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Hell in 'The Pacific'

Go behind the VFX scene of the new World War II miniseries on HBO exec produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

Check out The Pacific trailer at AWNtv!

For the Guadalcanal landing in episode one, most of the Iloura work was CG, including the fleet of Higgins boats. Images courtesy of Playtone and HBO.

More ambitious than the celebrated Band of Brothers HBO miniseries from 2001, The Pacific (which began airing March 14 on HBO from 9:00-10:00 pm and continues through May 16) is intended to create a different but no less believable sense of combat peril. The 10-part miniseries follows the 1st Marine Division through battles on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, Cape Gloucester and Iwo Jima.

With 1,285 vfx shots, supervised by John Sullivan (Next, Red Eye, Collateral, Bulletproof Monk), the goal was to "lend a tremendous sense of reality to what we're doing, to make something that is accurate to what the true war in the Pacific was."

To that end, Sullivan had his own visual effects camera unit shooting elements in Australia, where the miniseries was filmed (clouds, ocean and boats) and utilized several vendors: Iloura from Australia, Flash Film Works, DigiScope, Digital Dream, Crazy Horse, Pixel Magic, BaseFX, Pixel Magic, Imageworks India and Lowry Digital.

Sullivan, who was on the project two -and-a-half years, says, "This was about the uniqueness of the Pacific theater: the supply lines coming in and getting stuck on islands. The big landing scene [on Guadalcanal] starts off episode one: the guys have been emotionally built up and trained that they're going to combat and they get to the beach and the Japanese are totally gone. The whole area where we had the Alligator Creek where the night battle takes place and we see all the dead bodies the next day was really difficult for [to shoot] because everything had to be isolated and controlled so we didn't pollute. For us, visual effects wise, we extended it out to give everything more scale. We added bodies, of course. For the night battle, we added all the tracer fire and augmented the special effects explosions with CG, making it all more dramatic and building up the experience of what it was like to be in battle. It was pretty easy because the explosions that they set off [under the supervision of Joss Williams] made it feel like a war zone.

"For the landing, we didn't have a fleet out there so the fleet's computer-generated. When we're going through the landing itself, we had four operational Higgins boats. I had to make a creative and financial choice. How do I put these boats in? We photographed the boats from different angles to give ourselves a library of live-action elements that we could composite into the shots rather than creating everything in CG. It actually turned out well: It gave us a sense of reality. We had to fight a little bit with lighting, but I think it gave us a natural sense of depth."

For the landing at Guadalcanal, the major fleet shots leading up to the landing sequence was done by Iloura; the hand off of the boats going toward the beach was done by Flash Film Works. Most of the Iloura work was CG, including the fleet of Higgins boats. "We shot the practical foreground elements on set," Sullivan continues. "We have a lot of hand offs between companies within the context of a scene. But it worked out nicely; we didn't have problems with integration."

The next big battle is Peleliu in episode five. "For Peleliu, we wanted to have that impending sense of driving into Hades," Sullivan suggests, "a very frightening experience and we worked very hard to build that intensity to go toward the beach."

Flash Film Works did Peleliu in episode five, which contains a complex stitch effect, combining five sequences for a single shot for dramatic emphasis.

The sequence focuses on Sledge (Joe Mazzello) getting his first taste of combat as the division meets fierce Japanese resistance when landing on the intricate and heavily defended coral island. Flash Film Works did the majority of the landing sequence and Digital Dream provided augmentation. "This required both computer-generated elements as well as photographed elements of landing ships on water that were rotoscoped and integrated into the plates," Sullivan explains. We executed what we called the stitch shot, combining five sections to create a single shot, creating a 1 minute/49 second intense experience of Sledge getting from the landing craft over to the beach and into a tank trap. There were more than 300 distinct visual effects for the stitch shot and it's one of the most complex of my career."

Meanwhile, Iwo Jima in episode eight was an interesting one for Sullivan because they chose to shoot it in a gravel pit in Melbourne and it was all rotoscoped by Digital Dream. "They put the fleet into the background and used a lot of smoke," Sullivan continues. "It lent to the emotion of the whole thing and masked what we didn't want to see. We were using it both as a storytelling tool and a way to set parameters. And so I made the choice -- and everybody agreed that it worked -- to tell the story of the combat on the beach. Interestingly enough, when I looked at the DI, they were able to crush it down and bring a little bit more of the fleet back in. It has a very different feel than Peleliu and has you grinding your teeth a bit."

One of Sullivan's "play things" is a train sequence in episode 10: the coming home episode. "We shot bluescreen of the train with all the action and we were going to shoot background plates in Australia as well, but everything we looked at was too much like Australia, so we decided to shoot plates back here, and we shot all the exterior plates with the new Canon 5D Mark II in video mode and it worked out well when compositing. Iloura created the digital train and the bluescreen composite train exteriors in windows.

"It's one of the few technologically shifted things we did on the project. From a technical point of view, it was interesting because it was a skewed negative in terms of color (Australia has an inherently blue light and they wanted a different look), so it was difficult to match what was in the telecine when they did the HD transfer. And it was hard for us to know if we were in the right spot as we were doing standard film compositing techniques until we took it to the DI bay."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.