Neither the intestines escaping from a slashed belly nor the photo-realistic corpse modeled on actor David Thewlis were the most challenging special effects in this year’s film adaptation of Macbeth, which opened in the U.K. on Oct. 2. It was the mist.
“The director [Justin Kurzel] wanted it to be cold and miserable and misty and Scottish,” explains Mike Kelt, the chief executive of effects company Artem and special effects supervisor on the film, which stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
Creating such a consistent mist throughout scenes required smoke stations set up on different parts of the set (in the Isle of Skye) which seeded smoke through fans and long inflatable tubes of up to 500 meters (0.3 miles) long. The smoke emerged from small holes along the tubing.
“It’s easy to make the smoke and throw it all over the place, but to control it and keep it consistent for continuity between scenes is hard,” says Kelt.
Artem was founded in 1988 by former members of the BBC special effects department. The company found itself working predominantly on commercials, but slowly moved into TV and film and even elaborate shop window displays and staging for the 2015 tour by British pop group Take That.
The firm is among the U.K. special effects companies to benefit from policy introduced in 2013 that made it easier for Hollywood studios to qualify for U.K. tax breaks. The policy change helped the U.K. film industry grow by 35 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to the British Film Institute, bringing in total revenues of £1.4 billion ($2.1 billion) and supporting productions including films such as the Harry Potter series, Gravity, Maleficent, Ex Machina and now Macbeth.
Controlling the Elements
Other elements created and controlled by Artem for “the Scottish Play” include rain, wind, fire and tiny glowing embers. Creating those involved building a dedicated machine for setting fire to and ejecting tiny particles of dust.
In one scene, shot in the dunes of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, a family is burnt at the stake. Because the location is categorized as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, there were strict rules that Artem had to work to when building the gas-powered bonfire, including using only sea water to extinguish any errant flames.
Prosthetics-wise, Artem created bucket-loads of blood and guts and amputated limbs. Then there was the life-size replica of David Thewlis, who plays King Duncan. This involved making a full cast of his head and hand, and the painstaking process of hand-punching every hair on the dummy’s head. The model – which was rigged up with a fake blood supply - was used in a realistic stabbing scene.
“The face was so real that David Thewlis was allowed to go home instead of lying in the bed for the rest of the night dead,” says Kelt.
While manual craftsmanship is still a key part of the physical effects business, digital technology has started to transform how companies like Artem operate.
“We model large props on a computer and then use a robot to carve huge blocks of polystyrene,” explains Kelt, who also uses laser scanners and 3D printers in his work. “Only the drudgery of the old hand skills are being lost.”