Cinefex Vault #13 – 50 First Dates

by Joe Fordham

Cinefex Vault - "50 First Dates"

While it is a popular maxim that ‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard,’ visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal has had her share of films containing both. Death and destruction have included Marvel’s Agent Carter television series, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and The Hunger Games; comedies have included the first Sex and the City feature, Christmas with the Kranks, and the Adam Sandler vehicles Big Daddy and 50 First Dates. Unlocked here from the Cinefex Vault is a story on the latter 2004 Sandler film, with Sheena’s hair-raising tales of Hawaiian icebergs, jiggling pectorals and an amorous walrus.


Invisible Woman – article by Estelle Shay

On location in Hawaii for the Adam Sandler comedy, 50 First Dates, Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal confers with visual effects director of photography Chris Nibley during setup for a 260-degree panoramic shot captured with four overlapping Vistavision cameras.

Specializing in ‘invisible effects,’ Sheena Duggal relishes creating movie magic that most moviegoers never notice. One of the first four Inferno artists in the world, Duggal was hired by Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1995 to set up and oversee the company’s Inferno department, then later transitioned into visual effects supervision. After working with director Peter Segal on Anger Management, Duggal signed onto Segal’s next film, 50 First Dates, a romantic comedy set in Hawaii about a young couple whose budding romance is put to the test by the woman’s short-term memory loss.

Duggal oversaw some 100 shots on the film, including a number of tricky transitions, with wipes and clever morph-dissolve gags. In an early scene, for example, the camera tracks a dolphin in a marine park tank as it swims past a window adjoining the office of veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler). “We shot the ‘A’ side of the plate underwater in a tank with a dolphin at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, California; and we shot the ‘B’ side on a stage on the Sony lot. Then, using a lot of 2D effects, motion tracking, matte paintings, rebuilding the motions within the shot and adding little nuances of particles floating in the water, we put the whole thing together to create the feeling that you were in the tank with the dolphin, and that you actually pass through the window into the room where Henry is stitching up his injured friend.”

The office of marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) overlooks a dolphin aquarium. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Marine World element, filmed in California. For an unbroken shot in which the camera passes through an aquarium window and into Roth’s office, Duggal and her team used motion tracking, 2D effects and matte paintings to link underwater plate photography of a dolphin shot in a tank with stage photography of actors in the office set.

Some effects were added to sell the humor in shots, in particular those involving characters interacting with the film’s aquatic stars – a penguin and an enormous male walrus. “A full-grown male walrus weighs a couple of tons,” remarked Duggal, “and if he gets spooked, he’s going to make a run for the water. So any time the actors were in proximity to the walrus where they had to be between him and the water, we did it as a visual effect.” A shot of the walrus projectile-vomiting onto Henry’s assistant provided Duggal with one of her more memorable assignments. “In an ideal world, we would have gathered all kinds of reference data on the set. But on the day we were shooting, the walrus was horny; and they wouldn’t let me near him because he was reacting to women. So we just shot a plate of the walrus with his mouth open. Later, we set up a bluescreen shoot with the actress in the scene, and shot this really gross mixture of dog food and water at her so we could get the interaction of the vomit hitting her. Then we composited it all together in 2D – which wasn’t as easy as it appears, because there were logistical issues in lining up the movement of the walrus’ mouth.”

A walrus projectile-vomits onto Roth’s assistant. The trained walrus was photographed alone at a marine park. Then the actress playing the assistant was filmed against bluescreen being blasted with a mixture of dog food and water. Alignment of the vomitous spew with the walrus’ shifting mouth was a challenge for the SPI compositing team.

Effects intervention also provided the humor for a scene in which Lucy’s brother (Sean Astin) performs a ‘pec dance,’ moving his pectoral muscles in sync to music. “When we got on set,” recalled Duggal, “we discovered that Sean couldn’t actually do that. So we found a guy who was able to do this dance, and we filmed him on a bluescreen stage, trying to time it to the music as best we could. We scanned that into the computer, composited it onto Sean, and did a bunch of morphing and warping to make it look realistic.”

At the end of the film, Duggal and her crew had to transform Hawaii into Alaska for a scene in which Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) gazes out a boat window as the camera pulls back through the glass to reveal the vessel floating in waters surrounded by icebergs and snowcapped mountains. “The production said: ‘We’ll build a dry dock in Hawaii, and we’ll cover it with bluescreen, and we’ll get a boat on this dry dock and shoot it that way. Then you guys can put it in Alaska,'” recalled Duggal. “But in the interest of realism, we decided that was probably not the best approach – especially since it might get us into CG water. Instead, we found a bay in Hawaii, took the actors out there and filmed them in a boat, then added whatever we needed to give it the feeling of being in Alaska.”

The amnesiac Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) journeys to Alaska. Composite by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Hawaiian production plate.

Though all the live-action was shot in Hawaii, Duggal and a crew went off to Blackstone Bay in Alaska to capture the mountain vistas needed for two big rotating helicopter shots that reveal the entire landscape. “We took a Vistavision camera with us and shot maybe a 250-degree pan-and-tile of the environment,” said Duggal. “Fortunately, we also chased icebergs around because I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure they’re going to ask me to put icebergs into these shots at some point.'” In postproduction, when the director saw how little snow there was, he asked for more production value. “We ended up taking the pan-and-tile, which I was hoping we could just composite in, and turning that into a matte painting so we could add more snow and detail. Surprisingly, I was able to take a lot of the 2D icebergs that we shot, roto them out of the Vistavision footage and track them into the water. We also added CG breath to a number of shots of the actors.” Adding to the seamless effect was careful attention to lighting detail. “We got hold of a copy of a sun chart for Hawaii on the day that we shot the Hawaii plates, and did the same in Alaska. That way, we could look at what time of day it was in Hawaii, and what angle the sun was in the sky, and wait for the same time of day and same lighting conditions when we shot in Alaska.”

“It was all great fun,” Duggal concluded. “I love what I do, and I love doing invisible effects. When I get a show like this, I’m fortunate, because a lot of the types of shots I’m doing can be done in a 2D way. And since I was involved in building this department, I know all the skills of the artists. That’s a great advantage to me as a visual effects supervisor.”

Photos copyright © 2004 by Columbia Pictures Industries. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.