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DNeg Rocks the Boat

THE BOAT THAT ROCKED, the new film from director Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL) is an ensemble comedy that features several key sequences with VFX from Double Negative. The centers on the lives and adventures of a band of DJs that captivate 1960s Britain, playing the music that defines a generation from their pirate radio station based on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The cast reads like a who's who of British cinema with Billy Nighy, Kenneth Brannagh and Rhys Ifans to name a few. Double Negative's Richard Briscoe was the vfx supervisor on the film and worked closely with Curtis to realize the visual effects that were a crucial part of the storytelling.

Along with Briscoe, the Double Negative team were lead by VFX Producer Rupert Porter and CG Supervisor Richard Clarke and supported by overlapping CG Supervisor Aleks Pejic and VFX Coordinator Katrina Navassartian. Oleg Troy and Erik Tvedt were machmovers and helped Briscoe on set. Back at base, Troy became Matchmove Supervisor, and Tvedt was specialized in the water spray, which would be crucial later in the film. The two main sequences that Double Negative worked on were the mast race between the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gavin (Ifans) and the final sequence of the film in which the boat gets into trouble, through to the end of the film.

Work started for Double Negative on the film in October 2007 with a four-month filming schedule, prefaced with previz for three months. A stills shoot and Lidar of the boat were carried out before the principle photography. The crew shot on location in Portland Harbour in Weymouth and was studio based in Shepperton, with some additional shooting at Pinewood. Recalls Briscoe, "The Weymouth location was chosen thanks to a convergence of currents known as 'The Races', which can usually be relied upon to guarantee rough water but, unfortunately, were conspicuous In their absence every day we went up in the helicopter!"

It would have been impossible to get the boat to tip to a 30 degree angle without actually sinking it -- not the cheapest or safest option! So it was decided that that final sequence would be done in CG. The bulk of the work was the in the technical complexity of the exterior shots of the boat in various stages of sinking or being 'overwhelmed' by the sea.

Mast Race

There were quite a few conventional greenscreens in the mast race, some of these were needed to address the impracticalities of capturing camera positions, as the mast was 100 feet tall. The components for the mast shots were shot over five days in three different locations. The first sections with the wider shots of the stuntmen were shot on the real boat in varying weathers. The second section with the actors was shot on a section of mast erected on a cliff top to get the correct lighting and a real sky and sea, but these shots were still augmented with extended water and had the CG boat added. The third section was captured on a section of mast on a greenscreen stage. Everything below the mast had to be created in CG in these shots, including the mast, which at 20 feet on the stage was 60 feet short in reality. Almost all these shots required wire removal, both on the actors and the stuntmen once they got to a certain height. The various locations created a huge challenge to make the continuity of the shot work.

The bulk of the work, however, was putting in an ocean and boat. The team used Double Negative's proprietary software, dnOcean for the sea. Originally created for BATMAN BEGINS, dnOcean generates a crude surface, which had to be lit and animated to get the fine swirl, but as long as the shots didn't require the water to interact with the boat, no fluid simulations were required. However, the digital boat became a larger job than originally anticipated. The team had planned to build a night version that would be seen from any angle, but had expected that in daylight, it would only be seen from the top of the mast, looking back. Wider frames than anticipated meant that the night time boat had to be extended extensively with thousands of photographic tiles taken of the real boat, lit correctly. The interior material required extensive relighting and regrading to match the footage shot out at sea, where a huge amount of light was coming from all directions.

Final sinking sequence

Double Negative began with previz on the whole sequence, the early part of the night was mostly shot on a real boat, however, a couple of shots that show the boat partially submerged, had to be treated as all digital shot. In the latter part, when the crew evacuates to the prow, the shots are a mixture of real action of the cast on the boat's prow, the rest were shot against greenscreen and the team replaced the sky and sea behind. While on wide shots they also extended the boat, to allow for the fact that the prow in the shoot was 20 feet but it was 40 feet long in the water.

As would be expected in such a sequence, a big issue for the dNeg team was the water and this was dealt with in a variety of ways. The team used Double Negative's proprietary software, dnSquirt a fluid simulation program, which was invaluable in the work. Memory overheads, however, meant that they couldn't simulate the whole ocean, so the simulation was contained in a rectangular area around the boat and the rest of the ocean was extended with dnOcean. On top of this the complexity of the water called for additional layers and elements such as foam, spray, geysers, upwellings etc. Many variations of each of these were employed, depending on the liveliness of the water or the manner of interaction they were required for, such as rolling off the edge of the boat, spraying up from waves etc.

All the full night to early morning shots had to be regraded as the material shot on stage was set up for daylight, but a change in timescale, meant that they had to be regarded for an earlier, dawn light. The final shots called for a huge flotilla of rescuers, there were ten boats out for the shoot, so the dNeg team had to make it look like several hundred, with CG boats.

The final sinking shots are all entirely CG. The pre-visualization was still being explored in December, so the shots went through production on an extremely short turnaround. "It was a great experience," recalled Briscoe, "Richard Curtis was great to work with, very creative, collaborative and always very good humored."

In total, Double Negative provided 250 shots for the film. THE BOAT THAT ROCKED was released in the U.K. on April 3 and will come out in the U.S. on August 28, 2009.

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