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Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

How to Make Nickelodeon Slime Look Like Oil: Special Effects Coordinator Brandon K. McLaughlin on Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon

in Columns, Interviews
on Nov 20, 2023

Brandon K. McLaughlin remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to work in the movie business. It was Halloween night and McLaughlin was eight years old. His uncle—a special effects technician—had invited him to set to watch the Disney adventure The Rocketeer being made.

“I got to see them blow up the zeppelin while the Rocketeer was running on top of it,” McLaughlin said. “From that point on, I never wanted to do anything else. I was fascinated with everything that went into the magic of moviemaking, and the special effects department creates that magic, tricking the audience into believing in something that’s not real.”

In a career that spans 25 years, McLaughlin has tricked audiences into believing in the magic of an astounding list of filmmakers including the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. With Killers of the Flower Moon, McLaughlin adds Martin Scorsese to that list. He spoke to Filmmaker about the experience.

Filmmaker: Let’s start with the types of things that fall under the umbrella of special effects these days. On Killers of the Flower Moon, I know you worked on some of the most striking sequences—the Osage men dancing in the oil geyser and the surreal fire sequence at night as Robert De Niro’s character burns his fields. What else came under your purview?

McLaughlin: A plethora of things. We handled creating the rain. I don’t know why it landed in our lap, but we also had control over the windmill at [De Niro’s] house. We had to turn that on and off and make sure it was running properly. We had to test the water at the little river that went by Molly’s house to make sure that we could put the actors in it and it was safe. We built a bridge to cross that river with handrails on it that visual effects painted out. We did smoke coming out of chimneys and dust flying in the air when they’re doing the race through town. We did the steam of the steam engine, atmospheric smoke inside the buildings and the bullet hits on the bell when they’re having the dance party in the middle of town. 

Filmmaker: When I hear special effects, I guess I still have a 1980s or ’90s picture in my head of effects make-up and miniature work.

McLaughlin: It used to be more of those things. We were the department that used to fly people [on wire rigs]. We used to do all the effects makeup, all the action props—which was any prop that moved that an actor was going to handle. That was all us. Now, all the flying is done by stunts, though if the stunt coordinator prefers me to do it, I will. All the action props are usually done through property now, but it’s still a collaboration. That’s all ironed out in the first couple of production meetings. We divvy up the work between everybody and figure out who’s going to do what. As far as effects makeup goes, the only thing I’m involved in now is if the blood is flowing. If there’s flowing blood, that’s us. If it’s dried blood or dressed blood, that’s set dressing or props. So, if there’s a dead body lying on the ground and it’s just a pool of blood but the blood’s not in motion while you’re filming it, that’s set dressing or property. If you want to see blood flowing, then that’s my responsibility.

Filmmaker: Are those responsibilities typically just assigned to you or is it a back and forth where you get to make your pitch about what you should handle, what should be VFX and what should be a combination of the two? Do you get to say, “This is going to be cheaper, easier or just plain look better if we do it”? When do you start having those conversations?

McLaughlin: Right off the bat. Take, for instance, the show that I’m on now. They pretty much said to me that I’d be doing a big fire job, and they didn’t want any visual effects. The director put his foot down and said, “This is what we’re going to do, no matter what the cost.” But most of the time what happens is it’ll be a conversation between me, the UPM, the producers and the visual effects department, then myself and the visual effects supervisor will write up budgets on what it would cost for visual effects to do it or for special effects to do it, then we weigh everything. A lot of the time when visual effects is involved in something like a fire, it’s because I can’t subject an actor or a child to something that they’re asking for just because of safety. It’s too much smoke or it’s too hot. I did a show where I had to float an RV down a river that had two minors on the roof and the RV had to float at a specific height. It couldn’t be above four feet, because if it was they wanted to have a handrail for safety. So, it was all a discussion. Are we going to do a handrail and be able to float higher, then have visual effects remove the handrail? Can we live with it floating a little bit lower? You just have to talk through it and put all the options on the table. How do we make this work? What’s going to sell the best or what’s going to look the best on film?

Filmmaker: Tell me more about handling fire effects. I’ve seen some pretty bad VFX fire in the last few years.

McLaughlin: For that project I was just talking about, when they proposed that I do all the fire practically, my immediate response was, “I can’t do that without help from visual effects.” Any visual effects supervisor will tell you that if you can film actual fire and they can just cut and paste that into the film, that is hands down by far the best way to do it. If they’re required to build [those flames] from scratch, it’s a more costly and more time-intensive and it doesn’t really come out the right way. So, that’s what I led off with in the very first meeting with the director: “No problem, we’ll do everything practically, but I am going to have to have visual effects help because of the amount of fire. With minors being around, they’re just not going to be able to act when it’s 800 degrees. There’s nothing I can do about that. There’s no such thing as cold fire. So, what we’ll do is we’ll put in a bunch of fire [on the day]—enough to where I feel it’s comfortable for them to sit in it for 10 hours to give them something to act with and react to, and for the [interactive] light. When we’re done with the film, I’ll give visual effects several different plates of fire and they can put into the shot.” So, there’s always a balance.

Bullet hits are another one of my biggest arguments. When visual effects takes over the bullet hits, you don’t get the reaction out of the actor on set. It’s completely different when there’s [a squib] going off on their chest. You can’t replicate that by saying, “okay….and BANG!” We try to make everything as realistic as possible, and we do that by working hand in hand with visual effects. A lot of visual effects are done with the help of special effects, and these days there are very few special effects done without the help of visual effects. It’s a marriage for the six or seven months when you’re on a film.

Filmmaker: I see special effects coordinator, supervisor and foreman as your title on different films throughout the years. What are the distinctions between those positions?

McLaughlin: Coordinator is exactly what’s in the word. It’s the coordination of the effects: what needs to be built, when it needs to be built, who’s going to build it, when it needs to be transported to the location, when it needs to be shot. That also includes getting all the supplies and materials. If we’re going to build a roll cage for a car, I’m the one that gets all of the steel ordered. I’m the one that owns the tools that the guys use. 

A shop foreman is somebody that I will draw out the CAD drawing for and hand it to them and say, “Okay, go grab a couple guys and build this in the shop.” The set foreman is the one that runs the set. They’re the person standing right next to the 1st AD and the director and preparing all the shots as they come up. Then there’s rigging foremen. If there’s a big cable rigging job or something like that, I set up all the equipment and the material and pull the permits and talk to the proper authorities to do it on a certain road, then I send my rigging foreman out with a handful of guys and they prep everything. They set up the cables, they set up the cars.

Filmmaker: How did you first get into the business? Did you uncle get you on early jobs?

McLaughlin: After my junior year of high school I went and took six different classes at a community college. One was engineering, another where we learned how to use all the machines—mill lathes, welding, all that kind of stuff. I also did advanced physics, advanced geometry, advanced algebra and a chemistry class. From that point on, I went out with my uncle and worked as a PA non-union member for two or three shows. Then the books opened, I was able to join the union and I just stepped on the right pedal and kept going forward and didn’t look back. 

Filmmaker: What was the first set you worked on?

McLaughlin: Twister.

Filmmaker: You really did get thrown right into it. That must’ve been an amazing era to start in. You had all these practical effects-driven action and disaster movies in the late 1990s. One of the first things you worked on was Hard Rain—an entire movie propelled by special effects-provided rain.

McLaughlin: Oh yeah, that was an event. We did that in the hangar out at Skunk Works in Palmdale, where they built the B-1B bombers. The entire hangar floor was a tank. It was 200 yards long and a hundred yards wide. Still, to this day, that show is the longest week I ever worked and the longest single day I ever worked.

Filmmaker: Hard Rain didn’t come out that long after Twister, so you were really still just starting out when you did that movie.

McLaughlin: I was 18. I remember distinctly I was working as an effects PA. I was on the effects trailer – which is like a rolling warehouse, machine shop, welding shop and hardware store all in one – and in charge of keeping it clean and organized and stocked, making 500 bucks a week. At that time the big thing visual effects did was wire removal. So, everything you see in that movie was all practical.

Filmmaker: Did you get to do much model work when you were starting out?

McLaughlin: I did on Armageddon. I was still very green. I was on the crew that built the two Armadillos, the off-road vehicles. We built those from scratch. There was a lot of mold making for that and a lot of fiberglass work. We don’t do much of that nowadays because of 3D printing. It’s sad, because there’s a lot of people in my industry that have either retired or passed that have all that knowledge. I’m still one of them because I came up in that era, but there’s a lot of people that don’t know how to do that anymore.

Filmmaker: This is your first Scorsese film, but the list of directors you’ve gotten to work with is beyond amazing—Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, Paul Greengrass, M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher. Do you have a good Fincher story?

McLaughlin: I worked with him on The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and we would add smoke in his shots to give him the grain in the digital image. He always shot with Reds. So, I wasn’t adding atmospheric smoke because we were in a bar and he wanted it to feel smoky. I would add just enough to put grain in the image, and you’d never know there was smoke in there because it’s digital. You have to put almost twice as much smoke in as you did with film cameras [for it to read]. It actually worked quite well. It looked like it was shot on film.

Filmmaker: Let’s get into some of the specific effects you created for Killers of the Flower Moon, starting with the geyser of an oil strike. It’s not your first rodeo with oil—you worked on There Will Be Blood. For Flower Moon, how did you figure out the right materials to use and how to propel the oil to the proper height for what Scorsese wanted?

McLaughlin: The way the script described it was that oil was coming out of the ground and the Osage were dancing around it. Realistically, oil doesn’t do that. It doesn’t squirt out of the ground, you have to drill down to it. The production designer, myself and one of the art directors weren’t sure what to do. So, I went and talked to Marty: “There’s a little bit of discussion here because this realistically does not happen. Is it an artistic rendition that you’re going for? Is this an image that you’re trying to put in the film and you’re not tying it to reality?” And he goes, “Yes. That’s exactly what it is. I just have this image that I want.” Once I got all that nailed down, then I could go back to the shop and could test. The product that we used, believe it or not, is basically the same thing as Nickelodeon slime.

Filmmaker: You just add some sort of coloring?

McLaughlin: Yes, the same Brown 42 dye that’s in any soda. The material itself is methylcellulose. You can eat it, though you wouldn’t want to. It’s all organic, there are no chemicals whatsoever in it. You can order it at a specific viscosity, then all you have to do is add water to it or take a little water out of it to change the viscosity.

Filmmaker: Does Scorsese still do storyboards? For that wide shot, what sort of previs did you have to see, “Okay, this is how high in the frame I need to get this oil to spurt”?

McLaughlin: Yeah, he still does storyboards, and he is accessible to talk to if you have questions. You have to schedule it and put it on your calendar and say, “Okay, Tuesday at three o’clock, I can meet with Marty.” It is not like a lot of directors, where you can walk up to him and just ask him while he’s shooting. If he’s in a scene, he’s very into the scene. He’s focused on what’s in front of him and doesn’t want to step out of that in the moment to try to answer something that’s not going to shoot for another four weeks, but I have to think that far ahead because I have to have all that lead time to prep everything.

There was a little bit of playing around to find the right level. Marty is a very visual director. So, I would do testing at the shop, then take my computer to him and show him the tests and ask, “Are we close? Is this what you’re thinking?” So, it was a back and forth on a couple of the gags, but that’s what you’re there for—to help him tell the story. That’s my priority, to make sure that I’m giving Marty Scorsese what he wants to be able to project the story to the audience. We actually had to shoot that oil geyser a second time about a week after we wrapped. When we shot it originally, Marty didn’t like the color of the oil, because it was so heavily backlit with the sun, it looked like Coca-Cola.

Filmmaker: Did you change the color for that reshoot or just the lighting?

McLaughlin: We just had to change the color, but I didn’t have what I needed there, so I had to get it shipped in from California [to where filming took place in Oklahoma]. When it arrived, we mixed it that night, then went out the next day and shot it and that’s what you see in the film. It came out beautifully.

Filmmaker: My favorite scene in the film, visually, is the burning of De Niro’s fields at night as part of an insurance scam.

McLaughlin: All the fire in that scene is real. When we arrived in Oklahoma, we saw the ranchers burning their fields and that gave Marty the image of what he wanted to see in that scene. The entire land around you is on fire, but the flames are only a few feet tall. With the humidity in the air, the grass is so wet that it’s not like a forest fire. You don’t get 20-foot flames.

Filmmaker: How do you control the smoke in a setting like that? I’m assuming the flames coming out of the firebars you were using don’t really give off much smoke.

McLaughlin: You’re right, the fires don’t give off much smoke. It’s all propane. It burns really clean. It gives off a little smoke, but not enough. I scouted it several times and the natural wind and the direction it comes from usually stays the same. It comes in one way during the day, goes out the other way during the night and does a weird thing right at the shift at magic hour. So, I had all that logged in my brain. When you’re set to do a shot like that at night, you play the wind. I had smokers placed everywhere and it was just a decision of which smoker I was going to turn on. I had fans to try to break it up and make it not so source-y.

Filmmaker: There’s a particularly eerie long lens shot with the field workers in silhouette.

McLaughlin: When we were shooting it, the camera operator had a 300mm lens and we were maybe 75 yards away from the closest foreground fire and he was shooting through it, looking at the background fire in the distance. I’ve never seen an effect quite like that before with fire. It was just one of those lucky things that we came across by chance that nobody knew was going to happen.

Filmmaker: I wondered how you got that shot, because I know there are tricks you can do underneath the lens to get that heat haze look.

McLaughlin: Yeah, a lot of the time we’ll do what’s called a sand and alcohol tray. It’s a tray that we build and put [right under] the camera. You put play sand in it, then soak the sand with alcohol and light the alcohol. It’s a very light flame so you can’t see it very well, but you can see the heat waves. That doesn’t always work well if you have any kind of wind at all. There’s another way to do it with helium. I also have another unit I made that is like an outdoor cooking stove with a nozzle that makes the heat waves go straight up. So, there’s a couple different ways to do it, but that was completely unplanned that day. Marty actually used it quite a bit in the film. He came unglued when he saw that shot on set. He was like, “Keep rolling! Keep rolling! This is beautiful!” He was jumping up and down. It’s an amazing feeling to be on set when he gets excited.

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