The Beaconsfield mine collapse of 2006 was one of the most gripping events to ever rock this country. Sam Dallas finds out how it was recreated for telemovie Beaconsfield, which will premiere on Sunday, April 22, at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.

For his latest screen project, Sydney-based filmmaker Jon Rohde had to descend 1km underground to research the look and feel of a working gold mine. Not your typical day for a production designer.

It was dark, it was dingy, it was claustrophobic – it was essential. In what was probably Rohde’s most challenging project to date, the filmmaker had to document everything he saw with precision because it had to be recreated in a short period of time with limited resources.

“This particular project had to be spot on because there was so much media coverage,” he says, describing the 2006 Beaconsfield mine collapse.
No-one knew the nightmare facing trapped miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell, who spent two weeks underground after a small earthquake triggered a rock fall.

“I saw my role on this one as creating the environment that we didn’t see, as the public,” Rohde says. “This involved finding a balance between recreating the truth of what happened and using artistic licence to tell the story.”

Rohde, whose credits include Paper Giants and Blood Brothers, worked closely with Beaconsfield director Glendyn Ivin and cinematographer Toby Oliver ACS on the look and how the job would be achieved based on time and budget.

With limited pre-production time, Melbourne-based set construction company Illusions started work on the production while Filmtrix worked on the practical special effects.

Rohde says the sets needed to be designed and engineered to allow for flexibility of coverage and to incorporate practical special effect components: shaking ground, falling rocks and water.

Their work had to be as realistic as possible because it was going to appear in an actual mine, as well as a large warehouse, where the metal cage which protected them from the collapse was recreated. The cage, which was to be filmed from every angle, was made up of steel, rocks, paint and dirt and was about 2.5-square metres.

“That was the smallest set that we built but in a way the most complex,” says Rohde, a Queensland College of Art graduate.

Illusions’ managing director Grant Slotboom says it was a cramped environment but bigger than what Webb and Russell were in. It had to be made in such a way that it was claustrophobic while also being comfortable enough for actors Shane Jacobson and Lachy Hulme.

The fake rocks, made out of concrete and polyurethane foam, had to match the colour and texture of the real rocks. These rocks were put onto big tilting drop rigs, built by Filmtrix, so the rocks could fall at a controlled speed. Darkness acted as an ‘extended set’ in the mine and allowed the rigging and water effects to be hidden during filming.

“So we’d spread the rocks and the dust and we had layers so the drop rigs were in three sections – you’d drop them in sequence so to the camera, it looked like a rockfall,” Filmtrix’s Peter Stubbs says.

The effects team replicated the strong, shaking ground and flying dirt by placing vibration motors under the cage. Later, when the recovery effort was scaled back to prevent another collapse, Stubbs used air cannons, a vibration motor and air jacks.

The massive set, which took up the whole of the warehouse studio (about 150m), rested on a series of shaped ribs which supported the cave and painted rock surfaces, according to Rohde. The rock was made out of chicken wire hessian, sprayed-on concrete and moulded foam panels. Shipping containers were used at one end to contain the real rock pile and to provide an elevated platform for the camera.

“Some of the set elements were recycled as other parts of the mine because we were running out of resources. This required us to schedule the shooting around a reconfiguration of part of this set,” says Rohde.

Some of the specialised machinery – such as a raisebore machine – had to be built as an oversized prop. And furthermore it had to be functional.
Due to dark and wet conditions, shooting took longer than usual and was completed – about six weeks. Webb and Russell acted as consultants on the emotional telemovie, produced by John Edwards and Jane Liscombe and penned by Judi McCrossin.

This article originally appeared in IF #145 (Feb-March 2012).

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