The product of a combination between lo and hi tech approaches to film making. That's how film maker Peter Weir, opening Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, describes his latest film Master and Commander, an epic adaptation of one of novelist Richard O'Brian's best selling books, set at sea during the Napoleonic wars.
Weir, the Australian director who first came to international prominence with his film Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975, and has since then directed films as diverse and crafted as Witness, The Dead Poet's Society, and The Truman Show to name but a few, took on the project aware that it would be an unusual film in the Hollywood sense. “My approach was very spare, there was no subplot, no love story, and no scenes on land. A film set entirely at sea. This stemmed partly from my own predisposition to the books, I'd read them all, and loved them all, long before the film came about. It was also the result of studying films in this genre, in preparation for writing the screen play. It seemed that many of them were harmed by trying to introduce the love story, so it was effortless for me, because I felt it was truthful that essentially the experience of these men was a moral world, and that I was right in attempting to match the author's authenticity, his attention to detail, that I did the same thing with the film and I went to great lengths to get that detail right”.
The film presented a very new way of working, precisely to realise those goals. During pre-production Weir, being presented with computer generated imagery, had mixed feelings “I would see early tests, and my experience with this was limited, maybe about 70 shots from The Truman Show, and I was very nervous about it, but I was constantly re-assured that it was going to work”. And then, as luck would have it, a cinematic event occurred that gave him inspiration: The Fellowship of the Ring. Weir speaks admiringly of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, but in particular the first film, perhaps precisely because of the timing, and the effect it would have on his own movie. “I was so impressed by the depth that he got in the special effects sequences. I asked “How are you doing it”, and they responded, basically,” Traditional technology mixed with cutting edge technology”. The traditional technology was in the area of miniatures, later mixed with CGI [Editor’s note: Computer Generated Imagery]”. And thus a decision was made to split the making of Master and Commander into three distinct areas: the first was the actual set, a huge boat, set atop a hydraulic gimble, in a tank used for the filming of Titanic, capable of holding the 200 plus cast plus crew. The second, working in collaboration with Richard Taylor of WETA workshop and Lord of the Rings fame, was to build miniature versions of the ships, that in this case were huge models – with Taylor coining the phrase “Bigatures”. And thirdly there was the work of the CGI artists who helped marry the different visions together.
Weir has been, and in many ways remains, a traditional style film maker, though his feelings towards computer aided film making has certainly changed. “During the process I found myself at a party, talking with a director of some renown, who shall remain nameless. He told me that he'd never used a CGI shot and I knew by the way he said it, he was proud of this. It was in some way as if using CGI was similar to an athlete using steroids or performance enhancing drugs. And I saw myself in him, a couple of years back, and I tried to say to him “look, it's just a tool, a marvellous tool”, but I could see that he was not convinced, but that's how I feel. It's just another set of wonderful tools, to be used sparingly, but they are there, and they are there to help tell a story, in this case a story that could not have been told without these particular tools”.