Making a Splash

by Graham Edwards

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 BattleshipLife 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.

The Dam Busters - breaching the Mohne DamThe Dam Busters – destruction of the Möhne Dam

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.)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - mine floodIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – flooding the mineshafts

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.

(The digital edition of Cinefex #18 is available for iPad at the iTunes store.)

Cast Away - post-crash ocean swellCast Away – post-crash ocean swell

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?

13 thoughts on “Making a Splash

  1. I’m reminded of the claim by PIXAR artists that for “Finding Nemo”, they were able to create realistic water and underwater scenery, but they had to tone it down a few notches so that it would be cartoony. I bet their pre-production work was amazing.
    Talking about water effects that immediately betray its scale and the scale of miniatures, I had recently been watching old episodes of British TV series “Thunderbirds” with my son, and even though he just loves the imagery, all I see are the imperfections (besides the wooden, strings-attached actors, that is). But it was TV and severely restricted by minuscule budgets. And on a related Gerry Anderson note, whenever the Eagle spaceships of “Space:1999” took off, it was salt that was dropping, just like the waterfalls for the miniature sets of the Naboo capital of Theed in “The Phantom Menace”. Pretty-looking CG water, “The Perfect Storm” and the more recent “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

    • The Eagle, salt! But of course! I have often wondered how they did it, I have tried to look it up sometimes but never found it. I knew of the Naboo salt waterfalls but never made the connection. It is so obvious now, thank you!

    • Ah, “Thunderbirds” and “Space: 1999”. I grew up watching those shows, but I didn’t know about the salt trick. Reminiscent of the old marble dust gag. Thanks, Eric!

  2. I suppose I am a CG fanboy having grown up with the digital advances in VFX. I really like the work in Perfect Storm by ILM, Even now it holds up really well. But my Favourite has got to be ILM and Scanlines work on Battleship, The Sheer amount of Detail in them sims is unbelievable and its amazing to think that we can create that type of imagery that looks so real.

  3. What about the alien water pseudopod from The Abyss? Does that count? I remember seeing that for the first time on the big screen and thinking to myself something along the lines of “I know that isn’t real, but I’m having a hard time convincing myself otherwise!” Classic 🙂

  4. I was rewatching the battleship early this week trying to pick out the unevenly scaled ocean droplets from live action to cgi: I was unimpressed I couldn’t pick out much!

  5. The timing of this blog entry was great – I was just commenting to my gf the other day, after watching Pacific Rim, how water ruined the scale of the older Japanese monster man-in-a-suit movies moreso than any other giveaway. The water effects in Pacific Rim are just amazing.

  6. Pacific Rim really seemed to meet these challenges head on. Practically gratuitous use of water! Absolutely glorious and a joy to watch.

    On a cinefex note, I subscribed to the ipad edition but it isnt updating. I havent had any editions yet. I have emailed via the app and the website and even the face book page, but nothing back. If you could kick someone in support, that would be ace!

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