Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould

Job title: Special effects supervisor
Industries: Film

Chris Corbould is a special effects supervisor and coordinator. His work includes Star War: The Force Awakens and Spectre  - for which he won the Guinness World Record for largest film stunt explosion. He also won the 2011 Academy Award for best visual effects and in 2014 was appointed an OBE for services to the British film industry. 

Describe your job in your own words

A special effect supervisor is in charge of the team of technicians producing special effects for a film. Most people think this means creating atmospheric effects like fog, rain and snowstorms or pyrotechnic effects like explosions and fire.

But a major percentage of my work involves mechanical engineering, hydraulics, robotics or pneumatics. Electronics are also playing a much bigger role in controlling mechanisms.

There's a sequence in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough that captures the scope of what special effects can involve. It was the scene where Bond is being chased by a helicopter with a giant saw blade underneath it. We used the biggest tower crane in Europe, suspended the helicopter from it and used a combination of computerised winches and hydraulics to control its movements. We fabricated the saw blades ourselves as well as the Z8 BMW and buildings that the blades had to cut through. We created all the explosions and bullets along with the mist that engulfed the set. It used every skill in our section. It was a scene that took a team of 25 technicians six or seven weeks to film but many months to prepare.

Another good example is Die Another Day. We had a car chase in the script that the director wanted to film on an ice lake in Iceland. So we naively asked Aston Martin and Jaguar for a four-wheel drive version of their cars - but were informed that they were not in existence. But to do the action scenes properly we felt we needed the four wheel-drive option.

So we took four Aston Martins and four Jaguars, virtually cut the front ends off and reconfigured the gearbox, chassis, suspension and engine so we had four four-wheel drive versions. The cars also had a vast array of gadgets that we had to design and make practical. The Jaguar, for example, had a Gatling gun that cantilevered up from the back shelf.

When I get a call about a film, I'll read the script and go and see the director. There are some directors who know exactly what they want to do and others who are open to suggestions. Sometimes whole scenes can change to make them more spectacular. The tank chase through Moscow in GoldenEye was originally written as a motorcycle chase but the director and producers were concerned that it wouldn't be spectacular enough.

So I suggested a tank chase instead and it evolved from there. We did numerous tests and dummy runs prior to filming and videoed them with the tank going through walls and over cars together with stringently testing all the explosions. Safety is paramount and the whole aim is to minimise risks - you've got to be especially careful when 28-ton tanks are crushing cars with cameras in close proximity. 

You also need to test to ensure minimum time wastage when filming. If you haven't planned it properly, you can have a whole film crew standing around and that costs big money. My job is firstly to make sure that my unit has the equipment to do their job, secondly to make sure everything is tested and agreed with the director and thirdly for everything to perform safely and spectacularly so that people say, 'That was great,' after the filming.

How did you get into the industry?

I obtained an opening with a UK special effects company based in Pinewood Studios. I started as a boy and spent eight years learning the disciplines of the engineering side of the business.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

There are a lot of people coming in now with engineering degrees or mechanical qualifications, which helps them climb the ladder more quickly. Once you're in the industry you can also be proactive about training. There are pyrotechnic courses run by the Institute of Explosive Engineers, for example.

As a technician, the more skills you possess, the more in demand you are likely to be. If you are an engineer and also possess pyrotechnic skill or floor experience, you're a lot more attractive to an employer.

You've also got to show an interest in SFX (special effects). If a youngster comes to me and says he wants to earn lots of money, I'm not interested. They've got to want to make this their career. For my team to want to spend time training a youngster up, he has to be keen. As a person, I'm looking for someone who is hard-working, dedicated and conscientious along with being able to work as part of a team.

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