In anticipation of this week’s Blu-ray release of Monster Trucks, Home Theater Forum was invited to a press event at the Paramount backlot on March 29th. This event focused on the real people and trucks used for Chris Wedge’s movie, which gets a surprising amount of mileage out of traditional on-set effects alongside the computer-generated imagery. I was given an opportunity to interview young actor Tucker Albrizzi and experienced effects man Jim Schwalm, followed by an opportunity to get close to a rigged version of the hero truck that gets powered in the movie by the friendly monster, Creech.
The event began with my interview with Tucker Albrizzi. Full disclosure: I have worked on set with Tucker in 2013 on a television pilot called Divide & Conquer. Tucker’s grown up a bit since I last saw him, but he’s the same friendly guy I remember playing zombie apocalypse tag in a Los Angeles park. Tucker isn’t actually in that much of the movie – he plays a small supporting role, popping up at a crucial moment near the movie’s climax. Tucker and I discussed the work he did on set with director Wedge and lead actor Chris Wedge, who he described as warm and open to improvisation.
The second interview was with Jim Schwalm, an experienced special effects man with a resume as long as both of my arms put together. To be clear, Jim’s work is not in visual effects or computer imagery. He works with the practical effects we see and experience on the set. The usual explanation of what effects does is “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” – meaning that the on-set effects men cover all the various natural phenomena we depict onscreen. When wind is called for, the effects men have various size fans that can either gently rustle leaves and branches or can generate a complete windstorm. When rain is called for, the effects men bring in a crane with hoses and a water truck, and can generally soak the set from above. When a fire is seen on camera, it’s an effects man who lights it and maintains it. Of course, the main element we know the effects men for is when we see practical explosions on camera – and Schwalm is a master of that art. He’s been responsible for the large kabooms and blossoms of fire seen in the first three Transformers movies, as well as multiple Sam Raimi movies, including all three of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man installments. Other major credits include Armageddon and Twister. For myself, I couldn’t resist asking Jim about two other movies from earlier in his resume – the second and third Lethal Weapon installments, the latter of which involving the total demolition of a Florida building in real time onscreen.
For Monster Trucks, Jim was called upon to engineer one of the copies of Tripp’s truck, specifically to make the truck appear to be operated by Creech from inside the engine compartment. Through the use of hydraulics and various controls, Jim was able to essentially turn his copy of the truck into a giant puppet, capable of lifting up one of the front wheels like a dog waving its paw. During the interview, we discussed a major chase seen in the movie (and featured in the movie’s trailer) where a truck is catapulted sideways and flips in mid-air to land on its wheels. I had assumed this was CGI, given the amount of that already being called for in the movie. I assumed incorrectly – Jim pointed out that this was an actual truck that was launched and flipped, requiring two takes to get a shot with the real truck actually landing on its wheels.
The final part of the event was an opportunity to get close to the rigged truck, and to actually sit inside the cab to get an idea of how this truck would operate on set during the film’s shoot in Canada. Demonstrating the mechanics of the truck and the remote system was Sean Amborn, an experienced on-set effects man with a sure grasp on these elements. Full Disclosure Again: Sean and I worked together on the television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend over a year ago, before each of us moved on to other projects out of town. As soon as I saw him at the event, I knew we were in good hands. The truck seen here was used for specific shots on stage where the actors would be seen in the cab and the truck would need to behave as though Creech were manipulating the truck around them.
Monster Trucks is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, having just been released to the format this week. For interested fans, this is a film that can serve for a PG-rated family movie night, incorporating live action and animation in surprising ways. I can’t say that this is the deepest of movies you will see, but it can serve as a look at the current state of how movies combine various forms of on-set and computer effects – something that’s been evolving over the past 40 years.