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How ‘San Andreas’ Used Practical Effects to Get More Bang for the Buck

After a series of devastating earthquakes strike California in “San Andreas,” the Hoover Dam ruptures, downtown Los Angeles is little more than a burnt-out husk of its previous splendor and much of San Francisco is pushed out into the Pacific Ocean by a massive tsunami.

It’s natural disaster on an epic scale, but a dizzying array of catastrophes that had to be realized on screen under tight budget constraints. Production on the hit thriller topped out at $114 million, roughly half of what Roland Emmerich used to create meteorological and geological havoc in “2012.”

The answer was to dial down on the CGI, using it to convey the sweep of the destruction, while doing as many of “San Andreas'” effects the analog way as possible.

“You can make a $100 million movie look like a $200 million movie,” said Colin Strause, the film’s visual effects supervisor. “You can make movies way smarter. You don’t have to gold plate everything.”

One of those smart ways was to shoot scenes of collapsing buildings and rising flood waters by building sets instead of simply placing the actors in front of green screens. In shop talk terms, that’s referred to as in-camera visual effects.

After years of hearing Hollywood productions brag about the way they were able to build whole worlds using pixels, there seems to be something of a pushback against relying too heavily on digital wizardry. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” for instance, drew raves because it showcased real people driving and jumping from real 18-wheelers, albeit with the assistance of wires and computer touch-ups. Likewise, J.J. Abrams has stressed that the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will bring practical effects back into a galaxy far, far away after George Lucas essentially plopped the Skywalker clan into Myst. It’s hard not to view this trend as something of a corrective.

“CG for the sake of CG is always a mistake,” said Strause. “Fully digital movies just become a lot colder than when you show up on a real location with real lighting and can say maybe this shot would look better over there or if we turned the camera here.”

Studios and effects teams prefer CGI, he argued, because it gives them more control.

“They do it almost out of fear,” said Strause. “Visual effects supervisors are afraid of crazy directors, directors are afraid of what other films have done, and studios are afraid of running out of daylight, but recreating every molecule in a background gets expensive.”

In an interview in advance of “San Andreas'” release, producer Beau Flynn said that the practical effects helped “San Andreas” stars Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario tap into what it would be like to live through a city-leveling earthquake.

“We really wanted to put Dwayne and Carla in this sinking high-rise,” he said. “Of course, it sounded so easy to do in the script, but it’s quite a different thing when you have a gimbal, rockers and dunk tanks. It really helps the performances, though. These are gifted people, but when you act with a green screen or a tennis ball, you’re tying a hand behind your back in a fight.”

Beyond reining in costs, Strause and his team had to work quickly because Johnson’s availability was limited and the production needed to wrap up its work in Australia, where much of “San Andreas” was shot, by a certain point in order to film a pivotal sequence at San Francisco’s AT&T Park around the Giants’ schedule of baseball games. That gave “San Andreas” a scrappier feeling, said Strause.

“It was like working on a big budget indie,” he said. “There were days where we’d be sitting there and they’d be going, ‘You have one little pothole and a couple of bricks and that’s all you’ve got.'”

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