Adding Digital Drama to 'Three Billboards'
March 12, 2018

Adding Digital Drama to 'Three Billboards'

Written and directed by playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a darkly comic drama about a grieving mother’s attack on the complacency of the local police force who have failed to find her daughter’s killer.

She rents space on three billboards on the outskirts of town and runs the slogans:  

“Still No Arrests?” 

“How Come, Chief Willoughby?” 

“Raped While Dying.”

This doesn’t go down well with the named and shamed Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) or many of the local townsfolk. There is empathy for Mildred (Frances McDormand), but not for the way she’s behaving – holding people to account for her daughter’s unsolved murder.

Union worked closely with McDonagh to provide effects that accentuate story points and character traits as Mildred ups the ante in ever more desperate attempts to pressure the police force into action.

One of two locals that complained about the billboards was the dentist who paid the price when during a visit Mildred grabs his drill and plunges it down into his thumbnail.  To achieve this Union augmented the dental drill so that the drill bit could penetrate the nail leaving a nasty exit wound and a pretty shocked victim.

We see a softer side to Mildred when she interacts with a deer as she plants flowers around the billboards – expressing her true emotions in tender words to this innocent creature. The deer was shot against bluescreen and composited into footage shot on location.

Mildred’s attempts to keep her daughter’s plight in the public eye culminate in her throwing a Molotov cocktail into the police station which she falsely believes is empty.  It turns out Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is inside and becomes engulfed by the fire, but manages to escape by throwing himself through a window.

The Molotov cocktail and flaming wick is fully CG and animated to correct the trajectory of the live action plates where the prop Frances McDormand threw didn’t quite land as planned.

Its explosive impact was shot live action from both inside and outside the station.  Inside two plates were shot; one with Dixon and no explosion and one without Dixon where the set was actually blown up.  The outside was also filmed with practical fire.

The different plates were composited with footage from fire elements shoot as well as augmented with CG fire, smoke and ash to make it believable and build up the severity of the fire as it takes hold throughout the shot. This also facilitated continuity across the whole scene.

Chief Willoughby is losing his battle with cancer throughout the film and finally gets to a point where he can’t stand it anymore – taking his own life with a pistol. Union augmented the live action of Woody Harrelson to show the impact of the bullet and stopped his breathing accentuating this somber moment.

Towards the conclusion of the film, Mildred discovers someone has set fire to the (by now infamous) billboards and attempts to extinguish one of them from above until she realises she’s fighting a losing battle.

Again the billboards were ignited for real with the team adding live-action plate elements, CG fire, embers and smoke as the fire raged out of control.

Director Martin McDonagh commented: "This was my first time working with Union and I found them to be great collaborators from the outset right through to delivery. They immersed themselves in the story I wanted to tell and offered creative solutions to problems both before and as they arose.”