Digital water is never easy, especially when there’s more than 500 complex shots required for various times of day amid a maelstrom set in the 1950s. But that’s what MPC was called upon to do for Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, the story of the rescue of oil tanker S. S. Pendleton which split in two off the Chatham coast. Visual effects supervisor Kevin Hahn talks to fxguide about the challenges involved.

The Pendleton is split in two.
The Pendleton is split in two.

Extent of the work: We had about 1,100 shots total, with about 550 shots that included some sort of CG water. Every live action outdoor shot also had to add snow or rain or a mix of both for this mega blizzard that happened. MPC handled 90 per cent of the work. Mr X, which is part of Technicolor now, did some environment work too. I was more of the production side supe and Seth Maury was MPC’s internal supervisor.

Planning and previs: We had storyboards and MPC in Santa Monica handled the previs. I needed a methodology per-shot on how we were going to film the action, whether we shot on a dry gimbal to get more dramatic movements, whether or not we would have tank work, or whether or not it could just be a gimbal buck. Previs also became extremely important in our shoot because it was a tight schedule.

Shooting methodology: We built a 120 foot by 80 foot and 12 foot deep 800,000-gallon wave tank at a warehouse Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. There was a big gimbal set of the Coast Guard CG36500 rescue boat – actually we had four of those, one for the gimbal, one for the tank, one for real water at Cape Cod and one as an interior buck set. There was also a full-size mock-up of the Pendleton hull there, and nearby was a replica of the Pendleton engine room that we could flood.

Mark Hawker, the special effects supervisor, and his team had built this 40 foot high hull side of the Pendleton. This meant we could do a lot of the rescue scenes – guys falling into the water, climbing up ladders, getting pulled out. We did as much as we could with that inside the wave tank. SFX also had these hydraulic cables attached to all four corners of the CG36500 so that they could manipulate it like a gimbal and give bigger movements than the wave machines we had built.

The rescue boat battles to make it out to open waters.
The rescue boat battles to make it out to open waters.

Wave spotting: We realized we had so many big ocean and wave shots that it was it was going to be difficult to hand animate this stuff or do custom simulations per shot. So what we did early on is create a variety of oceans, with long frame cycles, inside Flowline which we use for water simulation. We would generate these Flowline oceans for say big swells, then a choppier ocean for another thing, different types of swells, based on where we knew we needed them. During the rescue we knew we needed certain waves, and across the bar we knew we needed something completely different. That meant we had a library of caches that animation could take. I also needed something solid to put in the film for editorial, so having these pieces to use was really helpful.

Animating waves: Animation would take caches and find a part of that ocean that would work for what they were looking for. What that meant was that animation started from real-world Flowline sims, instead of the other way around. It was more like, I need these kinds of waves – let’s get our camera and our boat in this ocean and let’s search around inside this ocean and find what’s going to work for us. Then it was a back and forth between animation and effects sims. We used a combination of PRMan and V-Ray for the shots.

MPC generated many different types of waves in Flowline.
MPC generated many different types of waves in Flowline.

The right look: Day time water is different than nighttime water, which was an interesting challenge. At night too, you have to work out, ‘Is it real nighttime or movie nighttime?’ If you watch the show Deadliest Catch, you’ll see its nighttime shots have all these big bright lights on the boat but you see only about 3 feet beyond that boat and it’s pitch black. This is not very cinematic or interesting, especially when you’re trying to sell the fact that there are these big giant waves. So we take a lot of liberties.

I’m always a big fan with CG of trying to maintain a thought process similar to a DP by lighting a big nighttime environment – how they would light things would be with a big banks of light. It can be a little bit sourcey but you cheat it in a certain way. I thought that might be an interesting way to go because it eliminates that whole CG moonlit look. It’s fine if you’ve really got a moonlight and you can get tiny little reflections, but we didn’t have that – we were in a storm! In big wide shots doing that methodology tends to miniaturize the scene because you’ve got tight sourcey things on a bigger, wider shot – we were meant to be going big! So we ended up doing more of that broad, distant light evenly lit across the water source.

Then, daytime is exceptionally challenging. We’re so used to seeing water on bright sunny days with clouds that provide reflections, but when you’ve got light out conditions – even the reference we looked at – water is incredibly boring and flat and tends to look CG! It’s hard with no specular highlights. Interestingly, the best reference we had, which we used for the ‘crossing the bar’ sequence were these wind surfing videos on YouTube of these guys going out in crazy hurricane winds.

All images and clips copyright 2016 Disney.

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