Two-time Oscar winner Neil Corbould got his first insight into the world of special effects after following his uncle onto the set of Superman: The Movie. He later worked on productions like Pink Floyd: The Wall and John Landis’ American Werewolf in London. Along with his brothers Chris and Paul, Corbould is among the most sought after special effects supervisors working on the planet. Recent highlights include being named Special Effects Supervisor on Rogue One and his latest work with Steven Spielberg on the highly anticipated Ready Player One.
I caught up with Neil in Krakow at this year’s Film Spring Open, where he was kind enough to provide an insight into a career spanning nearly four decades, as well as giving me a glimpse at what’s coming next.
ProVideo Coalition: One of your earliest productions was for the John Landis film, American Werewolf in London. How was it working with him?
Neil Corbould: I was more of a technician on that production. But we shot up a room during a surreal moment which required a lot of bullet hits effects and smoke. I actually saw John Landis a few years ago at the Oscars. I went up to him and said I had worked on Werewolf and he complained that the English crew would just switch off the lights at five o’clock and go home. They just didn’t ‘do’ overtime. It’s a bit different today.
Not long after Werewolf you worked on one of my favourite works as a kid – Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It was still quite early on in your career, but do you remember learning something during that shoot that you later applied in your work?
You might recall the battle scenes in the opening act. It was during the making of those scenes that I learnt a lot about explosions. I took the knowledge from that experience and adapted it into a more modern form of filmmaking for Saving Private Ryan. I was also able to work with Alan Parker, and it was great to study him and to see how he worked as a director. He’s just a fantastic artist. I like working with amazing directors from whom I can take ideas that inspire me.
Before I worked on that set, I hadn’t really listened to Pink Floyd. So discovering them was another bonus.
Three decades and two Oscars later, you were named Special Effects Supervisor for Rogue One. That must have been an incredible feeling considering the iconic status that ‘Star Wars’ holds.
Yes, it was amazing getting the call for Rogue One. (Director) Gareth Edwards called me because of Black Hawk Down. His vision was to bring Saving Private Ryan into Star Wars Universe. We had a bit more poetic license to make it a bit darker and not as clean as the main series. Make it a bit dirty and more like a war movie. So it needed to have more of a documentary feeling and not be ‘cinema’ as such.
What were some ways you went about achieving that?
Gareth was running around with the new Alexa 65 camera and we had to put explosions around him safely. The way we did this was to stick a 2000 PSI high pressure valve into a kind of self-contained metal wok placed under the ground, so that when we triggered it we would have the sensation of an explosion, but one where actors could safely be very near to it. It was also very quick to reload. We didn’t need to add more pyrotechnics – just new sand and off you go again. We have gone on to use this in other productions. We also shot using 65mm cameras with Panavision lenses, which is a unique combination, and I believe a first.
Looking to your own future, you‘ve mentioned in previous interviews that you would like to branch out and direct your own features. From what I‘ve read online, that dream appears to be shaping up in the form of Billingsgate. Could you talk a little about that?
Billingsgate was originally brought to me as a short story. It’s a story based on events of the era, set in the 18th century at a time when the women of the Billingsgate would fight to settle disputes between families. The men would place bets in this underground setting, but it is essentially a very female focused story with three strong female characters. After reading the short and doing a fair bit of research, I realised that there was not a lot about the subject out there. So I decided to make it a longer short.
That eventually became a feature length script that I wrote. I sent the screenplay to Ridley Scott. He read it over the last Christmas period and told me he wanted to produce it as part of Scott Free (his production company). Ridley had had some recent experience with the period through his TV series Taboo, although Billingsgate is set slightly earlier in time.
How might your special effects background influence the way you direct such a piece?
Fight movies have been done before. But because I have special effects knowledge, I have some ideas about how we can shoot the fights in one shot, for example. Here I would be taking some of that technical knowledge and applying that in a way that people haven’t previously seen in fight scenes.
For example, this would include creating a twelve-wire rig and adapting it into a camera rig, one in which I can move around and above the fighters without it getting in their way.
Anyone you’d specifically like to have swinging in those fight scenes?
I would love a big name but I would also be looking for the next big name. I would love someone like Jennifer Lawrence or Kate Winslet as the “older pro”. I saw Kate in Romance and Cigarettes where she was effing and blinding. She played a seductive mistress and it was a role that I had never seen her play before. So someone like them would be perfect.
And when is production slated to start?
Funding permitting, it is a project we would like to get going by the end of next year.
Finally, what are the four films that gave you a passion for special effects?
I still have a huge passion for special effects and film and there were so many films that gave me passion but here are four of them.
Film Spring Open is an annual film workshop established by acclaimed Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. He and Corbould worked together on Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down as well as the 2004 production of King Arthur.