CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY AND EFFECTS JOIN
TRIED-AND-TRUE FILMMAKING AND PRACTICAL SETS
"Shooting on a real ship was more problematic than one might think," says producer Duncan Henderson. Considering their options early on, it soon became clear that no existing ship could compare to "Wolfgang's vision of the newest, the best, the most grand and luxurious," as depicted in production designer William Sandell's preliminary drawings, which, Henderson says, were more appealing to the director than any of their other choices. "Wolfgang decided he didn't want to be held back by anything."
By employing computer graphics to create the ocean, all exteriors and the ship in its entirety, the filmmakers did not need to compromise in scale, ultimately pitting a more-than 150-foot wall of water against a 20-story grand ocean liner more than 1100 feet long and carrying 4,000 crew and guests. Industry leader ILM, which previously contributed the groundbreaking aquatic effects for Petersen's The Perfect Storm, raised the bar again with new image-rendering techniques that bring the wave and the ship to life.
Meanwhile, extensive interiors were built on Warner Bros. Studios soundstages the old-fashioned way to accommodate practical effects. Most sets were duplicated in original and upside-down versions to depict, first, the ship's grandeur and then, post-impact, its utter destruction - all balanced on platforms that could pitch and roll the action on its side. Combining practical sets with CGI, Petersen achieved the size and scope unlikely to be found in the real world yet scrupulously realistic: a ship not only ultra-modern but timelessly elegant in every way, from its sleek exterior construction to every detail of décor and atmosphere right down to the handcrafted initial "P" reproduced in the buttons of the staff uniforms.
The ship itself becomes a character in the story - constantly shifting, lurching and emitting deep metallic groans as supports give way and the increasing load of water slowly drags it down. "We all felt the physical power of this huge ship dying, which is how Wolfgang looked at it," remarks Josh Lucas. "It was like we were inside some giant living beast that is mortally wounded. First it loses its heart, then vital organs start to shut down. All the while we're trying to get through it, everything is imploding, burning, sinking."
Petersen brought to the project many key artisans with whom he has worked before, among them renowned cinematographer John Seale, an Oscar and BAFTA Award winner for The English Patient and recipient of three additional Academy nominations; editor Peter Honess, whose work on L.A. Confidential earned a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination; costume designer Erica Edell Phillips, whose designs for Total Recall earned a Saturn Award; special effects supervisor John Frazier, a 2005 Oscar winner for Spiderman 2 and five-time additional Oscar nominee whose work on The Perfect Storm merited a BAFTA Award as well as an Oscar nomination; and production designer William Sandell, an Art Directors Guild Award nominee for The Perfect Storm who brought home a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination in 2004 for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis (a BAFTA nominee for Speed) oversaw the implementation of more than 600 VFX shots. "In terms of scope it's one of the most complex VFX pictures ever created," he says, and offers Poseidon's innovative opening shot as an example of the level of expertise brought to bear on the film.
"It starts under the water from the camera's point of view, then rises to reveal the ship, rotates around the bow and down the side of the ship, then spots a figure running along the deck," Shermis outlines. "The camera comes in tight on him, dollying 180 degrees around him. We lead him up a flight of stairs, then pull back to take in the beauty and grandeur of the ship, the upper decks, people having fun by the pool, then climb high up to the smokestacks and beyond that to a beautiful sunset on the ocean."
"It's two and a half minutes," Petersen says of the remarkable sequence. "The only real element in the whole shot is the jogger, Josh Lucas" - who was filmed against a green screen at the San Fernando Valley's Sepulveda Dam, one of the film's only two off-lot locations, then integrated into the virtual landscape. "It's the boldest, most insane shot ever done in the history of CG, yet completely photorealistic. I don't expect people will think, 'what a great CG shot,' instead, they might think, 'what a great ship; where did they find it?'"
Acknowledging how computer technology has evolved, he adds, "There is so much more we can do now versus five years ago, especially in the way we can show the natural weight and flow of water," the most difficult of all elements to realistically replicate.
With R & D input from Stanford University's computer graphics department, ILM special effects supervisor Kim Libreri led a 100-member team of software developers, engineers and artists for a year to create the proprietary software used on Poseidon. Called computational fluid dynamics, a new technology that simulates how water interacts with objects, it's a system so advanced it required the simultaneous development of new hardware just to run it. Says Libreri, "Existing machines weren't fast enough."
What that means on screen is that, "You're really going to see the wave react with the ship in ways traditionally not seen in computer graphics," he says. "It's not just rendering a wave to stand 150 feet high with a particular curvature, it's the full interaction of explosive events as that wave hits the ship, runs over the decks, destroys parts of the structure and turns it around. For the first time we can simulate particles of water striking objects, rolling over them, colliding with the back-spray and recombining in a naturally fluid way - and all of this in keeping with Wolfgang's aesthetic. He and Boyd Shermis wanted all the shots to appear as physically achievable, however difficult, rather than defying the laws of physics."
Other innovations are in reflected light. Says Libreri, "The computer needs to understand that when a light source strikes an object, some of that light bounces off and hits another object and so on." Poseidon raised the challenge of simulating sunlight and moonlight on the water and the ship's interior illumination at night, plus myriad details in combination, such as "how light scatters through water or spray and how bubbles form."
CG worked hand-in-hand with the practical effects team throughout, reuniting Shermis with special effects supervisor John Frazier, with whom he shared a 1994 BAFTA nomination for Speed. Frazier thought of it in terms of "elements," such as a virtual set into which he would add a live stunt or the various extensions the visual effects team made to double the distance of a physical hallway.
In a key scene in which one of the survivors is slammed by a plummeting piece of machinery while crossing a makeshift bridge, Frazier's crew worked with the actor to show his supports giving way. "We made the steel substructure bounce as if from the impact and the visual effects team then created the air conditioner unit that falls on top of it."
"Remarkable as the CG work is," observes producer Henderson, "we used it in combination with as much live action footage, sets and stunts as possible. We want audiences to feel that these are real rooms with real walls and real water. Whenever we could achieve a shot practically, we would."
Turning it Upside Down
Two Very Different Scenes Highlight Extremes of the Survivors' Experience:
The Ballroom Implosion and Traversing the AC Duct
Water and Fire
Costumes and Makeup for Principals, Stunt Performers and 400 Extras.
Times Six… Or Twelve, or Maybe More
Bodies, Bodies Everywhere - But Not All of Them are Real: Stunts
MARK PROTOSEVICH (Screenwriter)
WOLFGANG PETERSEN (Director / Producer)