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Turning The Australian Outback Into “Hacksaw Ridge”: A Conversation With Production Designer Barry Robison

Australia and West Virginia aren’t just physically a world apart.  Aesthetically they look completely different: the landscape’s texture and vegetation hold little in common. Finding locations that could double as 1940s West Virginia for Mel Gibbon’s “Hacksaw Ridge” – a biopic following conscientious observer Desmond Doss’ transition from small town handyman to battle field savior who single-handedly rescued over thirty wounded soldiers – was one of production designer Barry Robison’s many challenges.

Robison was aware Gibson’s pre-scouting efforts had left the director frustrated.  Working with a tight budget that wouldn’t accommodate full builds, Robison and his team had to find locations that would effectively double for Lynchburg amidst the modern architecture and native Australian brush.  Using resources such as satellite searches and the knowledge of local location crews, he found a small town outside Sydney with a cluster of British Colonial buildings.  Carefully constructed camera shots allowed one intersection to stand in for all required downtown scenes.

For interior scenes, Robison and his team painted walls with soft pastel colors.  Working with set decorated Rebecca Cohen, they chose minimal decoration in order to play up the simplicity of each local.   DP Simon Duggan had researched the specifics of period Kodachrome, so Robison worked closely with him to achieve a very true color palette that would create a distinctive tonal shift from the war footage.

“We wanted it to look real, to stand out from o the battle field,” said Robison.  We didn’t want a sepia tone.  Neutral tones allowed the focus to be on the family.”

Doss’ entry into the military shifts the palette to browns and reds – ultimately to greens and grey during battle.  When he is jailed early in his training, Robison was able to highlight a real break in the color scheme.  Fashioning the interior of Doss’ jail cell after a monk’s quarters he saw in Europe, Robison built a small room with a vaulted ceiling and a tiny window. The detail through the presence of a black and white palette meant to symbolize Doss’ state of mind.

“I didn’t want to overplay it. Mel agreed I was on to something so I drew up a sketch,” said Robison.  “The camera placement changed how much white and how much black was seen.”

Creating the battle field presented numerous design hurdles.  Because of the budget constraints, VFX would be used sparingly amongst practical applications. To accommodate these needs, Robison first had to find a lot large enough not only for the fight scenes but also for the crew’s needs, including loading trucks and base.  Urban development, ever present eucalyptus trees and securing permits were ever-present hindrances.  A dairy farm proved their salvation.  Able to turn the space into a mini-backlot, Robison and his team were able to design all the military structures and encampments, as well as the open war fields.  To capture the level of realism Gibson was after, Robison sculpted a scale model of the battlefield that was eight feet wide and twelve feet long that allowed the director and the VFX team to coordinate all their needs.

Once the practical effects were mapped out, Robison and his team developed a complicated drainage system that housed tubing which allowed the practical elements of fog and explosions to safely and effectively be integrated into the scene.  Working with talented greens men who built up the landscape via backhoes and bulldozers, the team not only accommodated the drainage system but also quickly shifted layers of earth per Gibson’s specifications.  This team also created the opening to an underground tunnel system the Japanese soldiers used to ambush the soldiers.  The complex interiors of the tunnels were completed on a Sydney sound stage.

Although a physical location was found that would serve as the historic Hacksaw Ridge cliff, Gibson determined having a build would better serve the action. With a three and a half week timeline, Robison began by making models of the cliff face. Working with engineers, he constructed a wall that was 30 feet tall and 70 feet wide. A trench was dug out at the bottom of the structure to accommodate its height.  Once the fabricated cliff face was firmly affixed to scaffolding, Robison and his team painted and dressed it.  Once the shoot ended and load out was completed, Robison had one last detail to ensure.

“The dairy farm had to be returned to its original state,” said Robison. “We were very aware of the material we used while shooting.  There were no toxic materials introduced to the set, and everything used in our construction was bio-degradable.”