Filming for the army on Salisbury Plain

The Approach

It’s no secret. Soldiers are trained to feel invincible, They develop a whole persona around focussed “toughness” and the ability to take care of themselves. But nobody is tough enough to withstand being crushed between a 70 tonne Warrior and a Land Rover. The problem is how to explain this to men who as a day job, get shot at.

That was the dilemma that faced the COI and Pukka Films when the Army commissioned them to produce a film tackling Service Vehicle Safety. Designed to be shown to all soldiers who come into contact with military vehicles, the film needed to show the inherent dangers in moving and driving heavy machinery, whether at home, in the sheds, or abroad on operations. The message of the film was to be “Don’t get caught between a rock and a hard place”.

Taking our steer from a 1980’s Guardian Advert, we wanted to create a film that unfolded from multiple viewpoints, we also wanted to employ a device that would quite literally put our audience in the film. We chose to shoot the whole film from a Point of View standpoint gradually revealing more of the story as we shifted from character to character (think of the Prodigy’s iconic Smack My Bitch Up video,

Location hunting

From the brief, it was clear the film was going to need to be shot on multiple locations, on Salisbury Plain in a training environment, and abroad in an operational environment.

We originally planned to shoot on location in Kuwait (where the army have a training staging post for soldiers on the way to the front line), however, as the British Army began to pull out of Iraq it was clear that access to Kuwait would not be possible.

We considered shipping everyone out to Afghanistan and Camp Bastion, an idea swiftly ended by a combination of forms, insurance and training weekends. Not to mention even more forms and the sudden realisation that even Ross “action-man” Kemp had only managed to get clearance for himself plus a two-man crew for his Sky One series.

With a never say die attitude that we felt the Army would appreciate, we decided that if we couldn’t go to the desert, the desert would have to come to us. After all, how hard could that be?

Hard enough it turns out. A couple of trips to Salisbury Plain confirmed our worst fears, it turns out that Salisbury Plain is very beautiful and green in May - wildflowers blooming, trees blossoming, and the hot dry desert feels at least 5,000 miles away. Conflicting views of various people who’d been to Afghanistan told us it would either be lush and green, or baked and brown (must be that time of year effect), so we decided we’d need to get building in order to recreate our FOB (Forward Operating Base) where our key crush accident was to happen.

With a bit of imagination and a handful of happy and willingly conscripted sappers, we designed our own FOB, building on an existing structure near Tidworth, but with a few more layers designed to hide the chestnut trees and rolling vistas of Salisbury Plain (not to mention the main road and the giant Tesco).

We still needed to find an Afghan village for our soldiers to patrol in – as the FIBUAS (Fighting in Build Up Areas) on Salisbury Plain were all built for Northern Ireland and the Cold War. So having widened our search beyond Wiltshire we found a newly built Afghan village (complete with goats and chickens) in Thetford Forest in Norfolk.

So despite the location being 3 hours drive from Wiltshire we were finally sorted - nothing left to do but turn up and shoot, right?

Not quite. Closer inspection of the script revealed a near-miss on Salisbury Plain where a 70 tonne Warrior reverses back towards a soldier narrowly missing him, closely followed by a full crush in a FOB. More preparation, but nothing that stunt co-ordinators, stunt performers and effects teams couldn’t solve.

So, once they’re all lined up, we just have to turn up and shoot right?
‘Helmet Cam’

Oh – one more thing, central to our pitch and our creative was that the whole film would be shot from a series of Point of Views, each POV revealing slightly more about the story and the lead-up to the accident. And each POV would be linked by a bullet time / time slice move out of the POV’s eye and into the next POV’s eye.

So that’s POVs, bullet time, accidents, crashing Warriors, Afghan villages and a FOB on Salisbury Plain. Just another normal shoot for the COI and Pukka Films…

How do you shoot POV? Director Paul Katis and DoP Mark Regan teamed up with specialist camera company Skarda Rent to come up with a solution.

Skarda Rent has been in operation for the past 20 years within Soho as a minicam and body-rig specialist. For our production, Skarda provided us with a Toshiba IK-HD1 minicam, which is capable of 1920 x 1080i - making it possible to match resolution with other High Definition cameras.

This set up also gave us the ability to use different focal length C-mount lenses. To achieve our POV look, we worked out a technique to mount it to a helmet rig. ’Helmet Cam’ was cabled to a back-pack and solid state recorder, which was in turn cabled out to a P2 recorder.

The shoot

All set and raring to go, we headed off to Salisbury Plain very early on Monday morning. Day one was about getting our actors familiar with the gear, their uniforms and the Warriors, after all they needed to walk the real soldier walk. Being filmakers, we may well have had problems with that but fortunately, help was nearby in the guise of the First Yorkshire regiment who took our actors in hand, marched them up and down the parade square, and generally got them to act, talk and move like soldiers – it’s not just about the costume.

A short evening shoot in Andover’s finest (and only) nightclub, complete with 25 local ladies got us started with our camera and the rig – all of which we are pleased to report stood up to the test.

The actors got to wear the helmet with its mounted camera and were soon into the swing of things, although we realised that we were going to need Mark Regan to do a lot more ‘acting’ than had first been imagined, as it often took the DoP know-how to realise what would be in shot and how to move the camera to get that POV look our director Paul was after.

Our first day on Salisbury Plain was the first of four logistically heavy days. We had three warriors with full crews, and had to choreograph a set-piece that required driving the warriors across the plain at 40mph – stopping, dismounting, firing and nearly being run over in the process. A comparative doddle when we looked at what was to come.

If Tuesday and Salisbury Plain was hard-work, Wednesday and Tidworth gave us grey rainy skies and an only half-built FOB. We were facing two very big days. No matter how often someone tells you it does rain in Afghanistan and is often grey and overcast, there’s always that sneaking suspicion of pitying reassurance, as really the first thing you think of when you imagine the British Army in Afghanistan is hot, dusty bases, complete with bronzed and sunburnt soldiers sweating in the 40 degree sun. Grey skies, which eventually broke quite spectacularly mid afternoon, really didn’t help. Especially when the day before had been blisteringly hot and sunny.

The key crush stunt had been choreographed so that it would involve the Warrior smashing into a Landrover before crushing one of our artists between it and another Landrover. A large crew of stunt co-ordinator and perfomer, the special effects team from the Machine Shop, our First AD Andy Pearson and Paul Katis were all on hand to ensure the design of the stunt would run no risk whatsoever of there being any danger of a real accident.

At the same time the bullet-time team from specialist graphics company Liminal had set up their blue-screen studio at the back of the parking lot and were shooting all the plates for our bullet time. With a small steadicam rig, a glide rail and two Canon 5D mark II cameras, James and Jan worked in and around the film crew to get the plates and the moves they needed.

Finishing late on Thursday there was still a three-hour jaunt to Norfolk, a few hours sleep and then an early start up at the Afghan village on Friday morning. Complete with 25 Afghan extras, market stalls and an assortment of set-dressing that would put some Hollywood studios to shame, the final day’s filming required our soldiers to storm through a village street, come under fire and then take and disarm a house and household on the street.

After 5 long days, we finally wrapped, days that our DoP certainly won’t forget as we put him firmly through his (very active) paces and we headed back to London to begin the edit.

Currently in the middle of the edit as we write this, the bullet time transitions are looking fantastic, the POV style is looking great and Salisbury Plain now feels a reassuringly long time ago., though if you do find yourself walking out there and you find a pair of boots, the DOP would love to get them back…..

Tags: solider | pukka films | iss032 | on location | helmet cam | pov | steadicam | N/A
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