Arnold Verbiesen [SFX TECHNICIAN]


MATRIX: Which area have you been working in within the Special Effects Department?

 In the mechanical effects department. I was involved with the car rigging for the Freeway Chase, setting up all the hydraulics to make them go remotely so we could run the cars without people in there, then launch them and send them flying. We also reinforced the vehicles that were driven to make sure nobody got hurt. I don’t know exactly how many cars we wrecked but I think it was around a hundred and eighty. We didn’t have anybody go off to hospital and on something as big and spectacular as this it’s really good not to have anybody get hurt. Everyone has been really safety conscious.

MATRIX: What was one of the first things you started on?

ARNIE: Once we had the crew going we started into the construction of the vehicles and camera rigs. A couple of months was spent doing nothing but rigging the suspension on cars and installing roll bars. Josh [Pinney, Special Effects Foreman, USA] and I did most of the rigging of the hydraulics and the electronics for the various hood crushing vehicles which incorporated the suspension drop, the hood caving in, and the car coming back up because the Agent is stepping across it. I did most of the mechanics for that sequence, and Josh did the electronics. I rigged two CTS Cadillacs with four variations.

MATRIX: Was that something you had done before?

ARNIE: No, I had never done that before. I’ve done things with hydraulics and cables and so forth, but never to suck the hood down while at the same time make the suspension bounce and still be able to drive the vehicle. Normally we would do something like that with some kind of charge in the car, but you wouldn’t be able to drive it, so we had to do it differently.

Also in that sequence, we flipped two Oldsmobile Auroras; we did one on take one, and one on take two. Who knows which one they ended up using; we’ll see it in the movie. We had three of those cars – the first one was brought up the San Francisco and tested on video just before Christmas of last year [2000]. The Directors [Larry & Andy Wachowski] didn’t like it because it had smoke and they didn’t want to see any smoke. The traditional way you flip a car is to place a wooden log inside a metal canon, put a powder charge on it and when the charge goes off, the log – which is held about a half inch from the pavement – is expelled, and as it’s expelling it’s pushing the car up, which flips the car. This is done with black powder, but black powder has a big puff of smoke and the Directors didn’t want smoke.

In the end we had to use a twelve-inch log and we built a nitrogen canon. We fired this thing with four hundred and forty pounds of nitrogen through two inch and a half lines that both opened simultaneously and pushed against a big plate that had half inch O-rings on it. It all worked: the rings made a good seal, the log was still pushed and the car was flipped, however there was no smoke. We flipped one of the cars five times, by the time we were done with it you couldn’t tell what kind of car it was!

MATRIX: That was during testing?

ARNIE: Yes. The first time it stood on its nose and fell back, so we had to keep changing the pressure in the charge. One time we ended up doing a 360° with the car, which was way more than they wanted. The Directors wanted the car to appear like it’s digging into the pavement when it is stepped on. I had two cylinders for the front suspension, one to suck down the hood, and one for each fender to blow the fenders off. That was all done with air, with the exception of little squibs, what we call glass breakers. A glass breaker is a tiny little metal thing with a nail in it that is hit with a squib glued to the glass, so when it hits it blows the windows out. We also had a couple of sand mortars to blow the door open, so there was very, very little pyro in that vehicle.

The glass breakers had what they call a quarter squib in it, which has fifteen or eighteen grains of black powder in it and a little electric charge. It makes a little bang, nothing much more than a firecracker, but it’s electrically fired.

MATRIX: I’m surprised that just one glass breaker can shatter a whole window.

ARNIE: Police used to try and break car windows with their billy clubs when a guy wouldn’t come out of his car, but they couldn’t break the window, so now they have these spring-loaded center punches that you put up to the window. In fact in Florida it’s advised you carry one in your vehicle because if you drive off the road into the water in the middle of the night you need to be able to break the window. It’s very hard to kick your window out when you’ve got water pressure on this side and safety glass is very tough. So all you have to do is take that little punch device and the window will blow right out of there… although the windshield won’t because the windshield is a laminated piece. It’s two pieces of glass with plastic laminated in between it so it will not shatter. Most people assume all car glass is made of the same material, well the reason you don’t see shards of glass around the edges of broken side windows is that once it breaks it’s broken down into little pieces.

MATRIX: Could you explain more about using air to create the effects in the vehicle the Agent steps on.

ARNIE: We had air cylinders and nitrogen cylinders because you can get more from nitrogen; a bottle of nitrogen has about thirty-five hundred pounds of pressure in it, and we can regulate that down to whatever we want – we have these quick-release dump valves so we can send the nitrogen wherever we want. The blast pushes against a hydraulic ram that has a piston about three inches in diameter and once that thing fills up I can control the direction of the shaft anywhere I want it to go. The nitrogen cylinders are like scuba tanks – I had two scuba-tank sized nitrogen bottles about the same size in the Auroras.

MATRIX: Is that what hot-rodders use to speed up their cars?

ARNIE: No, you’re thinking of nitrous oxide. Nitrogen doesn’t burn, and it’s an inexpensive non-flammable gas that’s not only safe for the ozone, but can be compressed to a high pressure and it’s very stable. The tank is already pressurized in the vehicle, and it’s being held in that cylinder by a valve which is electrically operated and when it’s told to open it lets that nitrogen go wherever it’s plumbed to.

For example, in rigging the cars I would hook one valve up to two cylinders set to blow both front fenders off. Then I had another cylinder hooked to some cables in the middle of the car, but I put the nitrogen to the exhaust side and drove it the opposite way, pulling up on the cables, which in turn pulled the hood down, so it appeared like somebody stood on the hood. To test it we had a couple of cars brought over out of the boneyard – I think one was a Ford station wagon – we had to do it more than once to get the right spots figured out to make it work the way we wanted.

MATRIX: Then it’s a matter of waiting off camera with a remote waiting for the actor to hit his mark?

ARNIE: Right. We executed all of that against a blue screen with what we call a “process body” car. All you could really see coming into frame were his feet, and as he was falling I was sitting there with the button anticipating when he was going to make contact with the process body I had on the stage. I had to push the button slightly before he made contact so that it looked right and his feet hit just when that hood started to move, and the front suspension dipped as we were filming from the driver’s perspective for this particular shot. All they could see at that point was the top of the hood and the fenders through the windshield. We controlled the entire car; the only thing the driver could do was steer the vehicle. We even took out the brakes on that vehicle; we operated those also.

[Josh Pinney – Special Effects Foreman, USA – joins in]

JOSH: The other part of the rigging for the car was coordinating hitting the towline button at the right time to get the car to flip, which was a separate button. That way if the towline didn’t go for some reason, we could abort. Once the towline was initiated and actually blew, a final decision could be made whether or not to push the second button. If everything felt safe and in line, then we’d push the second button and initiate the clunker box. It was a non-momentary switch, meaning once clicked it locked on and there was no turning back; the brakes were overridden and there was no stopping it, the stunt driver was just along for the ride. That was necessary to ensure the car would flip in the proper sequence.

MATRIX: That must have been a scary ride.

JOSH: Yes, he loved it. For the first take he flew a hundred yards through the air before he even touched the ground, then slid two hundred feet after that. He said he was fine, he just slid perfectly smoothly all the way down the freeway then he got out. He said the second take was a little rougher, but he wasn’t even dizzy by the end of it.

MATRIX: Were there just the two takes of that shot?

JOSH: Yes, just two takes.

ARNIE: We had a test vehicle that we used extensively. If we had had to do a third take it would have taken us at least a couple of weeks to set it up. We really enjoyed doing it… and it was challenging. You asked earlier if we had done that before, we had done a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but in this car we combined a lot of things.

JOSH: It was in a totally critical scene. It was completely time sensitive as to how the events occurred and every event had to work or it could potentially ruin the shot. There were also debris mortars in the car – these red tanks were filled with about a hundred psi [pounds per square inch] of air and they ran up to these snoot shaped cones that we filled with debris that blew out the rear windows to give extra mass to the windows blowing out, and to look like car debris.

MATRIX: How did you get into the film business Arnie?

ARNIE: I came late in life to the movie business, from an automotive background. I worked in an effects shop for six or seven years before I hooked up with Clay [Pinney, Special Effects Supervisor, USA] and this is the first show with him that I think I’ve found a home.

I worked a little bit in the effects shop on The Perfect Storm, which was kind of fun but I enjoyed this a lot more. On this show I’m responsible for something, whereas in the effects shop they told me what they wanted and how I should do it. For this they told me what I had to work with and what they wanted it to do, and everything in between was left to me. So I got to think and talk to the other guys in the shop and try and figure out how to solve the problems.

MATRIX: Thanks Arnie.

Interview by REDPILL
June 2001