By Rodney Appleyard

Kings Cross, Sydney, 1989. A time when bent cops and criminals mixed together. A time when honest police fought to take back control of the most infamous strip in Australia.

Underbelly is back and while it may be the same crimes, it’s done by all new criminals. Shawn Seet, who directed a number of episodes in Underbelly:
The Golden Mile
, says the latest instalment is more complex than the first two series.

“It is much more intriguing and the thing with Underbelly is it’s never formulaic. You always have to come up with new ideas to keep it fresh. Some characters will carry over from other series, but in this one, there’ll be a whole new batch of characters.”

He adds that the physical effects and explosions are very important when it comes to dramatising and stunning the audience.

“David Trethewey, from DTFX, provided the police armoury and weapons for a few raid scenes in the series,” adds Seet. “Those effects help to make the
scenes more authentic. If there is a whiff of bullshit then the whole thing falls apart. The great thing is David trains everybody up in the handling of weapons.

Underbelly: The Golden Mile

“Simple things, like teaching somebody how to hold a gun properly can help to make the scene more believable to the viewer. It helps them to believe they are watching a real event.

“I saw David set up explosions to go off at the front of a nightclub, although I didn’t direct that particular scene. It involved two rival gangs heading off each other at gunpoint from opposite sides of the road in the middle of Kings Cross. Machine guns were involved and it was awesome.”

Seet says that these scenes lift the whole production unit.

“It reminds you of why you are doing the project,” he adds. “Knowing you have an expert on there that has worked on The Matrix and Superman, it gives you plenty of confidence that the scene is going to work. I love working on Underbelly because you get to tell some bizarre stories and sometimes you need to invent some non-conventional ways of storytelling.”

Trethewey says he had to be creative with how he set up the explosions for the machine gun scenes (one was in a residential property and the other was at a commercial establishment) because of budget constraints.

“You have to rely a lot on your experience rather than having the time and money to test things out, like you can in movies. You have to tell the director that this is what you are going to get on the day, full stop – so more trust is definitely needed.

Underbelly: The Golden Mile

“We still have to make it look amazing. Exterior shots of the machine guns were filmed, along with other guns blasting away. And then we cut to the interiors that were shot to pieces. So we ended up with some really good sequences. Being able to pull that off with limited resources is very satisfying.”

He adds that TV is less visual than film because it’s a smaller format. Drama between the characters is crucial.

“But what the effects do essentially is lend it colour, emotional truth and they give it some life and movement.

“The story is about people and the effects help to set the scene, as well as heighten the drama. You can show a man banging away with a machine gun outside a building, but when you cut to the inside and show the carnage and people being hurt as a result, that gives it an extra emotional boost.”
He says that it was difficult to set up the effects, but he worked closely with the director to get the right dramatic tone.

“There is a teddy bear that gets a good beating, to add to the emotional impact. The props were chosen carefully with the director and production designer to get the right style for the place.

“You try to make it as realistic as possible, which involves including as many smashable things in the shot as you possibly can. If it’s a dining room scene, you set it up as if it’s dinner time.

“For example, you could have a flower vase there, so all the petals get shot up and the vase gets smashed to create a powerful visual impact.

"Petals come apart really nicely and you want to create as much mess as you can. The scene could include a wedding photograph or an important memento. Personal effects can say a lot. Those ideas come up in preproduction.

Underbelly: The Golden Mile

"It’s then down to the art department to create them and then we blow them up.”

For one scene, he had to include 30 tiny explosions, such as bullet hits. Some explosions are as small as a matchstick head, but others are as big as a five cent piece. Safety plays a big part when it comes to setting up bullet hole explosions.

“You have to prepare the padding in a way that won’t hurt the actor but still provides the effect of the bullet hit coming through.

“You’ve also got to prepare the wardrobe correctly, as well as the hit on a solid plate that is going to deflect all of the energy from the explosion away from the actor. So you need to pad them up properly.

“Getting it right can be as simple as making sure a coat doesn’t flap over a bullet hit at the wrong time, and you have to make sure it doesn’t get seen on screen either.”

Trethewey has a lot of time for the directors who work on shows like Underbelly on TV in Australia because of the limited resources they have to deal with.

“Everybody from the top down in TV has to be flexible in the way they approach the production. They have to adapt very quickly to changes as they occur on set.

Underbelly: The Golden Mile

“The director in particular has to know how to get the emotional feeling of the scene across and how you can best do that because it will not always be a perfect world. Very few prima donnas survive in TV direction because they can’t meet the production deadline.”

Although the story is well written and based on true events, both the director and Trethewey say that something would be missing without the well organised physical effects that help to make the action spill out of the screen and into people’s lounges.

Underbelly: The Golden Mile is currently showing on Channel Nine. This article was originally published in the March issue of INSIDEFILM magazine.

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