There Will Be Blood
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SCENE STEALER: ‘There Will Be Blood’

By Ron Magid, Special to The Times

Building a believable oil rig that actually erupts before catching fire was only half the challenge faced by special effects supervisor Steve Cremin on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” The other 50% was making it environmentally safe. Cremin’s previous gusher, for the 2005 Gulf War film “Jarhead,” provided the template -- with one big difference. “This time, we had to have oil coming out that wasn’t burning, which then ignited on-camera,” he says.

The derrick was constructed in Marfa, Texas, close to where James Dean’s “Giant” did its own drilling. Back then, it was common to shoot gasoline skyward then light it at the director’s command. These days, what goes up better not come down. “The Texas Environmental Quality people tested the soil for a baseline before shooting; afterwards, they came back to verify that we had not added any gas to the soil. If the air and fuel mixture becomes too rich, unburned fuel will fall on the ground. Spilled gas requires a toxic cleanup. That’s a no-no.”

The trick is to achieve 100% burn -- easy with a 3-inch propane torch, not so easy if your fire must dwarf an 80-foot derrick. “Gallons of gas might not ignite. Everything that goes up the pipe has to burn or you get shut down,” Cremin says. Here’s how he created the scene without drawing environmental ire. (Francois Duhamel / Paramount Vantage)
Cremin’s problems began before construction coordinator Bill Holmquist’s four-man crew even completed the wooden derrick. A local drilling company excavated a 25-foot-deep hole with a 12-inch diameter in the solid granite ground, which Cremin intended for a sealed line reservoir. “The nightmare began when we found the hole was drilled crooked,” Cremin says. “We literally turned our 12-inch pipe into a drill bit, put it on a hoist, and hand-drove it into the ground. That three-day delay was pretty painful.” (Francois Duhamel / Paramount Vantage)
Cremin and production designer Jack Fisk searched local junkyards for genuine pump-jack parts. Cremin converted an old steam engine to run on compressed air so the pump was working while the oil was spurting. “When the drill hits a gas pocket, the bit shoots out, followed by water and oil. I don’t know that anyone’s ever seen that in a movie.”

As for environmentally friendly oil? “We used a water-based food additive” -- methylcellulose, a thickener found in McDonald’s shakes -- “and edible, food-grade dye that fades in sunlight.” (Francois Duhamel / Paramount Vantage)
Cremin’s team rigged parallel lines to switch from water to fuel so the gusher could catch fire as cameras rolled. But the producers’ decision to construct a real wood derrick meant Cremin got just one take. “We had four separate ignition systems in case one failed. The last ditch was a road flare at the very bottom, so if any gas touched the ground, it would ignite.” The result? “We got 110 feet of flame and 200 feet of black smoke. It was pretty huge.” (Francois Duhamel / Paramount Vantage)