Dances with Buffaloids
While the models performed as expected, the live, hoofed extras used in the hunt—some 2,300 buffalo from the herd of South Dakota rancher Roy Houck—were unpredictable. Wranglers worked for six hours to round up the fidgety, cantankerous, 1,600-lb. bovines and get them charging. Sometimes the herd would veer off in groups while still out of camera range. Other times it would race past the seven camera crews in a mere five minutes, pounding on for another 10 miles before stopping.
The human performers were more trainable but equally agitated. Eighteen veteran Indian riders, representing 10 tribes, worked for weeks learning to shoot a bow and arrow (rubber-tipped to avoid hurting the animals) while galloping bareback amid the stampeding herd. Amazingly there were no serious injuries to humans or beasts, thanks to meticulous care—a far cry from the heyday of Hollywood oaters, when trip wires were yanked to make mounts fall as if shot, a process that maimed and killed countless horses over the decades. For Wolves, some of the techniques employed by the special-effects experts at Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group were so primitive they wouldn't have surprised D.W. Griffith or Charlie Chaplin. Sometimes, says KNB's Greg Nicotero, "we'd just set the camera on the ground and roll one of the fake buffalo in front of it and kick up a bunch of dust."
The taciturn Costner kept his cool. "He doesn't say a whole lot when he's nervous," observes Wilson, "but he had to be scared. The buffalo would come charging down a hill, and all of a sudden the riders would kick their mounts into gear, and they'd be flying amongst them. No one has run with the buffalo like this for over 100 years."
The result onscreen, thanks to masterful editing and intercutting of the 60,000 feet of hunt film, is realistic to a fault. Just one fault, actually. "The whole thing," says Wilson, "is really brought to life by sound effects." The din of thousands of galloping buffalo hooves was beefed up for the sound track because the real rhythm of hoof beats on grass wasn't very impressive. On the range it was eerily quiet, according to the horsemen. "Then again," says Wilson, "the riders were excited and maybe it was the sound of their hearts beating that was the loudest."