To faithfully recreate a 50-year-old real life plane crash and remarkable tale of survival, the filmmakers behind Society of the Snow combined LED and green screens with multiple practical sets of the plane’s fuselage and put them all 2000+ metres up a mountain, writes Adrian Pennington.
That the mountain they used was in Spain’s Sierra Nevada rather than the Andes didn’t detract from the effort in terms of organisation, getting the crew and filming equipment there, and adapting to constant changes in the weather.
“We wanted the audience to feel they were really at the Valle de las Lágrimas (Valley of Tears),” explained cinematographer Pedro Luque of the crash location to IBC365. “When the survivors saw the movie they were amazed at how accurate the production was.”
Society of the Snow depicts the crash of Flight 571 and its aftermath — from the day Uruguay’s Old Christians Club rugby team left for a match in Santiago, Chile, to 72 days later when only 16 of them finally came home. Their story has been called ‘the miracle of the Andes’ and was previously filmed as Alive in 1993 by Disney.
Reclaiming the story back from Hollywood was one reason director Juan Antonio [J.A.] Bayona (The Impossible) wanted to retell it.
“I had to film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and The Rings of Power to earn the right to direct this story as it was meant to be — in its original language, in the places where it happened, and with the ambition with which we approached the project,” he told Netflix, which eventually funded the project.
“It’s a story that runs really deep in Uruguayan mythology,” said Luque, himself Uruguayan and working for the first time with Bayona. “Everybody knows about it. There is some pride about surviving against the odds but let’s not forget this was a big tragedy for more than half of those who were on the plane. Even those who returned were scarred and while they went on to have families it was tough for them. Unlike Alive this movie is not about heroism. It’s about what really happened.”
Behind the Scenes: Society of the Snow - Script Development
Bayona adapted the 2008 book ‘La Sociedad de la Nieve’ by author and journalist Pablo Vierci, who was a college classmate of the plane crash survivors. It’s a compilation of interviews with all the survivors forming an intensely personal recollection of what happened rather than a blow by blow account.
“I knew from the start that this was a mutating story, not written in stone, and that we were going to discover how to tell it in the journey of making it,” Luque added.
Developing the script, the production shot tens of hours of interviews with the survivors, opening the possibility of inserting some footage into the film and making it a more conventional docu-drama.
Instead, the filmmakers felt they could better convey the truth of the story by fusing docu-style camerawork with cinema aesthetics. Luque himself is responsible for the photography of films such as Don’t Breathe (2016) and The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018).
“J.A. and I love classic movies—from Hitchcock to Spielberg to Lawrence of Arabia – but our instinct was also to have a camera ready to pick up and shoot in an instant either because of the changing weather on top of the mountain, or to be super ready for the actors.”
They shot mostly chronologically during which time the actors’ stopped eating, just as the passengers were forced into starvation. [The actors had a nutritionist but were deliberately losing weight].
“The most important thing was to be ready for them and at the same time to imbue this story with a cinematic eye,” said Luque. “It’s a very fine line between realism and the poetry of cinema.
“When we’d finished the film, a friend of Bayona’s said ‘You guys have invented a new genre of expressionistic documentary.’”
Luque described the mountains as “super overpowering, trapping you” and treats them as a character in this storytelling. “These are giants that don’t allow any life to exist and at any moment can act irrationally. That’s something you can feel, but it’s very difficult to convey on camera.”
All of this thought led to them adopting a language that alternates between close-ups and wide angles. “Even inside the plane we use wide shots where everything is in focus because we wanted to capture the feeling that everybody was caught in the same situation.”
Luque took a small crew to the Italian Alps with some actors and wardrobe department and shot with Sony Venice, Alexa (Mini LF and 65) and Reds variously with Leica lenses, Cookes, Arri DNAs and Panavision. Then, in a blind test projected for Bayona, the director chose the Mini LF with Panavision T-Series anamorphic glass expanded for full frame.
Behind the Scenes: Society of the Snow - A metallic, sterile look
Luque spent six days in the Valley of Tears noting the dramatic and subtle light changes.
“You have a very hard, harsh light and a white that blinds you and suddenly there’s this beautiful pink sheen over everything and the nights are super bright when there’s a moon. There’s a beautiful range of emotions to pick from.”
With costume and art department he decided to take the colour green out of everything that happens on the mountain, because it represents life and nature. The mountain is represented by a world of blues and whites. “When the snow gets shiny it has this silvery metallic quality to it,” he said.
“Our characters eat and sleep and talk and they’re all in same location so I wanted to have a journey with the colour. One of the things we wanted was to have a very organic look. It couldn’t look digital. That’s a matter of taste but also because it’s a period piece it had to look filmic.”
Luque set the look first with Camera Test Colorist Kike Cañadas at Deluxe Spain and then with his colleague Chema Alba through the DI and grade using a Blackmagic Design Resolve workflow throughout.
“We didn’t want it to appear like ‘found footage’ but as if the film could have been shot then,” Alba told IBC365. He supervised the transfer of the film to 35mm Kodak negative at Cinelab London and then rescanned it back to digital in Resolve where it was regraded. The photochemical step added in some texture and they used tools in the software to dial more in.
“We used to do this 20 years ago but in 2023 this workflow was a present for me. The whole Resolve workflow was amazing. Even though this film was not the most difficult to colour grade we didn’t want to lose that doc feel. I tried to keep the grade basic and balanced to connect to the reality of the film and introduce nothing artificial.”
Behind the Scenes: Society of the Snow - Production on a mountain
In the bid for authenticity and realism they shot most of the film in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada ski resort in Grenada, Spain. There they built a 300ft x 300ft reproduction of the mountain made with scaffold and foam in a hangar on a parking lot 1,000 metres up, a larger set constructed at 2,000 metres and an upper set at 3,000 metres, high enough to risk altitude sickness if not acclimatised.
A specialist mountain crew led by Eivind Holmboe spent two weeks in the Andes shooting background plates and photogrammetry of the Valley of Tears across a 10km panorama. This second unit footage was displayed on a 90 x 21 ft LED Volume in the hangar fitted with 140 ARRI Sky Panels on the roof. The DP and his lighting team could simulate the angle and colour temperature and exposure of the sun shot in the Andes with the environment on set.
“We were trying to match plates shot in the summer from a Valley in the southern hemisphere with photography being shot live in the northern hemisphere in the spring,” explained Luque.
Of the complex production arrangement he explained, “Because we were shooting chronologically we had to jump from interior to exterior and backlot to interior. Even shooting interiors, we want to look out of a window or when a character comes out of the fuselage, we needed that immediate environment to be real.”
This entailed combining digital set extensions with practical sets of the plane fuselage in the context of the real mountainous environment. “We were able to shoot up to 4km of actual rock and snow in front of us combined with rear screen footage of the Andes for set extensions together with interiors shot on the backlot,” he explained.
Since the Sierras were largely devoid of snow when they filmed in early 2022, artificial snow composed of polymer, crushed plastic or cellulose was piped in.
The stage built at 2000m housed an iron and concrete bunker inside which was a fuselage on a hydraulic crane that could be moved up or down by 6 metres to mimic the snow levels before, during and after a huge avalanche and some of the storm scenes.
Another fuselage was transported to the top of the valley in a difficult to access location for heavy machinery like cranes or dollies, or a large crew, which made it more like shooting a documentary. Here, Luque mostly used natural light augmented by a couple of HMI and mirrors.
Behind the Scenes: Society of the Snow - The crash restaged
When it came to recreating the plane crash, the SFX team talked about how a chain reaction concertinaed the seats pushing from the back all the way to the front.
They called it ‘the accordion’ and it was the last scene they shot.
“There was a lot of debate about how to depict the crash because to this day nobody knows exactly what happened,” Luque said. “If the plane had flown 10ft lower everyone would have been killed on impact, but 10ft higher and they would have been killed crashing into the next mountain. And because the plane was pulling up, all the power of engines was extracting air from the inside so it was not as pressurised as would have been if cruising so when it did impact it didn’t explode.
They decided to show the crash from the passenger’s point of view. In other words, with little in the way of explanation or understanding. The plane, having lost its wings slides down the mountainside, slams to a final halt.
Production built another half of a plane fuselage on a gimble to reproduce movement, speed, and levitation and to give the actors physical experience of the accident. The whole fuselage was placed on top of “lungs” so they could mimic the vibrations of a plane on take-off, hitting pockets of weather.
They also built pieces of the plane set - a wall, the carpet, the bathroom with another wall - “little sets that would give us small shots,” said Luque, around which they put green screen and LED screens with a projection of the mountain.
“We did a lot of previz and made a very thorough shot breakdown. For instance, a shot list might require us to take out seats 20-26 and piece 2a from the wall and to bring in a dolly with a 32mm lens. It was very precise in that sense. We shot more than ended up being in the final cut.”
Behind the Scenes: Society of the Snow - Closer to home
Luque was born eight years after the event but recalls, as a teenager, reading the 1974 book by British author Piers Paul Read on which Alive was based.
“Uruguay is a small country and this kind of event forms the character of our people,” he said.
He revealed that a friend of his wife is a daughter of one of the survivors and that his mother in law had a friend who died on the mountain.
“It is close really close to home.”
In Alive he added, the dead were given different names. “In this film we use their real names. This was very important for the survivors and the families of the dead. When we screened the movie for them, they told us it was very healing to watch this with the relatives of those who didn’t make it because finally they could feel what happened there.”
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