How to Build a Film Set (and How It Got Blown Up)




Introduction: How to Build a Film Set (and How It Got Blown Up)

About: My girlfriend and I run a company called Deville's Workshop in Toronto, Canada. We build weird props for film and television and love this website - such a great resource for inspiration and discussion!

In this Instructable I'm going to show you how we built a full-sized town and then blew it up. Under most circumstances it is highly recommended that you don't go around and blow things up, especially towns, so please don't try this at home. If you must blow up a town, please do it in a controlled environment, preferably alongside people who specialize in pyrotechnics, and with the permission of your local governmental bodies. And always wear your safety boots.

When I was a kid I used to build Popsicle stick bridges and then test their strength by trying to blow them up with firecrackers; yeah, I was one of those kids. When Tina and I were asked to build a WW2-era German town and then blow it up, well, it was pretty much impossible to say no - we love watching things explode. Working under the production designer Andy Berry, a small group of us prop and set-builders spent a month and a half on a military shooting range in eastern Canada for a television show called D-Day to Victory (it's a pretty spectacular show) working with masons, brick-layers, roofers, etc, putting up full scale buildings. A special fx team came in and blew up everything we built (it felt a bit like being a Dozer on the Fraggle Rocks). I myself got to rebuild and then ignite a vintage Volkswagon Thing.

This montage was assembled by the director of photography Jeremy Benning. Amaze balls!

A quick note about the show: the premise was that we would strive to make everything we built as real as possible. This meant using real bricks, shingles, 2x4 stock, real vintage cars and trucks, real WW2 tanks, real weapons and ammunition, real explosions. We were re-enacting stories and memories documented by WW2 veterans and we were trying to be as accurate as possible. There was NO CG ANIMATION on this show. If you watch the video clip you'll see some incredible footage - the show filmed the explosions using Phantom cameras encased in super thick steel housing containers (these cameras shoot at 1000 frames per second so you can slow the video down so much that you can actually see the shock waves coming off the detonations).

Step 1: Construction of the Town

We arrived at the Gagetown military base in New Brunswick; there was a really big, flat, shadeless field that is used as an ammunition testing ground. Andy Berry scratched some rectangles in the ground and announced that this is where the town would be. It felt very pioneer-like. We had several 5-ton HINOs making constant trips to the lumber shops, emptying, go back out and reloading. We also had a mean little front loader and a 45' telehandler and brought a crane in for a few days while the sides of buildings were being lifted into place. Here's essentially how the buildings went up:
  1. Pour a concrete base for each building.
  2. Start framing all the walls and roof structure.
  3. Lift these into place with a crane.
  4. Bring in teams of masons and start skinning the buildings with bricks.
  5. Install windows and shingle the roof.
  6. Build details and add them to the building (for example, the little windows on the roof - dormers - are fake, we built them and stuck them on to make it look a little more European).

Step 2: Make the Vehicles

There were a number of vehicles that played specifically into the stories so we modified ones to match. I built a half-track ammunition truck by ripping the back axle off an old Ford, lifting it with the telehandler onto the tracks from a small bulldozer and welding everything together. It weighed an ungodly amount but when it blows up in slow motion you can see the tracks fly off it and ripple through the air like a feather-light ribbon. Everything was hand-painted camouflage; one of the vets told us that they would constantly be painting vehicles in the field to match their surroundings. They would take gasoline and mix it with paint to spread the paint a little farther; we tried it and it works!!!

Hugo, our resident genius, built a functional WW2 landing boat out of a dumpster. He killed about 8 angle grinders but it was pretty amazing.

Step 3: Add the Details

Our production designer, Andy Berry, pays a lot of attention to details and we spent a lot of time trying to match sets to photo references, build things to fairly accurate dimensions and so on. Here you will see Tina holding her baby bomb. That is actually a stack of 2"x12" boards glued together and then run through a lathe, shaped and then painted black. We built a slide for it, attached it to a 60' cherry picker and then dropped it through the roof of one of the houses.

All of the street signs and shop signs were hand-painted (I snuck my family name onto one of the streets) and all of the houses got hosed down with watered down paint to make them look old. Some of the props were fun to build; there's a flame-thrower backpack that's made out of old hudson sprayers painted green.

Step 4: The Buildings

It was a lot of hard work and the sun was pretty killer but in the end we were all pretty stoked with how it turned out. Once we finished building the buildings the fx pyro team came in and leveled them. All that was left was the clean up.

Step 5: Clean Up Your Mess!

We actually got a hand cleaning up the fields of burning debris when the military guys showed up with a massive bulldozer. They basically took a few sweeps of the field and saved us about a week of picking up charred garbage.

And that's how you build and then blow up a town! Hope you enjoyed,


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    5 years ago

    That. Was. AMAZING!!!

    Junkyard Dawg

    This is pretty cool. It's sad to see some of the older vehicles bite the bullet (like the old Ford and that target Sherman) but I guess you have to work with whatever you can.

    Do you think you could do an instructable that goes more in-depth about building the various tanks and trucks (particularly that Hetzer SPG dug in beside the building)?


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Ha! Good eye - I had to go back through the photos to find the hetzer! And that one is a total fake, Hugo welded a bunch of sheet steel together and threw on some dozer tracks, I painted it green and threw on some camo netting and from a distance it looks pretty real. Unfortunately there's not too much to the build, we bought the shells of old rusted trucks off farmers and auto ads, screwed some schwaz to them or gave them a rough paint job and then blew'em up. They weren't functional and most had their engines removed.

    Junkyard Dawg
    Junkyard Dawg

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Sounds pretty simple. I figured the Hetzer was a fake (there's only a dozen or so still left on Earth, I think?) but it still looks good to me

    Everything looks very good in general. I know that, if I was to stumble across those trucks (and the whole town) in the woods, I would probably think about turning around and running.