Sara Bennett interview: ‘The Woman King’ visual effects supervisor
Recreating 1820s Kingdom of Dahomey, the setting of Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s new film “The Woman King,” was no easy task for visual effects supervisor Sara Bennett. But when it came to the preparation process for the historical epic, she received a lot of help from particularly the movie’s production designer, Akin McKenzie, and his collaborators.
“[They] gathered a lot of information… a lot of imagery, which was hard to get,” Bennett — an Oscar winner for “Ex Machina” (2014) — tells Gold Derby in a recent webchat (watch the exclusive video interview above). “We also looked at locations that still exist — and actually, there was a show on Netflix called ‘High on the Hog,’ which gave you a little insight, as well, of the world that we were looking at.”
Written by Dana Stevens and inspired by real events, “The Woman King” is about an elite military unit of all-female warriors called the Agojie that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which was located within present-day Benin, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Set in 1823, the action drama stars Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) as General Nanisca, a fictionalized leader of the Agojie who trains the next generation of warriors to combat their enemies, as well as Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega.
One of the most intricate scenes for Bennett and her team to bring to life was the climactic Oyo battle, which sees Nanisca lead a successful Agojie attack on their enemy at dawn. It’s a lengthy, large-scale sequence that features everything from explosions to complex stunt choreography and had to be carefully planned out by Bennett and the stunts, special effects and art departments.
One of the big advantages for the creative team was that production for the film took place in South Africa, whose wide, panoramic landscapes provided them with the perfect shooting location for this epic battle. “We found this location that was like three fields, essentially,” reveals Bennett, who proceeds to highlighting her collaboration with the other aforementioned departments. “We had to figure out what was going to be art department builds [and] what [visual] effects would do. There’s obviously a lot of fire and smoke within this scene as well. So, [special] effects was a key part of that.”
But shooting in South Africa also presented the team with a number of challenges. “So, for special effects — it was in the middle of summer, [there was] very dry heat. So, it was always going to be hit and miss, [in terms of whether] we could use a fire from special effects — and the smoke was just blowing all over the place, so you would lose it very quickly,” recalls the visual effects supervisor. “So, it became really a big continuity piece for us — [on] some days, we’d have fire, sometimes we wouldn’t.”
In our chat, Bennett also recounts her experience of watching “The Woman King” for the first time on the big screen with an audience, which was at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9. Above all else, this screening provided her with an opportunity to properly take in the movie on which she had worked for months on end.
“When you’re in it and you’re finishing it and you’re racing to the deadline — we had such a short post[-production] period, and it was a real sort of scramble to the end — so you’re watching it, but you’re not watching it, because you’re busy with all the work you got to do,” explains the Oscar winner. “Because you can’t separate yourself from it when you’re in it, to sort of step away for a couple of weeks and then sit in this crowd — it was amazing. The atmosphere [and] the emotion on people — it was just a really lovely way to finish the whole process.”
“The Woman King” is playing in theaters and available to purchase digitally, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.