bid against Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) for the work, and prevailed.

What helped swing the contract towards it was the fact that it was proficient in a piece of software entitled Digital Fusion. It was that software that was required to knit together the practical footage – shot by over 130 still cameras – and digital work for the final explosive effect. Here’s a refresher on the shot in question…

Since publishing that post, we’ve been contacted by Shawn Wallbridge, who was systems administrator at Frantic at the time it completed its acclaimed work on the film. And he’s given us some more details as to just how complex the job was.

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He’s provided all the images here too, starting with the office where the work was done. It’s a piece of big budget filmmaking you rarely get to see…

We already knew it took eight months to complete the sub-one minute sequence for Swordfish, that accounted for at least 5% of the movie’s budget. And here’s what Shawn told about that.

“The big challenge was actually caused by an accident during filming”, he explained.

“The police cars [in the explosion sequence] were on two ‘cannons’. The first lifted the front of the car, the second fired to lift the car over the camera rig. During one take, the second cannon on one of the cars didn’t fire, so the car flipped over and landed on the camera rig. The aluminium pole to hold the cameras had to be remade, which took a few days, and it wasn’t exactly the same as the first one, so now all the plates were different depending on the day they were shot”.

And the problems continued to mount.

“They had tested the explosive charge early in the day, but then it rained in the afternoon, which meant the humidity and temperature were different when they actually went to shoot it at night. So we had to create the explosion in CG, rather than just use the plate”.

This all added to the challenge when the work went back to Frantic’s Canadian offices.

“We ended up pushing Digital Fusion beyond what anyone at that time had done, so they ended up sending a developer to work with us on fixing bugs we found and optimising it to actually be able to finish the show. They ended up printing a poster of our final comp and hanging it at their booth at SIGGRAPH [the annual conference on computer graphics], just to show it off”.

The technology to achieve all of this? Well, your current smartphone could give it a run for its money. Let’s get ultra-nerdy.

“This was all done on dual Pentium III 866MHz processor machines, and Athlon XPs for the server farm. We were running Windows 2000, and actually ended up having to run Windows 2000 Advanced Server on all our machines so we could utilise 3.5GB of memory, with a special boot loader flag (/PAE) and a tweak to Fusion”.

Shawn sent us images of the tech involved.

Firstly, here are the parts for the render nodes as they were being put together…

And here’s the bank of completed render nodes, processing the visual effects work required…

This is the giant server that the team built, that’s behind them all…

The images are Shawn’s copyright, and we thank him for sharing them with us.

The kit used there would do well to out-blast a single modern day PC, and yet it was powering the most complex special effects shot that had been attempted to date at that stage.

Back to the story. With everything being pushed pretty much beyond its limits, there was a knock-on in terms of completing the shot. “Our final delivery was really really late, due to how challenging the project was – and it was our first feature VFX project – to the point they ended up having to start printing the second reel of the film and they held the first reel for our final delivery”.

Even then, the work went over the required deadline for the first reel of film. “We missed the FedEx overnight cut-off time – 4pm – so we had to book our CEO on a redeye flight to Los Angeles and he took the final delivery on DTF [digital tape format] tape to LA. Once he landed, he handed off the tape to the VFX supervisor’s nephew at LAX who then took it across town to – I believe – EFilm [a video production company] to be read in”.

And heck, did this one run close to deadline: “I believe that was seven days before the theatrical release”.

“I was hired just as we started Swordfish, so it was kind of a crazy baptism by fire! But I have to say, it was a great time and a great group of people to work with”, Shawn concludes.

Our podcast episode digs further into the making of the film, and you can hear that here…

And Swordfish is available on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand…

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