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'The Road' to McCarthy's Post-Apocalyptic Survival

Mark Forker of Dive tells us what it was like traveling down The Road.

Check out The Road trailer at AWNtv!

The Road was shot in Pennsylvania and was able to take advantage of the tax break and expert visual effects with the help of Philadelphia-based Dive. All images courtesy of Dimension Films.

Ever since the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy has become a very popular (and challenging) author to adapt, with at least two features and one TV movie currently in the works. The Road (opening today from Dimension Films), directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition), is no ordinary post-apocalyptic tale, as you might imagine. Cold, desolate, burned America. Dark, gray snow, ravaged landscape, lawless cannibalism, very little hope for a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) traveling south for warmth and salvation. Mark Forker (Jumper, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Cinderella Man), formerly with Digital Domain, launched Dive in Philadelphia as director of creative services. Forker served as The Road's visual effects supervisor, and discussed the experience.

Bill Desowitz: What was this experience like for you?

Mark Forker: This was one of my favorite films to work on, ever. I mean, it's right up my alley in the sense that my favorite work is the seamless, photoreal, visual effects: not explosions or character work. Environments, replacing things that can't be got in the camera. And it was a great experience working with John Hillcoat. We had the same exact idea of how visual effects should play a role in the film, and I tend to do everything else other than adding CG, if I have to go shoot real elements or suggest a different way to shoot something on set so there is less use of CG. And he liked hearing that.

However, on the other hand, the show was planning on only having 40-45 effects, and that was plenty for him. When we first started, he was like, "I don't like visual effects." The first couple of weeks he was tentative in telling me more of what it shouldn't look like rather than what it should look like. But it turned out to be more of what I like doing: again, creating the photoreal stuff. If it doesn't look good and isn't working, it interrupts the storytelling.

So, the 40-45 shots grew to be 245 shots, and that's because of his confidence in the way we were doing things. No doubt, probably have of that gain had to do with inclement weather conditions and we shot in the dead of winter so we would have the worst of weather, but every once in a while that blue sky day would pop through and that was our worst nightmare. And then spring came upon us with buds on trees and green grass, and that was our second most evil entry into what we had to do to fix the other half of those. So I would say that at least 100 of the 200 extra shots were repairs…and then the other was just evolved scenes. And his confidence grew exponentially once we showed him the work. So even as he was cutting right in Philadelphia in the same facility that we were in, it was easy for us to preview stuff for him and turning half of that over into visual effects.

Falling trees during the earthquake was the most challenging sequence, requiring greenscreen, particle work and CG dust, debris, ash and snow rising up from the ground.

BD: And this is definitely all about storytelling. What was your impression of the project when you were first approached?


Although I'm famous for saying that I just don't want to read another post-apocalyptic script, when I heard it was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I didn't mind the exception. And then when I read the script, there is no mention of what the apocalyptic event was and nobody tries to convey 10 years after, so it was quite different from anything else, and it was just really the setting. And that leads me to the fact that it is very spare. As John said, there are three main characters: the man, the boy and the environment.

BD: So, what did your work consist of?


There were a few little CG things: we had to build some billboards and street signs and there is one bug that needed to fly away on command. But we mostly had to remove bugs from the film. And then there's a falling tree sequence where there's a bit of an earthquake happening. That's the other thing: it's a lot about weather and John wanted a constant reminder that it was very volatile. Always gray, always dark, often rainy, often thundery, often in the midst of an earthquake. And at one point in time, they get caught in an area with very tall trees and an earthquake begins, so we downed a bunch of trees and shot them over greenscreen so it looked like the tree was falling only a couple of feet from them with the composite between the two. Which also required some CG particle work. And every time the trees would hit the ground, the dust and debris and the ash and snow would have to rise up, so that was all CG. There was some attempt on the set to spread ash and snow around, but that needed to be enhanced in almost every case to fill out the shot, so there were a lot of environmental set extensions.

The environment was the third character, which meant using vfx to help convey how volatile the weather was in this post-apocalypse.

BD: What tools did you use?

MF: Between Nuke and Photoshop and Maya, we're all pretty standard. We used all the same tracking software and I don't think there was anything hugely proprietary or new or whiz bang.

BD: Talk about Dive becoming involved because of the Pennsylvania shoot.

MF: Dive is a relatively small company and the film came to Pennsylvania because of the tax incentive. And I think John and the whole production team was surprised to find a visual effects house there that they would be able to include because they had to reach a 60% level to qualify so being able to do the editing and the visual effects in Pennsylvania assured them of getting the tax break. But my idea in setting up the company was we would remain a small, core group, and that I would constantly rely on people who I now know all over the country who have left ILM, Digital Domain and Sony and they're moving back to Iowa and other places and living where they want. They have a machine at home, so we relied half on established companies in other cities in New York [Brainstorm Digital], LA [Crazy Horse Effects, Eden FX, Space Monkey] and Toronto [Invisible Pictures], and I would say the other half outside of Dive was done by what I call garage people. And that's really our whole methodology and the pipeline that I plan on using a lot. I can stay vital by staying small and having all these resources.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.