We’re used to seeing human civilisation tumbled for fun and visual spectacle by asteroids, aliens and Mayan prophecies – with VFX companies falling over themselves to deliver the most entertaining way of destroying the world’s landmarks. The Road is a different kind of apocalypse.
In John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s landmark novel, the worst has already happened. The world has ended. Humanity has lost. Some terrible, unspecified event – perhaps climate change – has reduced civilisation to barbarism in a burned-out landscape.
The book and film are not about ‘saving the world’: instead, they offer a grim but strangely uplifting story of a man (played by Viggo Mortensen in the film) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) stubbornly clinging to survival in the face of overwhelming odds and perils.
The film features exceptional visual effects work from Philadelphia-based post house Dive. As subtle and realistic as Double Negative’s work on 2012 was exuberant and in-your-face, Dive’s work helps give the film a look drawn from real-life natural and human disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Chernobyl in Russia and Darfur in the Sudan, aiming to visually recreate the impact of McCarthy’s pared-down, staccato prose.
Dive created 220 VFX shots for the film, creating some of the landscapes from scratch, as well as adding details to shots filmed among the wreckage of post-Katrina New Orleans.
The aesthetic is one of the most important aspects of the film; it’s as much a character as the man or the boy. It was developed during pre-production through discussions between John Hillcoat and Dive VFX supervisor Mark Forker.
“They started by referencing various collections of disaster photography with which they were both already familiar,” explains Andy Williams, executive producer at Dive. “John was adamant that the visual effects in the film be invisible, that this wasn’t to look anything like what people have come to expect of a post-apocalyptic film. They were intent on staying true to the world Cormac McCarthy depicts in such vivid detail in the novel.”
Visually, the key difference between The Road and films such as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow or Mars Attacks is its muted and muddy colour palette. This, says Forker, is not just to match the book’s gritty portrayal but also to represent an Armageddon that has happened 10 years previously.
Most apocalyptic films, he notes, show the world as we know it being destroyed – so the vibrant colours we’re familiar with are still intact. In the landscape of The Road, these have been drained from the landscape.