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COWBOYS AND ALIENS

Practical Effects and Stunts
Whether it was explosions hitting Absolution or townsfolk being snatched up off the ground from just above, the director was convinced that the more real he could make the threat for the performers, the more compelling it would read on the screen. As production designer Chambliss explains: "Jon wanted the world we constructed to help each actor bring his or her character to life.”

Practical Effects

Because of the production's emphasis on practical effects, the cast and crew were forced to think and act differently on set. "You have to be really creative,” says Orci, "and the storytelling becomes more elegant when you don't have the freedom to do anything you want. It helps the imagination, it helps the audience and allows the CG to be the icing on the cake.”

Jake Lonergan is headed for the federal marshal and tethered to Percy, the troublemaking son of cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde, when Dolarhyde and his posse come to retrieve Percy from the hands of the law. At the height of the tense standoff between Sheriff Taggart and Dolarhyde, terror comes swooping down upon the small town.

To film the first alien assault and create as lifelike an attack as possible, the company brought out livestock, stunt performers and an array of filmmaking hardware. The cast was joined by more than 30 stuntmen and women, 23 horses, two dogs, a goat and two-dozen background extras. Circling them and the small Western town made up of only two intersecting dirt streets was an arsenal of cranes, cables and lights.

The set became an oasis of moviemaking in the middle of the dark New Mexico desert. Suspended on trollies amid more than 300 tons of construction cranes were sophisticated laser lights that moved synchronously as the explosions were detonated below. These blasts were carefully choreographed around the skilled riders on horses that were specially trained to work with pyrotechnics and loud noises. This was completely flanked by 14 additional 80-foot condors outfitted with lighting panels.

Stunts and Animal Work

The cameras capture Doc and Maria as they become separated and the cowboys rear up on terrified horses. As the couple calls out for each other and the street fills with the alien lights and explosions, Doc watches in horror, helpless as his beloved wife is roped by a speeder and hauled up into the sky.

At the height of the attack, Favreau directed that laser lights swoop down on cables, explosions detonate left and right, and people cabled to huge cranes be plucked up 60 feet in the air as if they were marionettes. That kind of mayhem required skillful execution, explains actress Ana de la Reguera, one of several actors who chose to do her own stunts during the alien abduction: "We had to have everything lined up at just the right moment: the horses, the lasers, the yelling, the explosions. Sam and I said our lines, and then at the perfect beat they pulled me up.”

The production team had planned for all the roping up of the victims to be executed by stunt performers. But when several of the actors expressed interest in trying it themselves, stunt coordinator and longtime Favreau collaborator TOMMY HARPER was open to the idea. "We had a new design for the rigs that made it easier,” Harper notes. "We tested it, so we knew it was safe. I started thinking, ‘Maybe we can even put some of the actors in it if they're willing. We told them, ‘If you're not afraid of heights, we can take you up slowly and progress into it until you're comfortable with the final stunt.'” Keith Carradine and others joined de la Reguera as new members of the film's ad hoc stunt team.

Harper's crew rigged up the actors and stunt doubles with a special harness that, as it pulled the perfomers up, would actually flip them feet over head and pull them up dozens of feet into the air. To prevent injury, they had to fight their natural inclination to grab the line as they ascended. Fortunately, after many deep breaths and pep talks by the stunt coordinator, they were ready to go.

Most everyone enjoyed his or her flights through the air, but no one more so than Olivia Wilde. Wilde's abduction happens later in the story as Ella and the others are racing on horseback while being pursued from above by the alien speeder ships. In fact, she is plucked while riding her horse at a full gallop. While the actress is an experienced horsewoman and the stunt was completely safe, it was the first time any actor had ever attempted to do the stunt while riding.

The carefully constructed stunt involved setting a slack line between two cranes that were 135 feet tall and a football field apart. It also required the attachment of a 12-foot, four-part ratchet to a harness worn under the actress' dress. At just the right moment as Wilde was riding her horse, the harness pulled her up 40 feet into the air. It went off without a hitch, and when it was done, the actress was ecstatic. "It was my most exciting moment on the film,” Wilde says.

In addition to alien abductions, there were the more earthbound realities of shooting a Western. The actors had to ride a good deal on horseback, and during the rehearsal period, they trained on the horses with which they would spend much of the next three months. Boss wrangler CLAY LILLY worked with the performers to carefully select a horse for each of them. To ensure they didn't buck or kick, the expertly trained animals selected were accustomed to the noise of guns, cannons and explosives, as well as proximity to fire and water. For Noah Ringer, the production's youngest cowboy, the horse training, which took place on a ranch outside L.A., was just part of the fun. "It was really great,” recalls the actor. "I got to ride with Daniel, and that's where I met my horse, Jackson. My favorite thing was to gallop and sometimes I'd pass a few people I wasn't supposed to. We'd have to do the take a few times.”

Ringer's other co-star is a dusty dog without a name. The scruffy mutt arrives in Absolution with Jake, but over the course of the story he becomes Emmett's loyal friend and protector. The dog was played by two Australian shepherds named DART and ARROW, both skillfully trained by handler EADIE MCMULLEN.

The menagerie of livestock certainly helped create an Old West atmosphere. There were more than 100 horses from all over the Southwest, including paints, quarter horses and Appaloosas. To complete the animal cast, there were many cattle, sheep, goats and rats…as well as a Eurasian eagle owl that appears briefly inside the riverboat.

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