The opening explosion to Swordfish took most of a year to put together and over 130 cameras to capture – and it started with just one word in the script.

Thanks to the miracle of the modern day internet, it’s not too tricky to track down the script to films of a decade or so older. It’s interesting to compare, then, what was written on the page to what ultimately appeared on the screen.

I’m hugely indebted to the wonderful How Did This Get Made podcast for alerting me, then, to the script for 2001’s Swordfish. I’ve always had fun with the movie, although it’s a long way from Con Air standard. But what I wasn’t previously aware of was that one word in the screenplay to the film led to the most complex visual effect in the history of parent studio Warner Bros. That can’t be true, I thought. Yet it turns out it’s on the money.

I’ve covered Swordfish’s development before on the Film Stories podcast here…

… and the screenplay to the movie was penned by Skip Woods. Woods has been a prolific scribe, writing scripts to the likes of The A-Team, ­X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day To Die Hard. In the case of Swordfish, you can find his script here, and on page nine, we get to the moment where the bank at the start of the film explodes.

The explosion, in case you’ve forgotten/never had the pleasure, comes about after a hostage runs from a bank hold up and is grabbed by a SWAT officer. The SWAT officer is trying to rescue her, and it’s not a very successful attempt, truth be told. For – uh oh – she’s wearing what the script describes as a “radio dog collar” around her neck, and ‘the green light turns to red’ as the camera closes in on it.

Then, a single word in the script: ‘KABOOM!’

The block caps is the emphasis in the screenplay.

“BALL BEARINGS RICOCHET against the plate steel of the bank”, it then explains, whilst everyone in the branch of Starbucks across the road questions what’s just happened. Then it’s a straight fade to black, and the title card appears.

That is not quite what happens in the final movie.

It turned out that director Dominic Sena and his team had other ideas for that opening sequence. And it involved a Canadian visual effects company that had only been in operation a few years.

The firm in question is called Frantic Films, and it had a staff of 17 2D and 3D effects artists at the point it landed the job. What distinguished the firm and put it above better known names was that it had expertise in a piece of software called Digital Fusion, and that’s what swung the contract in Frantic’s favour. It was competing against ILM for this particular job, and pulled off an underdog victory by landing it.

Clearly influenced by 1999’s The Matrix and the groundbreaking visual effects work in that particular film, Sena wanted to take things further. He wanted to take the audience on a slow motion tour through an explosion. What’s more, it was to take a mix of real footage and digital work to realise what he wanted. Computers alone weren’t quite at the point where they could realise the idea alone, hence the huge complexity involved in what we ultimately saw.

For that single ‘Kaboom’ thus turned into this, and ate up a solid percentage of the film’s $100m budget…

The explosion itself runs for just over 30 seconds, and the logistics of it were staggering.  After extensive pre-visualisation work to map the sequence out, the days of shooting required 134 different 35mm still cameras. They then had to be timed to go off in time with the explosion in the shoot itself. It took three days to capture the footage required, before it was shipped back to Canada for work.

As Chris Bond of Frantic Films revealed in an interview around the time of the film’s release, “for all of the exterior photography in the shot, we had to slow down 134 frames to 400 frames per second, and for everything shot inside of the coffee shop, we had to add in-between frames to convert a 45 frame per second shot to 102 frames per second”.

He added that “there were approximately two new frames that had to be generated between each camera shot; however, because of the way that the cameras were curved in the scene, some instances required as many as seven synthetic in-between frames to be created”. A tool called ReTimer was used to do that.  The mix of composite and real shots was convincing enough to the point where it became hard to tell which was which, and the resultant work firmly put Frantic on the map.

The sequence had taken the small firm eight months to complete (and the film’s physical shoot was only just over three months) – for just over half a minute of screen time – and the bill for the sequence was $5m.  It’d prove for many the highlight of the film, and was over minutes into the movie (after John Travolta’s infamous monologue at the start, of course).

It wasn’t even the most expensive sequence in the film, as it happens. There’s a bus flying sequence towards the end of the movie that ate up around 15% of the film’s cost. Again, this was due to making the movie at a point where computers couldn’t do close to as much heavy lifting as they can do now. As such, for Swordfish the filmmakers genuinely had to lift a bus over the skies of Los Angeles, and it turns out that’s quite expensive to do.

In the aftermath of the film’s release, Frantic Films won rich acclaim and many further big blockbuster movie jobs. For instance, it’d work on the likes of X2, Superman Returns and Journey To The Center Of The Earth.

Swordfish meanwhile wouldn’t win over many critics, but it would be a hit. It’s not yet had a Criterion Collection disc release, but I’m happy to keep you posted if there’s ever any chance there.

Yet that opening effect? The most complex single effects moment to date in Warner Bros’ history. And given where the power of computers is at now, not one that the studio will need to repeat anytime soon…

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