Production designer Barry Robison had his work cut out for him on “Hacksaw Ridge,” the Lionsgate-released biopic about conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who, as a soldier without a gun, displayed extraordinary courage and heroism during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.
The first challenge was reproducing the landscapes of Doss’ hometown of Lynchburg, Va., in Australia, where the film was shot. Robison was aware that director Mel Gibson’s pre-scouting efforts had left everyone frustrated: It’s not easy to find landscapes Down Under that look like the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Using resources such as satellite searches and local location experts, though, Robison finally found a small town outside Sydney with a cluster of British Colonial buildings. Carefully panned camera angles allowed one intersection to stand in for all required downtown scenes.
Interior scenes also required ingenuity. Robison and his team painted walls with pastel colors. Working with set decorator Rebecca Cohen, he chose minimal decoration in order to play up the simplicity of the times. And he collaborated with DP Simon Duggan to achieve a color palette several tones distant from the war footage that was to follow.
“We wanted it to look real — to stand out from the battlefield,” says Robison. “Neutral tones allowed the focus to be on the family.”
When Doss enters the military, the palette shifts to browns and reds — and to greens and grays during the battle scenes. When Doss is jailed early in his training, Robison again broke the color scheme and fashioned the interior of his cell after a monk’s quarters he once visited in Europe, using a black-and-white look to reflect Doss’ state of mind.
“The camera placement determined how much white and how much black was seen,” Robison says.
But the greatest challenges came with creating the battlefield sequences. First, Robison had to find a lot large enough, not only for the action, but also for the needs of the crew and equipment. The solution came in the form of a dairy farm, which was converted into a mini-backlot where Robison and his crew designed all the necessary structures as well as the open killing fields.
To help achieve the realism Gibson wanted, Robison sculpted a scale model of the battlefield, eight feet wide and 12 feet long, where the director and the effects team could plan and coordinate its moves. Once the practical effects were mapped out, Robison and his team used backhoes and bulldozers to build a complicated battlefield set consisting of layers of earth and a drainage system that allowed fog and explosions to be integrated safely into scenes.