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Bowyer for Hollywood

By Rean Steenkamp

Johnny Snyman, a bowyer and traditional archery icon in South Africa, has caught the attention of international film producers. Soon his bows will be seen on the big screen. I spoke to Johnny for the first time about nine years ago, just before the publication of the first Africa’s Bowhunter & Archer in 2000.

I can still remember the passion in his voice when he spoke about the bows he made, traditional archery and wooden arrows. Johnny was speaking a language I understood and we instantly became friends. To Johnny, there was no compromise in those days, the only real bow was an all-wooden bow and a compound was something you did not mention – an unspeakable abomination.

At that time Johnny had just launched Archery Adventures in an effort to introduce the youth to archery in what he said was its purest form, the wooden bow. “There is a Robin Hood in each kid,” he said.

< Johnny in his workshop.

He started crafting youth bows in his bow-making workshop and the adventures in “Sherwood Forest” grew almost overnight. By that time, Johnny said, there were many youngsters telling wild tales about their adventures in the Knysna woods, even some from as far as Scotland and the United States.

From custom-crafted wooden bows and arrows, Johnny’s bow-making business, Heartwood Bows, grew into making custom-crafted laminated wooden fibreglass bows that are renowned all over South Africa.

Johnny, who lives in a wooden house in the Knysna woods close to Sedgefield, lives the life of a mountain man, a lifestyle many of us only dream about. Over the years he has written many articles for Africa’s Bowhunter & Archer and has become a charismatic figure in traditional archery circles. And now his bow making has extended as far as Hollywood.

> Scorpion King recurves and arrows ready for delivery.

Recently he made the bows for no fewer than three big screen films. In 2006 he made bows for 10000 BC, which will be on circuit later this year, and in 2007 he made bows and arrows for Doomsday and Scorpion King – The Rise of the Akkadian. During the making of this film, Johnny also helped with the set-up of some of the scenes.

It all started in 2001 when Johnny made five wooden longbows for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Kelly le Broch. Johnny says he and Derek Nourse, also a well-known bowyer, made no fewer than 250 arrows for this movie.

< Johnny and Craig with bows for 10000 BC.

In 2006 the makers of 10000 BC contacted Johnny twice and he made 47 bows for this production.

Johnny originally had to make various bow samples for the film producers, as the movie is about two conflicting cultures, Egyptians and mammoth hunters. It was a long process, from designing one bow type to the next and so on, until director Roland Emerich finally decided which would be suitable for his movie.

< Horse stuntman Elbrus Ourtaev with 10000 BC bow.

10000 BC was the biggest movie made (budget wise) in 2006 and is expected to be released in March 2008. The movie was shot in Cape Town and New Zealand.

In 2007 the same film producers again approached Johnny to make Doomsday’s longbows. They eventually decided on 17 longbows of various lengths and dimensions. Sixty extra bowstrings also had to be made, which were used for the non-working replica background longbows.

Some of the Doomsday scenes were shot in the Cape, near the Huguenot tunnel, and the rest in Scotland. During this time Johnny remained in contact with the people he had been privileged to work with in the movie industry.

< Johnny posing with one of the Scorpion King recurves.

Early in September 2007 the producers of Scorpion King – The Rise of the Akkadian contacted him to ask if he would make the bows they needed for the movie. Johnny compiled a portfolio and sent it to them. The director decided that the Scythian-style bow he presented would be suitable. Johnny had to make various adjustments to this bow, because the process used to make the Scythian-style bow takes a lot more time and he had to come up with a way to do it in less time, as he only had three weeks in which to make all the recurves.

Usually in the movie industry the bows used have light draw weights of between 15 and 25 pounds. Special effects take care of the rest. Johnny had to make further adjustments to the bows to keep the poundage as small as possible. The bows he made were around 30 pounds.

In October Johnny became involved in training one of the actors, Randy Coutier, who only needed a little instruction, as he had shot many recurve bows as a child and regularly hunted with a compound bow.

> Johnny with a Doomsday bow at full draw.

“He was a very pleasant person to work with. Because he had a good foundation in archery, his shooting form was up to scratch after only one training session and he was ready for the cameras,” relates Johnny.

One thing led to another and Johnny was soon asked to become involved behind the scenes, as various safety requirements on film sets had to be complied with, for example, when firearms are used on a set, an armourer has to be present. The producers’ chief stunt coordinator insisted that Johnny be present during the shooting of the archery scenes.

“This opened up a whole new world for me and was very interesting,” he says. “I also had to help with training on the set for making flaming arrows, and at one stage even had to shoot one or two flaming arrows ‘behind the scenes’. In one of the scenes I had to shoot a flaming arrow into a small pool filled with water and petrol (oil in the movie). This was a very difficult shot, as a flaming arrow is much longer than a normal one, so the front of centre balance with the heavy flaming point changes drastically, causing an unstable arrow flight. It is also very difficult to see past the flames at the front the arrow.

“What made the shot even more difficult was that most archery scenes were shot at night. There was enough light, but a night shot with a flaming arrow in front of your face is not easy.

“In another scene, I had half an hour to teach seven stuntmen how to ‘shoot’. I was one of eight archers who (behind camera) from various positions on an installation had to ignite the ‘oil’ in the middle of the set’s arena. After two attempts most of the arrows hit the ‘oil’ and burst into flame.”

“Very little of this would have been possible without the help, input and effort of several people,” says Johnny. “To Dr. Wallace Vosloo and Wessel Kroucamp at the University of Stellenbosch, thank you for the use of your facility and for all your time and priceless effort in making the 10000 BC bows a possibility.

“To Craig Hartung, my bow-making assistant, thank you for all your help and tireless willingness throughout many long hours of projects. Very little of these achievements would have been possible without you.

“And many thanks to Chris Morgan Wilson for his help with all the flaming arrows.”

The last time I spoke to Johnny, he said he had already been contacted by the producers of another film and the chances were pretty good that he might be making bows and arrows for another big screen movie in 2008.

Good for you Johnny, South Africa is proud of you!

Updated: Friday, January 25, 2008 10:09 AM

About the Author

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp, editor and owner of Africa’s Bowhunter magazine, is an enthusiastic traditional archer and bowhunter. He started hunting with a longbow in 1997 and has since bagged many African plains game with traditional bows, compound and black powder rifles. He also dabbled in bow building and published a bowhunting book titled “Let loose the arrow!”

Rean started his career in journalism in 1984 at a newspaper in Pretoria, South Africa. He interrupted his career at the end of 1991 when he joined the 37th weather team expedition to Gough Island, where he worked for 14 months as the communicator. The team consisted of only seven people living in isolation on the seven by 16 km island. Rean started the Africa’s Bowhunter magazine in 2000 while working as editor for the Game and Hunt magazine.

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