Wrong things done right. Lighting Aquaman with Industrial Magic

Aquaman has been a huge hit and the Warner Bros. superhero blockbuster has already topped $1 billion at the global box office, and now passed $300 million in the domestic US market. The film works and audiences have responded. ILM was the principal VFX vendor delivering stunning visuals that told the story and delighted audiences. The film is visually stunning and yet so much of the visual language is completely wrong from a reference point of view. To be clear, it should be wrong – the film is not a documentary and would have failed if the laws of optics, physics and commonsense had been applied. The question then is, how do you creatively provide believable visuals when there is no relevant reference? For example, visibility underwater is very limited, a few metres out and it drops dramatically, and almost all light color is filtered out, except for blue light. Yet in Aquaman, the audience sees kilometers into the deep ocean. There is little light below the surface, yet the world of Aquaman is colourful, bright and stunningly beautiful.

Director James Wan

So often we hear film makers striving for their works to be physically plausible, so much so that they meticulously reference real life footage and imagery. But the creative team on Aquaman could do neither. It is also the case that the film was not set in an alien world, but rather set here on earth, in the present day, in familiar oceans many of us swim in regularly. How does a team deliver near total fantasy and make it so believably real? It is one thing to replicate the properties seen in a reference Youtube video, it is a step up in complexity to deliver something we know to be impossible and yet still have audiences embrace that alternate reality without even a pause to question the imagery. The ILM team had to make the world seem familiar without reliance on our personal experiences of the sea. They had to rely on their skill, their artistry and some hard core industrial light and movie magic.

There are plot explanations for many of the real world rules that ILM had to break, and there were many powerful tools at the team’s deposal to realise their vision, but the crucial trick was the artistry in knowing how to use those tools, how to break ‘reality’ and still have the film look believable. We spoke to ILM’s VFX Supervisor, Jeff White, and Animation Supervisor, Cedric Lo, about finding their creative solutions to believably show the impossible, or doing the ‘wrong’ things so incredibly ‘right’.

You Can’t See Far Underwater

Textbooks (or Wikipedia) would assert that, things are less visible underwater because the rapid attenuation of light with respect to the distance its passed through the water. Visibility is also blurred by the scattering of light between the object and the viewer, also resulting in lower contrast. These effects vary with wavelength of the light, and color and turbidity of the water. Furthermore, as water preferentially absorbs red light (and to a lesser extent, yellow, green and violet light), this makes the color of everything underwater bathed in blue light. Not so in Aquaman.

ILM started by exploring the look of Aquaman with various wedge (bracketed) tests. White explained that they begun their work from an accurate, realistic starting point, and then examined step by step what they could or could not creatively do. “We spent a lot of time on all the different components,” White explains. “For example, on the way people look in terms of their skin diffusion. We tested many things, such as removing eye reflection, just all kinds of different things.” The team started from an absolutely life-like approach, as if correctly filmed underwater, and then worked backwards. The team even built a plugin for Nuke that did physically accurate depth and color attenuation. White stated, “As we started into the project, one of the components of that plugin that immediately became essential was an override curve.” This allowed the compositors to take the same fall off and color attenuation but stretch it out over a much longer distances. “The director wanted a film where the action would not just play out 10 feet away from camera and be blue,” he adds. Director James Wan wanted a much more vibrant world.

What is also interesting is that this is not ‘technically’ wrong inside the logic of the film, as the director wanted the audience to see Atlantis and the ocean the way Aquaman himself would see this world. “There’s a whole sequence in the film where we go underwater with young Arthur while Vulko is training him. In this sequence we see his eyes almost convert to Atlantian vision and you just see the world kind of stretch out in front of him in all of this beautiful color,” White explains. As the director had addressed the issue in the the narrative, White said “that gave us all the licenses we needed to make this fantastic world, that’s a little different than say a 100 percent physically accurate world we could have made.”

It Gets Dark Very Quickly As You Dive Deep Underwater

ILM solved this problem of light differently depending on the sequence, especially between the earlier flight sequence and the big end battle sequence. In the earlier shots, in the Ring of Fire sequence, where Orm and Arthur face off for the first time, the team used lava elements as a source of strong fill light. In addition, they tried to always have some concept of caustics, “even if we were way below the surface to the point where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to still see that effect,” White explained.

ILM used a similar logic with adding beautiful volume raise. “So absolutely there was some cheating going on there,” White admitted, “but we always tried to sort of justify it in that even if it wasn’t necessarily from the ocean surface, there’s such massive craft and cities within this world that, we could justify ambient lighting.”

One of the fun things for the ILM team about the lighting for the final battle is that they had both the top light from the ocean surface and the caustics, but also “thousands and thousands of these lasers going everywhere that were all being fed back from the effects team into the lighting team to create this really dynamic sense of lighting on the background characters,” explained White.

The other lighting option was to use photo-luminescent lights. “James really loves bioluminescence as a lighting source,” White comments.  The building of Atlantis was a complex challenge for ILM from a lighting standpoint. The buildings themselves were modelled on organic sea creatures with a lot of translucency, color and light. White explains, “what was challenging is that if you build 200 glowing translucent buildings and then we ended up laying out 7,300 buildings to create Atlantis, the shots are incredibly visually confusing. We weren’t in a situation where we could just layout a city and then point the camera in any direction. We actually had to go in and handcraft the building layout for each shot, making sure that there were pockets of light and pockets of darkness so that the audience could actually read what they were looking at was Atlantis.”

Lava Boils Water, which Produces Steam and Even Less Visibility

The temperature of lava when it is first ejected from a volcanic vent can vary between 700 ~ 1,200 degrees C (1,300 to 2,200 F). The molten rock and magma bubbles that come out of a seafloor vents naturally boil water and produced enormous amounts of steam and particulate. There is not a lot of footage of underwater lava eruptions, but what has been filmed shows a very cloudy ocean with low visibility. Yet ILM had to show lava flowing, while steering clear of some of the more realistic effects of underwater lava.

ILM’s reference showed that it is actually very hard to see any actual lava as there are so many bubbles that come off in a flow, so if they had made the ring of fire sequence accurate, the whole stadium would probably just be full of smoke or steam. So White readily admits that maintaining the richness of the red was a stretch beyond actual physics. But what the team produced was a very interesting image visually, that allowed the film to have beautiful warm pools of light and contrast on the characters, broadening the colour palette from just blues and greens. The lava was all handled by the effects team and then as they were not obscuring the lava in smoke, the elements were then handed over to the light team to be used a strong light source components.

That is not to say that ILM did not test and explore every variation to arrive at just the right level of believability.  The room below the ring of fire fight stadium was one of the first sequences ILM started work on. “We did every version of the lava, trying it fully encased in bubbles and smoke. We then dialled that way back to almost nothing, just trying to find the right balance between having little ripples of blur and movement in the water to kind of indicate the hot water, plus adding lots of floating black particulate,” explains White. “It was a lot of development upfront. But I think once we started to land on a look that James really liked visually, we had a pretty good template for lava across the movie.”

You Can’t Swim Without…Swimming

Aquaman swims in this film without kicking his feet, or moving like a shark or other creature – he simply shoots through the water. Importantly, the audience needs to believe he is swimming, and not using some under water jet pack or just magically having laser beams out of his feet. The question then becomes, how do you motivate that animation without the use of any explicit swimming motion, to make his movement seem believable.

Particulate passes, bloom on light sources, swaying vegetation, flowing caustics, strong light rays, and lots of bubbles were all part of the aesthetic developed to keep the underwater feel.

This problem fell to Cedric Lo as the animation supervisor. Lo explained, “Our initial approach was to have the characters swimming as through they were human but James gave us some helpful back story.” In the film’s context, Aquaman is superhuman and so the idea was that small motions could generate a lot of momentum. “That way you dont have to se them always doing a front stroke or kicking their legs, they just do one big movement or one little hand gesture and that could propel them in the direction that they need to go.”

Lo’s team did motivate any direction change with some type of action from the characters. “The challenge was to always make them look like they were not flying or torpedoing across the screen,” he says. Another trick the team used was to introduce small bubble explosions off his body, indicating a lot of momentum and force in the water.

For less dramatic movements, ILM did large amounts of hair replacement so that the characters would appear to be floating underwater. It turned out the near static shots of the character’s hair was much harder to achieve than the fast moving swimming sequences. “The shots that turned out to be incredible challenging were the one’s where the characters were just floating there during dialogue” White explains. “You just didn’t have as much there to work with in terms of the simulation and the audience is extremely focused on the characters, and if they are having a good or bad hair day !” For Aquaman ILM would end up doing over 400 hair simulations.

The Karathen is Huge but Moves Quickly

The Karathen is a massive creature. It should move very very slowly given its size and underwater resistance…but that can be dull in a fight sequence. ILM’s creature team calculated that it should be about the size of three aircraft carriers. But this is an action film and very slow large movements would not work in the pacing of the film. “There was a lot of going back and forth on that thing to find the right balance between the energy you need for an action sequence and still keep it feeling like it had scale,” agreed Lo.

The blocking out of the sequences was also complex, so the creature did not completely dominate all the other elements in the shot to the point of obscuring them, especially when it had to interact with vast crowd screens of animated sharks, whales, other sea creatures and an army from Atlantis.

How Do You Make Atlantis Subs Not Look Like Spaceships?

As the Atlantis ships and subs move so freely, the question becomes how to make them look like underwater crafts, and not space ships. Traditionally underwater crafts move very slowly and turn in wide arcs. In Aquaman, they are highly mobile and agile.

White recalls, “that was definitely something that James (Wan) was very passionate about – making sure that it didn’t feel like a space battle underwater or that they are just spaceship, filmed underwater. And we didn’t want to ground it completely in reality, as that would have made it look too lethargic.” Instead the team tried to mimic the movements of darting fish. “The secret was to have the vehicle’s movement inspired by elements of how fish move or how sting rays move for example, and in that way move away from space ships and make it more of an organic underwater aquatic type of motion.”