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Hazardous Cliffs: Watch for Camera Crews and Exploding Cars

The hang-glider takeoff site high above Black’s Beach in La Jolla is normally dark, deserted and shrouded in fog at midnight this time of year. If the warning signs that dot the deep-gullied, unpaved area fail to convince visitors that these are dangerous, unstable grounds, the rusting remains of a few unfortunate automobiles 300 feet below the Torrey Pines cliffs will tell the tale.

For three nights recently, from dusk until early morning, the view changed drastically. The mystery of the site was obliterated in sharp-edged illumination from a towering standard of stadium-quality lights. A weird contraption that looked like the possible child of an alien spacecraft and a sprinkler system dangled from a 200-foot crane, dousing dozens of rain gear-clad people below. A Bell Jet Ranger helicopter rose from below the cliff line. A machine gun fired.

What was going on?

Movie madness, the sort of Hollywood-size excess that inspires chuckles and awe. In this case, the movie was “K-9,” an action-comedy, a buddy picture with a twist. Jim Belushi stars as a narcotics cop. His buddy is a drug-detecting German shepherd.

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Hoping to Dazzle

The grandiose filmic exercise was all about what executive producer Donna Smith and producers Larry and Chuck Gordon hope will make a dazzling opening for the $18-million movie they expect to put before the public next spring. (No distributor has been set.)

It involved a crew of 165, including nine camera operators and 11 special-effects technicians. According to Smith’s calculations, it also involved enough equipment vehicles to stretch 2 miles end to end.

The sequence has Belushi becoming the near-victim of a whirlybird-riding hit man. It ends with a car explosion. Counting some comedic interaction between Belushi and a couple in a Rolls-Royce, it’ll take up about five minutes of screen time. Most of the four months’ preparation and roughly $300,000 poured into this particular shoot, however, went toward its action bit.

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And that will last “15 seconds, tops,” according to effects chief Peter Chesney.

Belushi, relaxing in his motor home dressing room before the first take last Tuesday night, did what everyone else was doing: He stated the obvious. “I’ve never seen anything like this. This scene is going to be hot.”

How hot would it get for him?

“I have to run between cars with explosions going off on both sides, but it’s OK,” he joked. “They have to pay me extra for it. It’s called a ‘stun adjustment'--$68.” He stopped, grinned: “No, I’m lying. I’m at a very safe distance. It’s all very safe.”

Taking No Chances

Safety was a pointedly discussed issue around the “K-9" site. From the number of references to the “Twilight Zone” catastrophe among crew people and spectators, it was fair to imagine that the disquieting familiarity of a hovering helicopter, explosive effects and a movie team was lost on few of those present.

“We got as a given that the helicopter would not come in from the cliff face, and also that we would not do the effect at over a 10-m.p.h. wind,” said Chesney. “This show’s style is sort of comedic, so there was no reason” to bring the helicopter close to the exploding car.

Even so, Chesney described several painstaking testing methods he used to calibrate his pyrotechnic effects “so we knew, without guessing, where the safety limits were.”

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“Fortunately for me,” he added, “I haven’t had to carry the banner of safety this time. There are times when you’re asked to push the margin, but the attitude here is, ‘We don’t want any problems.’ ”

Producer Chuck Gordon stressed, “I never take chances on these scenes.”

A group of about 40 spectators, hoping for a glimpse of the first scene, jammed to the front of a small cordoned-off area next to one of the giant cranes. Security personnel kept others, attracted by the lights, at the gate fronting the unpaved lot. The set itself was kept off limits to all but the principals involved.

Shot From Nine Angles

Rather than re-staging the helicopter “gag” again and again, director Rod Daniel decided to have cinematographer Dean Semler shoot it in three parts--from nine angles at once.

Keeping equipment and other unwanted objects out of all the cameras’ ranges wasn’t simple. The cameras also had to be hidden from each other. Black cloth and strategically placed brush helped, but setting the shot was a tedious process. It was nearly five hours before Daniel and his crew were ready to begin the first segment of action.

In that segment, the helicopter and its M-60-wielding passenger make their first appearance. In the second segment, the helicopter’s arrival is followed by explosive charges going off in and around the explosive-laden junk car. In the third phase, the action follows through to the car’s explosion.

But the sequence had another major complication: It required rain.

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The film makers had decided that a standard artificial rain tower, or grid, would be unworkable in the nine-camera situation, so Chesney used a 3-D computer graphics program to design a new “triangulated truss” rain grid that could be suspended high above the area.

The grid helped with another problem: the highly erodible land along the cliffs.

A Little Rain Never Hurt

To obtain permission to film at the Torrey Pines site, executive producer Smith said, she had to convince the California Coastal Commission that the company would use a minimal amount of artificial rain. “They were very concerned about potential runoff,” she said.

The new grid is capable of covering an area 150 by 170 feet with a light, sheeting shower. It gushed 16,000 gallons during the entire night’s shooting. By contrast, heavy artificial rain equipment of the type used in major storm sequences dispenses as much as 800 gallons a minute.

At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Torrey Pines fog asserted itself, grounded the helicopter and prevented director Daniel from getting the last segment of action on film. Belushi’s on-screen car got a 19-hour stay of execution before finally coming to its fiery end.

Although the plan called for only one automobile to be blown, Chesney had two spare junk cars painted and loaded with explosives--just in case. As it turned out, they weren’t needed.

“It makes no sense to move them, and if I tried to remove the charges, they’d go off,” Chesney said. So the effects master decided, after all the oglers and nearly all the crew had left, to blow the two remaining cars into automobile heaven.

With that, it was a wrap.


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