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Special Effects

Because it was not possible to shoot every sequence of the film on the mountain, and because there were no existing soundstages in the region, the production built a temporary, 20,000 square foot refrigerated soundstage near Queenstown.

Steep and forbidding mountain sets, designed to match and enhance the extreme conditions of the exterior locations, were built using molded foam material over steel frames and carved polystyrene blocks. The sets were sprayed with wax to give them an icy-looking base and then covered with frozen Snow Foam, a special effects product.

Production designer Jon Bunker pre-built the sets in 3-D on a computer. "These amorphous sets are always hard to visualize and discuss from drawings and plans. By using the computer, we were able to pre-plan camera moves and actors' moves and check that everything worked, which is important because these sets are very action-critical and action specific.

"For example," continues Bunker, "a swing of a certain distance is necessary to get an actor's feet on to a certain rock, which will then crumble. These kinds of details have to be designed into the sets."

The soundstage was essential for the tense and complicated action sequence in which the rescue team struggles to get off Major Rasul's helicopter at high altitude. In a breathtaking scene, Monique, Malcolm, Cyril, Kareem, Peter and Wick have to walk along the helicopter skid and jump onto a narrow icy ledge— carrying the explosives in backpacks— while Rasul wrestles to control the helicopter, which is rocking violently because of the altitude.

Preparation for this scene called for intricate collaboration between the special effects, stunts, visual effects, camera, set design and construction departments. A shell of a helicopter was modified and painted to match the real one used in the exterior flying scenes. It was mounted onto a rig equipped with gimbals that allowed it to move through eight axes— side to side, backward and forward, up and down, circular, and in various combinations— thereby achieving the buffeting effect of hovering at extreme high altitude.

The set was built as an icy ledge on the shadow side of the mountain, to match a real mountain exterior which Tattersall described as a 4,000 foot sheer cliff so battered by strong winds that no snow clung to it.

"It was a really unfriendly, hostile location, all black ice and rocks," says the cinematographer. "So for the sequence shot on the stage, we tried to follow that idea. It was lit in a very cold way through the use of blue filters."

The set was extended with blue screen around the helicopter and over the stage floor to accommodate the mountain backgrounds and snow effects that would be added later. The blue screen was also necessary to 'erase' the gimbals rig and replace parts of the helicopter; the real tail section and rotors had to be taken off in order to shorten the 60-foot long aircraft and to eliminate the danger of shooting near rotor blades. They were added later by computer, as was the window, which was removed to avoid reflections that might hinder filming.

The intense, dramatic scenes between Annie, Vaughn and Tom trapped in the ice cave were shot on an awesome, jagged ice set, part of which dropped down into a 12 foot deep pit constructed in the stage floor. It also reached up to the ceiling to give a total drop of 45 feet. Dump tanks at the top of the set enabled an avalanche to be created using special effects snow made from paper. To give the impression that the ice cave is an unstable and dangerous place, the set was rigged to move, with pieces of ice and snow dropping off at critical moments. The ice bridge, which Annie daringly crosses to retrieve a backpack, was built by the special effects department to crack and then finally break away.

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