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The Effects Mastery of 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World'

Henry Turner gets his sea-legs investigating the journey to the big screen for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Follow the vfx development of the Surprises figurehead shot for Master and Commander. All images  and © 2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Universal Studios and Miramax Film Corp. All rights reserved. Photos court

Mandate for Realism

Peter Weirs Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, has a total of more than 750 visual effects shots, comprising an incredible combination of CG, miniatures and live-action, full-scale vfx. The effects work by Asylum, Industrial Light & Magic and Weta, is seamless, making Master and Commander the most visually authentic seafaring epic ever produced. Completely unlike last summers Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander eschews theme park fantasy for dead-on accuracy. As visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness states, It was important to Peter that this film never look like theres digital work done to it. It had to look organic.

Set during the Napoleonic era, the story combines elements from the first and 10th of Patrick OBrians historical novels, books which themselves reflect the finest of maritime writing, influenced by Melville, Dana, Coleridge and Darwin. The plot centers on Lucky Jack Aubrey, captain of the H.M.S. Surprise, and his ships doctor, the naturalist Stephen Maturin, equally brave friends whose respective military and scientific interests often clash. They are involved in a cat-and-mouse chase with the French ship Acheron, a larger, more heavily armed vessel that careens in from huge banks of fog to rain fire upon the Surprise. On the voyage we are treated to an up-close, nearly documentary treatment of early 19th century sailing techniques, grim, pre-sterilization medical practices and maritime corporal punishment. We are taken around Cape Horn to the Galapagos, where Aubrey plans attack strategy, and Maturin collects scientific specimens. We see the whole labor dynamic of sailing, from the ragtag crew who are given extra rations of rum for work well done, to the teenaged midshipmen, often boys of 12 or 13, who despite their age and aristocratic backgrounds, must take their positions beside the grown men when there is fighting to be done. No Errol Flynn vehicle, the sailors are as gritty and grimy as the effects and sets are realistic. Indeed, everything about the Surprise is weathered and hardened, even the background players. Weir went to the length of casting as crewmen many Eastern Europeans raised on a less vitamin rich diet.


Visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness (left) of Asylum rose to director Peter Weirs challenge to make all the digital effects look organic. Stefen Fangmeier (right) of ILM served as one of the visual effects supervisors for Master and Commander. His team focused on completing the final battle and other sequences.

Full Scale Effects and Miniatures

The full-scale H.M.S. Surprise is The Rose, formerly the United States largest sailing school vessel, a 20th century replica of an 18th century British Royal Navy ship. Much of the dramatic scenes were filmed on this vessel on the high seas, which sailed to the Galapagos for the first scenes in a narrative film ever shot there on location. For storm and battle scenes they built a second H.M.S. Surprise, a 60-ton tank ship made completely from scratch, and placed on a hydraulic gimbal in the 6-1/2 acre tank at Fox Studios Baja, where Titanic was filmed. Additionally, a 25-foot miniature of the Surprise, and several miniatures of the Acheron were built by Weta.

Organic Water

McGuinness, head of Asylum visual effects, (veteran of Minority Report, Planet of the Apes, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, Moulin Rouge) questioned from the outset the use of digital water. Obviously the storm was a particularly important thing on my mind. I knew I had to make it better than other storm sequences. I tested CG water and I just didnt feel that it was going to be as successful as if I married organic water elements to the ship. So I shot some test footage off a boat in the high seas and I took that footage back here to Asylum, and dumped a generic CG ship into that ocean. I saw from the test that that was going to work the best. Then Fox sent out a documentary crew on a ship called the Endeavor, which went around Cape Horn, and by luck, a very high sea arose. So we got all these great elements of ocean and we cut them up, creating giant pieces of furious seas. Then we tracked to that ocean either the tank boat from Baja or the model from Weta, or Asylums CG ships, and created a giant perspective of the ship on a giant, ferocious sea.

McGuinness stresses that the composites were never so simple as merely placing a digitized ship into a single ocean background. We selectively went through shots on the Avid and found bits of the ocean which we felt would be the right elements to break up into pieces, to create a giant parallax of seas. We took the pieces and built the sea bigger and wider and gave it a ferocious feeling, until we thought okay, now this is feeling like a storm. Then we dropped the ship in there, and rotoscoped and soft matted all the elements to the ocean to create the proper scale. For shots from the Surprise, Asylum reversed the process, adding selected elements of sea behind the foreground ships deck. Each shot had up to 50 or 60 layers of fine composites.

To create the final battle between the Surprise and the Acheron, ILM used a blue screen shot of the Acheron. Photo courtesy of ILM.

To Bluescreen or Not to Bluescreen

McGuinness decided to avoid bluescreens, and rely instead on rotoscoping. I wanted to keep the natural light and avoid the obstruction of bluescreens. That way I could use the real environment, cut out everything that was around it, and replace it with ocean, replace it with atmosphere, with elements that hold continuity throughout the sequences. So I just bit the bullet and said lets remove the bluescreen altogether. Wed have our senior compositors extract what they could before we went to roto. After roto the shot would go back to the compositors, and then wed be putting our effects in. We were always finding the best and fastest methods.

Combining Miniatures, CG and Live Action

Never built full-scale, the French ship Acheron was created from a number of methods. We started off with a boat that was similar to the Acheron, and modified it heavily, after the look of the U.S. Constitution. Yes, its a CG ship, but we used as much organic texturing as possible. The only full-scale portion of the Acheron was in the final battle where the sailors cross from the Surprise to the Acheron. Otherwise its a miniature and the CG.

ILM processed a blue screen shot to show the Surprise in the opening battle sequence. Photo courtesy of ILM.

McGuinness says that the best use of the Weta models was in the final battle sequence. We spent four or five months in previs constructing that final battle, and then once it had been edited that and Peter was happy with it, we went down to Weta and we shot the models, closely watching the previs.

The Baja ship was outfitted with dump tanks and wave machines, but Asylum replaced most of the tank footage with live-action water plates. He also added the fine details of wind and bow wakes, always keeping in mind the continuity of wind and currents. It was a question of taking the three mediums, the model, the tank ship and the CG model, and putting them into some organic water.

Conveying a Directors Vision

As supervising visual effects producer, Brooke Breton had the job of making sure that each effects facility completed their work in the manner best suited to achieving Weirs vision of the film. I work with visual effects facilities to make sure that the communication about that directors vision is crystal clear and everybody keeps on track with very specific directives that are given from the director. Another large part of her work is in making certain that effects goals are reached on schedule. Everything must be paced. The director must have enough mental energy to devote to the task at hand each day. Im also constantly in communication with the studio to make sure they understand how were going to get to our end goals, and how were going to get the critical visual elements that we need to get into the picture in time, so that the sound crew can start designing to fully specific visuals.

A finished shot from the final battle between the Surprise and the Acheron. Photo courtesy of ILM.

Working closely with Weir allowed Breton to fully understand his intentions. The visual purpose of this picture is to take you on a journey. Various scenes have different artistic elements that have a unique look and style about them. Peter wanted each to be very distinct. This is the early 1800s, a time when everything was fresh and wild and different for these people, and thats what the viewers experience should be. It was a fantastic artistic challenge for all these facilities to take that on and present what it would be like to be the first person who set foot on the Galapagos, what it would be like to be in the midst of a such a powerful storm. Fortunately, her job was made easier by Weir himself, whose attention to detail extends to his cast and crew. Peter takes a very personal interest in every artist, to the point of getting to know them by name, and congratulating them on their shots. I cant tell you how rare that is.

Enter ILM

During the earliest stages of planning on Master and Commander, Weir consulted with Stefen Fangmeier at ILM. I met with Peter two-and-a-half years ago to prep the project when there was a first draft of the script. We did do a ballpark bid, but Fox decided to hook up Peter with Nathan and Asylum. But as the production progressed, it became clear that another company must come in and take over some of the visual effects work for the film to be completed on schedule. Brooke called me, and then I became involved again, because on this film they had expected to have 400 visual effects shots at most, but during production that figure grew to around 750, and it was obvious that Asylum couldnt accommodate that kind of volume. We did approximately 330 shots in order to get this done within the timeframe that they wanted.

Asylum shot the miniature of the ship by Weta against a blue screen, composited it into storm motion plates and incorporated rain and the telescope matte. This comprises the shot seen from Surprises POV of the enemy ship. Photos courtesy of Asy

While Asylum concentrated on the opening battle and storm, ILM worked on the final battle and numerous other sequences throughout the film. We did do some very difficult shots in the opening battle, theres one in the first broadside the Surprise gets, which shows a canon shot of mostly chains and small chunks of shrapnel raking over the deck of the Surprise, taking out the rigging and killing a lot of people. And we did this beautiful profile shot of the ships firing at one another, a classic, very painterly composition. But the final battle we did pretty much in its entirety.

Different Approaches a Seamless Result

Fangmeier used the same method of compositing various organically-sourced water elements, live action footage from the full-scale Surprise and the tank ship and the Weta miniatures, to create the grandeur of the ships on the high seas. But unlike McGuiness, he used digital water as well. We did create CG water for some of the shots. The miniatures were sometimes shot with very dynamic camera moves based on the Animatic; youd be on the bow of the boat and whip back around as the boat pushes into frame. There werent always water plates that were shot from those particular camera angles, so for those we had to create CG water. But essentially this was a big, big compositing show for us. I tend to do a lot of 3D work on The Perfect Storm and Twister and this was quite different, it was mostly compositing, with up to 100 elements to get the shots to work.

Asylum used the Baja tank boat to create the Surprises battle with a Cape Horn storm. The effects company added the stormy weather elements. Photos courtesy of Asylum.

Working with Weir

Despite the differences in approach, Fangmeier points out that Weirs perfectionism and persistent experimentation always aimed toward achieving a film that worked as an artistic whole. Peter is a very organic director, very intuitive, he screened the film probably about 30 times while we were doing the effects, and he made editorial changes in the context of the whole film. The most important thing for him was how the film flowed. He is such a wonderful person to work for that you forgive him for changing his mind again and again. In other films you see spectacle shots suddenly you have a huge shot, and you step back and say, wow, look at this shot. Yet those are shots that are conceived in a vacuum, and often times those shots pop you out of the film. After the film you say, that was a neat shot, rather than, that was a neat film. But Peter is a storyteller, and he insisted that the effects not draw attention to themselves.

Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.