It's all lifts and giggles until someone breaks an ankle.
That's what happened to Jon Heder during training just days before he and costar Will Ferrell were scheduled to start filming the male-bonding, figure skating comedy "Blades of Glory," which opens Friday.
One minute Heder was up in his skates moving into a spin and the next he was sporting a hairline fracture and ordered to stay off the ice for three months. And that's when sheer panic set in for "Blades' " first-time feature film directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck.
"It was probably one of the darkest days in the last couple years for us," Gordon said. "Everybody was really not wanting to look each other in the eye and go, 'Oh, God, this is really serious.' "
In a sense, Heder's injury was just the tip of the iceberg in a series of production hurdles that included creating 30,000 digital extras, massive prayer sessions, rubber dummies and a global search for ice skating stunt doubles with physiques to match their actors. Over the 12 months of production, Gordon and Speck found themselves performing triple axels of their own.
"How do we even move a camera along a wet surface while two grown men lift each other in an impossible position?" Gordon recalled thinking. "What you start to realize is you have to just imagine what it is you want and somehow solutions present themselves."
Pre-production started more than a year ago, but Gordon and Speck didn't lock the picture until late January 2006. Paramount publicists say the movie cost $60 million, but a tailspin of hidden costs has the picture tallying closer to $85 million, according to sources close to the production. Nevertheless, according to rival studios tracking the picture, "Blades" is destined to be a hit, should it open this weekend to an anticipated $40 million or more. But celebrating the returns of a hit movie is a long way from where the directors were a year ago when they first realized how hard making an Olympic-sized sport comedy can be.
After Heder's injury, he was fitted with a special, slim cast that went unnoticed under his Lycra costumes so they could shoot all the non-skating scenes before production was shut down for three months for him to recuperate. That downtime ended up being a blessing in disguise, the directors said, because it allowed them to work through their big set pieces and exhaustively pre-visualize digital elements.
For starters, visual effects supervisor Mark Breakspear worked out a system to replace the stunt doubles' faces with the actors' facial performances. He built a small room outfitted with a chair, three high-definition cameras, a small hall of mirrors and a video playback system. The actors' faces were painted with 100 tiny green tracking marks to record their expressions onto 3-D digital models to facially dub them atop the stunt double scenes. Selected takes were then processed and wrapped around the stunt doubles' faces.
During previews last winter, those pre-recorded actors' takes became quite handy. If one expression didn't play for a test audience, the directors would pick an alternate performance.
Downtime was also spent combing the globe for body doubles. Both Ferrell and Heder are over 6 feet tall and have "very specific physiques," as Gordon gingerly put it. "Most skaters are compact and low to the ice," he said. "Luckily, we found a Boston-based guy who had been a top skater who was a pretty good match for Will -- from the neck down."
In one trick shot, Heder had to arc his leg back over his head. Casting the right double for the shot came with a "Tootsie"-like surprise.
"We looked at tons of doubles until it turned out that, yeah, it's a move only a woman can do," Gordon said. "I think there are certain anatomical differences that become more [long pause] convenient when you're doing that kind of leg lift in a movie."
When they finally began shooting the film's three big set pieces in August, the directors were insistent that the shots have the cinematic scope of an Olympic event. But how to fill tens of thousands of seats? They ended up using a combination of a thousand "stuffies," or inflatable rubber dummy torsos, mixed with tens of thousands of digital crowds, an effect previously seen in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
However, getting "Blades of Glory's" stuffies, real extras, set dressing and lighting rigs into place at the L.A. Sports Arena -- which doubles for Stockholm, the Nationals and the Montreal Olympics -- wasn't always a first priority for the arena's booker.
"We quickly found out that quite a few of the big, older arenas in L.A. are used as massive churches," Gordon said. "We'd hear all the time, 'You can't have the arena, we've got a church group coming in.' "
One weekend, within 24 hours, all of the sets were dismantled, floors were laid in over the ice and 10,000 worshipers descended on their set location.
"Some church group prayed all weekend, left, we set back up on Monday, and we were back in shooting our crazy ice skater comedy," Gordon said, laughing.