Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
So wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798. Given the current trend for massive water simulations in big effects movies, I reckon he wasn’t writing poetry at all, but predicting the future of visual effects. Making a splash is a trend I’ve remarked on here before: think Battleship, Life of Pi, Star Trek Into Darkness or Pacific Rim. But is the current VFX obsession with water really anything new?
Realistic water has always been a challenge for the effects artist. It’s just hard to get the scale looking right. It’s one thing building a convincing model of an ocean liner, for example, but it’s quite another creating a correctly-scaled ocean for it to steam through.
In James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, the problem was solved by comping a miniature ship into a digital sea. Back in 1958, the makers of A Night To Remember – an earlier film about the same maritime disaster – had no choice but to use real water. And nothing kills the scale of a miniature quicker than a seemingly gigantic water globule wobbling across the frame. The effects in A Night To Remember are good, but sadly a few such globules do make their inevitable appearance.
It’s just really hard to make a splash.
Over the years, artists have used many ways to avoid the curse of miniature water, like disrupting its with compressed air jets to create finer droplets. As with most miniatures, overcranking the camera makes a big difference. Others have experimented with additives: wallpaper paste to increase the water’s apparent density; paint to alter its colour and opacity; detergent to reduce its surface tension. Sometimes water was abandoned altogether. Need a distant waterfall? Why not use a stream of marble dust?
However the illusions were created, there’s no doubt that water effects have contributed to some of cinema’s more memorable scenes. Here are three of my personal favourites.
In Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters, a squadron of Avro Lancasters from RAF Bomber Command mounts a daring raid on the dams of the Ruhr. For the climactic attack sequences, enormous models were built of the dams and surrounding countryside. A moving camera created aerial views of the miniature reservoirs, which were filled with real water. Tricky stuff. But the shots of the explosions, in which the famous bouncing bombs creating huge plumes of spray, proved more tricky still.
The explosion shots were created optically, with footage of practical water plumes composited into the miniature scenes using hand-drawn traveling mattes. The results look either quaint or awesome, depending on your taste. Personally I love their sheer ambition. Imagine the sweat on the brow of the poor rotoscope artist as he tries to track the movement of the camera by eye on an animation stand, while drawing frame by frame an articulated outline of a nebulous and constantly moving column of liquid and foam.
(For more about the effects of The Dam Busters, visit Peter Cook’s gold mine of old-school effects: Matte Shot – a tribute to Golden Era special fx.)
We’ve all been there. No sooner have you stopped a runaway mine cart using only the soles of your boots than you find your feet are on fire. What other option is there than to yell, “Water!”
When intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones found himself in this precise predicament while escaping from the Temple of Doom, he got more than he bargained for – namely an almost Biblical wave of water pouring towards him through the flooded mine tunnels. For a shot where the water spirals through a tunnel, crossing over itself and causing an explosion of spray, Dennis Muren’s team at ILM fired water at an angle of 45° into a miniature set, using baffles to control its flow and operating the camera at between 80 and 120 frames per second.
The effect is spectacular, but Muren had no doubts about the challenge of scaling water. Here’s what he had to say in Robert P. Everett’s article on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Cinefex #18: “We looked into various ways of thinning water. I’d heard for years that there were ways to do it … but we sure couldn’t find them. So what we ended up doing was blasting tons of air at it from the front and from the sides … to break up the droplets. That seemed to do a pretty good job.”
Yeah, pretty good, I’d say.
On its release in 2000, Robert Zemeckis’s survival story Cast Away was praised for its innovative use of invisible visual effects. Even today, the seamless integration of digital skies and seas still looks, well, seamless.
The shot I’m picking doesn’t quite fall into the “invisible” category. It comes at the end of the crash sequence, when Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) lies sprawled on an inflatable life raft while the plane he was flying in sinks to the bottom of the Pacific. It’s night. There’s a storm. The shot starts close on Hanks, gradually craning up until the raft is a tiny mote riding on the back of a truly gigantic heaving ocean. And that’s all.
I love this shot for its perfect placement and pace after the harrowing crash scenes. It’s simultaneously peaceful and threatening. Analyse it, and you’ll discover you see very little. Lightning flashes on the flank of an enormous wave. The raft rides the swell. The sea is slowly revealed as not just immense, but vast beyond comprehension: an endlessly fluid and alien realm.
Most respectable 3D packages now come out of the box with water plugins that are infinitely more sophisticated than the antiquated algorithms used by Sony Pictures Imageworks to create this digital ocean back in the year 2000. Shots to equal the artistry of this one, however, are still few and far between.
So there they are: some of my favourite water shots. While I’m mopping up the mess, why not dive into the comments pool and tell me some of yours?