Special FX

The Perfect Storm on the Imperfect Budget

Working with a Christian television production company often presents a lot of challenges. The most significant being budget. The script called for a recreation of the fight of two fishermen to keep their small vessel upright in a raging storm. The producer had recently seen the movie “Perfect Storm” and that was what he wanted. They were looking for “The Perfect Storm” on an imperfect budget. OK, they had no real budget and needed it in two weeks. We knew we were going to have to rely on the majority of the work to be done in post production. I was consulted from the very beginning and brought on as technical director. “Andrew you can do it, its easy, just a bunch of water and stuff.” I remembered back to the lecture by the ILM “math scientists” who worked on the movie “The Perfect Storm” that I had attended at Siggraph. They told of the countless simulations they had run on hundreds of computers and the millions of hours of rendering time that they had accumulated for the movie. I only had access to 8 computers, 2 weeks, and I was sure the footage I would be given to work with was not quite like what would come from a Hollywood back lot.

The Fishing Boat and Location - The boat never left the dock!

The producer, Tim Visser, had arranged the use of a small commercial fishing vessel with a local fisherman. We all showed up at the dock about an hour before sundown and got to work. The boat was draped in black plastic and five garden hoses were hooked up to provide the rain for the set. I went over the set and strategically placed black tape dots that could be used later for tracking the shot in the computer. HMI lights were set up to provide lightening flashes and the rest of the set was lit by Daryl Smith our photography director. Two local actors became our poor captain and his mate. They had no idea how wet they were about to get.

Once it got dark the fun began. The hoses were all turned on and the lights were adjusted to reflect off of the “rain”. We soaked our actors and the director called action. The shots were all shot on Beta Cam SP both from a locked down camera and a hand held camera. In the end it was the hand held camera operated by Daryl Smith that gave us the shots that were used. Mr. Smith rocked the camera while shooting to simulate the wave action of the boat. Though this would present the most problems for me, the shots looked fantastic.
The shots looked great, but completely lacked any real drama. The rain looked like spray from a couple of garden hoses and definetly didn’t look like a storm that would sink a boat. The splashes coming over the boat deck didn’t look like waves but looked like a couple of guys throwing buckets of water. (Which of course was what they were.) The sky was black and looked like a clear night. There just plain wasn’t enough water and the footage looked flat.
After the shots were chosen, the first task was to load them into After Effects and track the targets to provide a solution for the track mats. The targets had been fixed in the set so that there were always at least 3 targets visible in the frame. These three targets could be tracked to give not only position, but also camera rotation. Once the solution was computed, then next step was to create mats to remove the black sky so it could be replaces with a stormy sky. Using the positional and rotational data, the mats could be lined up with the footage to place the new sky.
We needed a lot more rain so a layer was set up with digital rain. The tracking data was then applied to this layer as well. To make it feel like the boat was bobbing up and down on the waves, the rain needed to move differently than the rest of the shot. Another layer of motion was added to the rain in the form of a gentle rocking motion.
A particle system was created in 3D Studio Max to provide the sea spray and mist. This was rendered out and then composited in the same fashion as the rain.
The final stage was adding in the bolts of lightening and color correcting and adjusting levels to give the footage more depth and mood.
In the end, 45 seconds of storm footage was created including an establishing shot of the boat being carried up the front of a wave. This shot was created by combining a shot of the fishing boat leaving the harbor during a beautiful sunset with stock footage of a giant wave and our stormy sky. The final shot of the capsized boat was created from a daytime shot of a capsized boat obtained from the US Coast Guard that was treated and composited into the wave footage with the stormy sky. The waves were modeled in 3D Studio Max with a very complex multi-layered shader that included ripples and foam.
The overall end result was very good. On television it looked great. Most importantly it all helped to tell the story. It wasn’t the “Perfect Storm” but was not bad for only 4 days worth of work and tiny budget!

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Copyright 2010 Andrew McClary