Duncan Jones Locates a Superhero Universe Down Under

by Nancy Mills

THOR: RAGNAROK posed many challenges for location manager Duncan Jones, but the biggest was turning Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city, into New York. “The producers were considering sending a crew to the States to film in the real location,” Jones says. “Trying to duplicate a city like New York is not the easiest to do. There’s no place quite like it. But we ended up filming in Australia, which was a wonderful achievement for everyone involved.”

Here’s how they did it: “We negotiated the closure of several main streets in Brisbane for five days,” Jones says. “That was particularly difficult given it was a fully functioning inner city, and there was a lot of paperwork. We had to permit people to come and go from their businesses. Students had to go to university. The bus system still had to operate. In amongst all that, we had filming.”

“Securing Brisbane city in the middle of the working week was a big challenge,” Thor: Ragnarok UPM Jen Cornwell adds. “We have shot in Brisbane city before, but only ever on weekends. Duncan managed to shut down busy city streets during the working week. He spent months negotiating with hundreds of stake holders, everyone from the corner store through to high-rise building managers, police and council. From both an art department and location point of view, there was quite a lot to be done to change traffic lights, street signs and traffic direction.”

Complicating matters further was the presence of several of the film’s stars, including Thor himself, Aussie Chris Hemsworth. Every day, onlookers packed the streets to catch a glimpse of what was happening in the Marvel Comics world. Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki, got into the right spirit. Instead of retreating to their trailers when filming stopped, they interacted with the crowd. “Hemsworth and the other cast were really accommodating to onlookers,” Jones says. “It turned into more of an event. You can see it on a YouTube clip . Hemsworth was going out and greeting the crowds and handing out pizza from one of the local restaurants. We don’t normally get celebrities coming into the city and doing that kind of activity. Most filming we try to do on the quiet.”

Duncan Jones shut down busy city streets during the workweek.

Complicating matters further was the presence of the film’s stars, including Thor himself, Aussie Chris Hemsworth. Every day, onlookers packed the streets to catch a glimpse of what was happening. Photos courtesy of Duncan Jones/LMGI.

Jones just went with the flow. He had learned to do the impossible a decade earlier on Fool’s Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. One of his responsibilities then was to find beach locations along the entire coast of Queensland, which were then edited into one big, beautiful island.

Thor: Ragnarok became another level of location management that I was not used to dealing with,” he admits. “We had large groups of the general public in confined street spaces and traffic, with our trucks and equipment while crew were trying to shoot. We thought we’d get a couple thousand people a day coming out, but by the second day, approximately 10,000 turned up. We had to very quickly learn and adapt and create systems to move people through the city while trying to film.”

During their week in Brisbane, Jones and his 18-member crew were heavily involved with crowd control. “We basically ended up working up and down the streets, explaining what the next sequence involved,” he says. “We constantly moved people from one side of the street to the other so they wouldn’t be in the background. We’d tell them when shooting was about to start and not to shout. The city would go dead quiet for the take, but when they heard ‘Cut!’ everyone would cheer.”

Jones also found himself dealing with the police. “Seventy-five officers assisted us, plus we had 120 security guards and 35 traffic controllers,” he says. “This went on for four full days, and it was quite a spectacle.” He loved it. “It was a great experience to be part of,” he says. “From talking to the Marvel team, I understand that for those few days, it was the biggest social media following in the world. Everyone was watching what happened in Brisbane.” To make those chaotic days run as smoothly as possible, Jones hired a team of locals as PAs. Explaining his thinking, he says, “I call them ‘Locations Public Relations.’ They’re primarily friendly people who the public first meet and interact with when they’re walking down the street and stumble across a closed location. The PR team explained why it’s closed, how they can get around and how exciting it is for the local community. Because they’re locals, they’re interested in putting a good face forward. They embrace the event. Then they tell their friends and family. They own it.”

UPM Cornwell speaks highly of Jones. “Duncan and I have a good, honest working relationship, which is important. We first worked together on Peter Pan over 10 years ago. What sets him apart from other location managers I have worked with is his honesty.  Also, he is organized and keeps on top of all aspects of location management.”

Director Taika Waititi also worked closely with Jones on every location. “Taika was always particularly interested in the indigenous culture of each location,” Jones says. “He would ask me to find more details about each site’s significance. I personally, and I know the Australian crew, really appreciated that extra layer of interest and respect.”

One memorable Thor location was Bullrin Quarry. The property became the Sakaar Wastelands, where Thor falls from the sky and lands in a rubbish heap. “That was all filmed on an operational mine site,” Jones says. “We told the owner, ‘We want to dump all this rubbish here to turn it into a wasteland, but we’ll take it away when we’re done.’”

This behind-the-scenes shot at Cedar Creek Falls shows the work the location department puts in to make the location accessible and safe. Photo by Duncan Jones/LMGI

Idris Elba as Heimdall at Cedar Creek Falls. Photo: Jasin Boland ©Marvel Studios 2017

The scenes set in the tropical environment of Asgard were shot at Cedar Creek Falls. “We were up in the mountains behind the studio,” Jones says. “The people from Asgard are fleeing because Ragnarok is coming and the world is ending. It’s basically three waterfalls on a tier that goes into a narrow gorge. We had 300-400 extras climbing up this gorge, along with 250 filmmakers.” Recalls Cornwell, “The accessibility and safety for a large crew was difficult. We were working in a gorge which had a lot of rain in the days prior to filming, and that made the task even more difficult. We also had over 300 extras at this location, with only stairs for access and it was a long way down!!

“The location team worked hard with Queensland National Parks on installing temporary, environmentally friendly paths and zip lines that ran 2,600 feet to bring the gear in safely.

“We had to minimize environmental impact,” Jones says. “We hand-carried about 1,200 sandbags down into the gorge to create safe walking areas. This is a rocky and quite dangerous ravine. We used clean, washed river sand in the bags so there would be no contamination if they broke.”

Figuring out these details is one aspect of the job that Jones likes. Another is interacting with the public. “I really enjoy working with people,” he says. “There are so many layers to locations. One moment you have to be the leader, the next you’re engaging with the busker on the corner. Then you’re talking to a multi-millionaire who can’t get into his house. I like the challenge of fixing problems and also the creative side, working with the art department, producers and directors. You have to have the ability to investigate and discover things and see locations from the eye of the camera. You have to be the eyes and ears of the creative team.”

Thor: Ragnarok was shot partly at Village Roadshow Studios in Queensland and partly on location. “On location days, we had about 250 people, plus 1,000-odd back at the studio building sets,” Jones says. “The logistics of supporting the crew required trucks, equipment and lighting. The digital team now is huge. It’s all very well to find a location, but if it’s not practical from a production point of view, there’s no point looking at it. It’s a different kind of filmmaking now, having such large crews with so much infrastructure.”

Lynne Benzie, President of Village Roadshow Studios, speaks highly of Jones, saying, “I have known Duncan for over 15 years and worked with him when he has been based at the Studios working on productions,” she says. “He is very professional in his role as location manager. His attention to detail is of the highest standard and always goes above and beyond his requirements. Duncan has been working with the Studios on the last two big-budget productions on our location backlot (Thor and the 2018 release Aquaman). Even when production finished, he spent a further six months, out of his own time, ensuring the area was put back as required. He is a great asset to the Gold Coast Film Industry.”

Jones at Sea World

Like many LMs, Jones, 44, got into locations by accident. “When I moved down to the Gold Coast, where the film studios and Sea World were, I volunteered to work with dolphins,” he says. “One thing led to another, and I started my career at Sea World as an animal trainer.” Then he worked on the TV version of Flipper for four seasons. “I was one of the animal trainers, and I knew all the crew,” he says. “The locations guys were always coming down and saying hello, and I thought their work looked like fun.”

Before Jones tried it himself, though, he wanted to see where his animal-training career would take him. He had already spent time in the military, having enlisted in the Australian army after high school. “My whole family has a military background,” he says. “It wasn’t expected of me, but it wouldn’t have been a problem if that was the path I chose.” He decided against the military, choosing instead to travel all over the world training whales and dolphins. “I moved to the Bahamas for a year, then Florida for a while,” he says. “After that, I trained animals in the south of France.”

When Jones returned to Australia a few years later, he began working with some of the location managers from Flipper (Blake Archer, Chris Strewe and Mike McLean). His first job as location assistant came on the TV movie Inspector Gadget 2 in 2001. Soon, he moved into features, working all over Australia on such projects as Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Saving Mr. Banks and The Shallows. “I think being a good location manager is more about applying what you’ve experienced in life than what you do,” he says. Jones sees his job as a large jigsaw puzzle. “I take swimming with dolphins, a little bit of traveling, a little bit of military and the world of meeting people, and combine it all in locations.”

As LM on Unbroken, Jones made great use of his knowledge of the ocean. “We did some work in open water—great establishing shots,” he says. “One plan had been to do all shots in open water, but to take 200 people out to do those jobs, where you’re dealing with the weather and the water is quite complicated. So a lot was done in the water tank, especially the raft sequences where there was so much dialogue.” He is referring to the Gold Coast’s Warner Bros. Studios, which has the largest purpose-built film water tank in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although Jones is currently a location manager full time, he says, “I loved the dolphin life experience. It gave me tools that I use now. In dolphin training, you’re on show and you’re dealing with crowds. You’re trying to interact with people in a very short space of time and give them a message about conservation and animals. When I walk into council meetings (trying to encourage locals to get behind filming), it’s the same thing. You have a short window to win the hearts and minds of the people you’re dealing with, getting your message across.”

With Aquaman, his work with dolphins proved invaluable. “Duncan was one of the best location managers that could have done Aquaman!” the film’s production designer Bill Brzeski says. “His background and love of the ocean was what we really needed. Also, his knowledge of making large studio movies was very helpful when dealing with local politics and large corporations.” Thor: Ragnarok, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Disney, reportedly had a budget of $180 million. Aquaman, to be distributed by Warner Bros., reportedly has a $160 million budget.

The film Aquaman, which stars Jason Momoa as the title character, tested Jones’ persuasive skills. When director James Wan wanted to shoot key scenes at the Hastings Point Headland on the New South Wales far north coast, Jones, who served as supervising location manager, skillfully overcame strong community opposition. Locals were already sensitive about possible harm to the environment and impact on local amenity. When Aquaman came calling, nearby residents were concerned that the site would be off-limits for a few months while the DC Comics blockbuster took over. The production worked hard to resolve this by providing extensive areas accessible to the public during their visit, and even moved the schedule to accommodate a wedding.

“Finding a place to build a full-scale lighthouse was not easy,” Jones recalls. “We did extensive scouting and logistical analysis and settled on Hastings Point, which is about 45 minutes south of the studio. The great challenge with that location was that it took quite a lot of time creating a set that could be put in a place as sensitive as Hastings Point. We chose to build on a grassy knoll, where locals go every day. We had to spend a lot of time in the community talking about their concerns: One was that the grass wouldn’t grow back, but eight weeks later, it has.”

“The Hastings Point site has protected animals and plants, so it’s environmentally fragile,” Brzeski adds. “It has rare Aboriginal artifacts dotted across it, so it was culturally sensitive. And there was a small community who cared for and loved the location, so there were social pressures. The site required three months of occupancy, so there was constant engagement and management by locations to ensure Aquaman had a successful shoot and got the shots we needed.” Brzeski describes the location looks he needed. “I wanted Canadian coastline, Italian coastline, as well as mythical island and water elements,” he says. “We needed to find all these locations in a reasonable distance from our base and we did. Duncan understood what I was trying to achieve, but he also understood the work that would go into fulfilling design aims. He knew construction would need time and space, set dec would have needs, lighting would then have their needs and so on.

Practical locations marry with CGI to produce what audiences see on the screen in big CGI films. Above: Practical shot of Sakaar Wastelands, also known as the Bullrin Quarry. Photo courtesy of Duncan Jones/LMGI. VFX augmenting the location completes the final illusion of an endless wasteland.

Chris Hemsworth. Photo ©Marvel Studios 2017

“There’s a lot more equipment and logistics that go onto a location now,” he says, referring to movies heavy on visual effects. “Location managers not only need to consider the main unit shooting needs, but also the splinter units, the VFX units and the aerial/drone units. Almost every location had to shoot full-on plates at different times of the day. The combination of all these teams and their film combine to form the big picture.”

Cornwell adds, “VFX-heavy films have definitely changed the way we approach films—including locations—from changes to how we shoot scenes (green screens, etc.), the need for logistics for VFX close to set (capturing extras/cast/props/set dressing) and the need for background plates.”

Traditional LM skills are still essential, however. Brzeski says, “Duncan worked behind the scenes not only to secure locations, but also form relationships with Aboriginal communities, coordinate road construction into difficult sets and ensure that crew could get onto and off of locations efficiently. The sets we built on location were not small. They took time and detail to get right, so there was a lot of pressure on locations to maintain community harmony in often environmentally sensitive areas.”

Aquaman was the first collaboration between Brzeski and Jones. “Duncan had just finished Thor and came highly recommended,” the production designer says. “We developed a great working relationship and, I like to think, a good friendship too. His knowledge of the local environment was crucial in making this movie happen. He was always prepared and very digitally organized. Movies like this are always handling a tremendous amount of photography. Duncan always had what we needed at his fingertips. I never had to ask twice where a file was. He also used drones in his day-to-day work. Many of our locations were large and needed a very high perspective. So drones gave us the shots we needed to use with VFX.”

Dirk Hartog’s Island (Photo by Duncan Jones/LMGI) is the
physical location that is part of the VFX composite of “Odin’s Beach,” which figures prominently in several scenes in the film, such as the one below. Photo by Duncan Jones/LMGI.

L to R: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston)..Photo ©Marvel Studios 2017

Brzeski mentions Jones’ dolphin experience was important to finding the best locations. “Duncan had a thorough understanding of working on waterborne and marine locations,” he says. “He understood the ocean element, including tides, weather, swells and how that impacted sets and filming. His love of the environment came through when he was working on locations, caring for the places we filmed in while making sure we could work on sites.”

Jones adds, “Some of these blockbusters are so large that it’s not just environmental impact. Potentially, the social impact can be quite extensive. How do you work in a place and not damage what’s there? You’ve got to think about people who have a vested interest in that space and how they daily interact with it. We have to make sure to fit in with that. It’s about making sure we leave the place as we found it, if not better environmentally, socially and economically.”

Nick Smith, Head of Showfilm, says, “Duncan is professional, responsible and well-liked in the film community. He is also ethical, thorough and always engages in best practice when liaising with property owners, government officials and the needs and requirements of productions. He’s always balancing the creative vision, access practicality and possible budget limitations. His location management in downtown Brisbane on Thor: Ragnarok was second to none. Closing down streets in the center of the busy central business district during peak traffic periods, whilst generating positive PR, is—as you know—complicated and challenging. His results were excellent.”

“But I am just a small part of a bigger team and community,” Jones says, “and collectively, we work to bring the big film ideas to life on location.”

Next on the horizon for Jones: he’s taking his family camping.

THOR: RAGNAROK Full-Time Location Team: 

Duncan Jones, Location Manager

Damian Lang, Location Assistant

Monin Sak, Location Assistant