Making movies is an expensive business. There are costs all the way throughout production, from paying screenwriters to creating a script, hiring a crew, getting the right equipment and of course, paying the star actors to play the key roles. There are a variety of other drains on the finances too, such as catering and insurance, but one of the key areas that takes up a large part of the overall budget comes in post-production. Here, the special effects are created and added to the picture, moving it from raw footage into the final finished product. Of course, there is another expense in the form of the money required to construct the sets for the film.
However, with the continuing advances in technology, creating large detailed sets is becoming less and less problematic for filmmakers and they can instead get the perfect look using computer generated images and green screen. This hasn’t always been the case though, and directors and producers would often have to rely on building sets in meticulous detail in order to give the illusion of the movie taking place in exotic or fantastic environments and locations. In other cases, directors may want to go for a physical set rather than a fully digital one for artistic reasons. In either case though, the construction of sets, especially those that are particularly expensive or elaborate, can be truly expensive. You just have to look at the ten examples listed below to see how costly they can really be.
10. Matrix Reloaded
It might surprise many people that The Matrix trilogy actually spent quite a lot on physical sets, especially when you consider the vast amounts of special effects and computer generated images that were used throughout all three movies. The truth is though, that a large part of the budget for the movies went on creating large and detailed sets. By far the biggest and most complex came in Matrix Reloaded. Because of the complex shoot and the need to film over a long period of time, the freeway scene could not be completed on a real road, so the crew built their own at a cost of $2.5 million.
Built on an old disused military base, thousands of tons of concrete were used to create a road that was a mile and a half long and came with 19-foot walls and an off ramp. Once the movie was finished the road was then dismantled and 90% of the materials, including wood, metal and plastics, were recycled.
9. Full Metal Jacket
While exact details about the cost of the various sets that were constructed for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket have never been fully revealed, it is not much of a stretch to estimate that at least some of them were incredibly expensive. The biggest and most complex set constructed specifically for the production was the ruined Vietnamese town of Hue. Kubrick managed to secure an abandoned gasworks and dockyard that was due to be demolished. He, along with the art director, then spent two months blowing up various buildings, constructing new ones and using a hired wrecking ball to damage buildings in the exact same way as photographs he had in his possession. For more authenticity, he was also able to buy a collection of M41 tanks and Westland Wessex helicopters for the set.
Waterworld is arguably one of the most famous movies ever made. Not because it is a great film or had huge success but instead, due to it being such a high profile flop. One of the biggest expenses for the film came in the form of a multi-million dollar set that had to be built to shoot many of the scenes from. The giant atoll, with a circumference of a quarter of a mile, was created during the production and floated in the ocean off the coast of Hawaii. It was such a huge set that it created a steel shortage in Hawaii, leading to extra material having to be flown directly from California. It took thousands of man-hours to complete, ramping up the cost even further as Costner wanted perfect attention to detail.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers had not researched the area for the type of weather it usually had at that time of year and so failed to realize that it was subjected to heavy winds on a regular basis. The set was almost completely destroyed once and damaged badly during another storm, leading to significant work having to be carried out and the overall cost of the build spiraling into the tens of millions of dollars.
Fedor Bondarchuk’s intense war drama Stalingrad released in 2013 to mixed reviews from critics. One of the most highly praised aspects of the film though, was the astonishing visuals and ultra-realistic depiction of the scenery shown throughout. It should come as no surprise then that almost one sixth of the budget of the film, something approaching $5 million, was spent on creating a huge set filled with buildings, equipment and vehicles that would have been present in Stalingrad during World War II. More than 400 staff spent a total of six months researching archives and diaries from the time to ensure everything was as authentic as possible before spending another six months constructing the set that would serve as the center of the city in the movie.
6. The General
This silent black and white film was directed by and starred the legendary Buster Keaton, and despite being a comedy, had a rather large budget. Much of it went on one scene in particular, in which a train crashes through a collapsing bridge. Rather than use scale models or cheaper replicas, Keaton decided to instead go all out and make the scene as realistic as possible. This involved using an antique train and an actual bridge that was blown up, leaving the director with just one opportunity to get the shot he wanted. When all was finished, the set had cost $42,000 for that one scene, a figure that would translate to around $6 million today.
The huge success, both commercially and critically, of Titanic came at a hefty price for James Cameron and the studios that were financing it. With a budget of $200 million, it is one of the most expensive films ever created and much of it went on paying the small army of extras, funding the 2 months of overtime required to finish the shoot and on the wages of the stars and crew. However, a not insignificant proportion of it went on creating the hugely detailed sets that appear throughout. The biggest set included a 40-acre facility that contained two huge tanks that could contain more than 20 million gallons of water and a 90% scale replica of the starboard side of the ship. The model of the Titanic was needed for hundreds of different shots, while the tanks were necessary so that the director could film the replica in water and to allow it to sink at the end. The total cost when adjusted for inflation of this elaborate set alone exceeded $30 million.
4. Hello, Dolly!
This Barbra Streisand film was a musical that took inspiration from the Broadway show of the same name. Releasing in 1969, it had an overall budget, including marketing and distribution costs, of $25 million with a large proportion of that being spent on constructing the elaborate sets that feature predominantly in various scenes. The most prominent of these was the Harmonia Gardens set at Stage 14 at Fox Studios. The extravagant construction features four different levels, including a foyer, a restaurant, a dance floor and a bar fitted with a variety of expensive fixtures such as ivory furniture and large ornate fountains. The overall price for just this set was $375,000, a figure that would equate to more than $2 million in today’s money.
The silent era masterpiece Intolerance was written, directed and produced by D.W. Griffith, in 1916. It tells four different stories with similar themes across a large range of human history, from an early 20th century American drama, to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France during the 1500s. With such a wide ranging time-span, it was clear from the start of production that a huge amount of money was going to have to be spent on creating sets, costumes and paying extras. The biggest individual set, and the most expensive, was the to scale model of the Great Wall of Babylon that was over 300-feet tall. While exact figures for each set have never been released, it did take up a large proportion of the overall production budget that rose to more than $45 million when adjusted for inflation.
2. Ben Hur
The 1959 version of Ben Hur is something of a masterpiece. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made and is infamous for its hugely exciting chariot race section. Understanding that part of the film to be arguably the most important of the feature, the director and producers spent more than $1 million of the $15 budget for the film on building a huge chariot arena. The work to complete it was truly astronomical, with a thousand builders working flat out for over a year to carve out the track, erect the wooden structures and construct the various grandstands. To top it off, the filmmakers then had to import white sand from Mexico as none was available on location.
WarGames, a 1983 movie featuring an incredibly powerful supercomputer that controls the US nuclear missile silos, was a fairly low budget film. However, a significant percentage of that funding went on building one set in particular. Out of a budget of just $12 million for the entire production, as well as marketing and distribution, $1 million of it was spent on recreating the famous NORAD command center. Without being able to see the actual NORAD center, as they were not given permission by the government, the crew produced a far more futuristic command center with more technologically advanced looking computer systems.
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