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ILM Delivers Photoreal Invisible VFX to Tell the Tragic Story of The Deepwater Horizon

Academy gives nod to supporting visual effects with nomination of Industrial Light & Magic team led by VFX supervisor Craig Hammack for director Peter Berg’s depiction of the disastrous 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion and spill.

Director Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon is something of a dark horse candidate for this year's VFX Oscar. While the other contenders are primarily effects-driven films, Deepwater Horizon’s visual effects take a back seat and only serve to help tell the tragic story.

Lead visual effects supervisor Craig Hammack, (ILM) says that he was “shocked” with the nomination. “The show hadn't gotten a tremendous amount of press when it came out, so I felt fortunate to be included in the VFX Bake-Off and even more fortunate when I got the nomination. It was nice that after the Bake-Off people seemed to actually be talking about it quite a bit.”

Based on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the film won two VES awards earlier this week – outstanding model in a photoreal or animated project and outstanding supporting visual effects in a photoreal feature – and was also nominated for an Annie Award.

The Oscar nominated visual effects team includes Hammack along with fellow ILM supervisor Jason Snell, Jason Billington of Sydney-based Iloura and special effects supervisor Burt Dalton.

Hammack explains that he was brought on in March of 2015, about four or five weeks before shooting started. “So it was kind of a quick ramp up. We have a little bit of history working with Pete Berg. He felt that it needed our attention, and so I was brought on to take over and manage the visual effects on the show.”

Overall, the film has just under 800 visual effects shots. “It's a movie that doesn't want to be about visual effects,” Hammack notes. “It's story based, and Peter was very clear from the beginning that it's about the people, their escape from the rig and their heroics in trying to avert the disaster. The visual effects, albeit very necessary to tell the story, would not be the focus of the story. So the goal was to be very judicious with effects where we really needed the impact.”

Breaking that down further, out of the 800 shots, about 300 were VFX “hero” shots that were entirely, or mostly, CG. Those included shots of the oil rig burning, shots at the bottom of the ocean and inside the drill casings. Says Hammack, “The scope of the work is probably not huge, but the complexity of the work was pretty daunting.”

Hammack explains that initially, they thought they would get establishing aerial shots of a similar oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which would have made things a lot easier. “It turned out that the oil industry was not very accommodating to our needs, understandably. So we weren't given permission to do any of that, which meant that our CG rig model had to be even better, and pushed into service as a hero asset that would cover the entire film. So basically, the CG rig was built to a very high level of detail. That served us well through the show.”

Fire was another key element that needed to be created in CG. But it was a different type of fire from what the artists at ILM are used to dealing with. “The fire needed to be of an active nature, which we don't usually do,” says Hammack. “We have incredible tools here, but typically they've been used for supporting fire or explosions – destruction that's relatively quick. This was a different kind of animal. It needed to be sustained with multiple fuel sources, and have a really nasty toxic black smoke that rolls through it, with multiple sources feeding into each other. It needed to feel like an active, fast moving monster.”

According to Hammack, the fire itself gets about a half hour of screen time throughout the film, and “to be believable, we had to refine some of the ways in which we do the lighting and the rendering.”  He credits ILM TD/effects supervisor Raul Essig with developing a convincing look for the conflagration.

Meanwhile, a team at ILM's London facility led by John Galloway and Mohen Leo were responsible for a lot of the underwater CG shots. “The underwater work was emphasized early on as we started discussing with Pete and the editors the need to tell the story of how the disaster started,” explains Hammack. “We started doing a little bit more research, and it's quite complicated what happened at the bottom of the ocean. There were discussions through the whole show, 'How much of it do we show? How much needs to be explained? How much of it is just too technical to get into in a two-hour movie?'”

Australian visual effects company Iloura was brought on to handle some of the 3D work, including a lot of the equipment and machinery, as well as to do all the atmosphere work, adding embers, ash, smoke as well as adding heat distortion to the plates. “They were also tasked with doing the mudroom explosion, so they had to augment the special effect mud [that was captured on set], and do some clean up,” says Hammack.

For the live-action shots and practical effects, the director tapped production designer Chris Seagers to build an 85% scale replica of the actual rig at an abandoned Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans, LA.

It took Seagers and his team, including 85 welders, eight months to build the Deepwater Horizon set. The main set weighed in at 2,947,094 lbs. and utilized 3.2 million lbs. of steel. It even included a functioning helipad where an actual helicopter was landed on the set.

Special effects supervisor Burt Dalton was called on to handle the on-set pyrotechnics.

“The problem was there was just too much real estate on the rig to cover with enough fire, and to cast enough light, and to represent what should be this wall of fire behind them,” says Hammack. “The practical fire was great for getting everyone to understand what the scene was, and the amount of chaos needed, and for the actors to act against, but we ended up having to replace much of that rig for many of the shots just because of the coverage needed in fire.”

The production also built several water tanks for the oceanic action, with a main tank under the rig holding 2,094,400 gallons, taking three days to fill.

“It was like 250 feet by 300 feet by 5 feet deep,” Hammack recalls. “It had propane bars run through it, and they would bubble propane up to the surface and light that on fire, so we could get some real fire casting light on the water.”

Since the behaviour of ocean waves is quite different from the waves in a pool or tank, much of the water had to be digitally replaced.

“It was sizable construction, which gave the whole scene a certain amount of authenticity when you're filming it, even the stuff that gets replaced,” says Hammack. “Without it, I don't feel you would get the same performances out of the actors, so it was really a pretty great set to shoot on.”

Overall, Hammack explains that “The film was pretty clearly split into three challenges for us, and it's hard to say which was more challenging. First was establishing the look of the rig, and making it believable enough that people understand that you're isolated in the middle of nowhere, and don't really question it. The challenging thing about the underwater stuff was just the shot design to show the engineering parts, and how to make that cinematic. But I think the main challenge is the chaos and destruction of the rig, and keeping that going for a half-hour of the movie, as the actors flow through the scenes where you put them against all this fire and chaos, while keeping the audience in the experience and not questioning the reality of the situation.”

Hammack adds that for this type of film, the audience needs to be drawn into the action and feel like they're experiencing it along with the actors. “The only way that happens is if they don't recognize the stitches of fake imagery,” he says. “The small margin of error involved in the work was kind of the main challenge, just to keep people in that experience.”

As a visual effects artist with credits on such films as Star Wars: Episode II, III and Rogue One, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Star Trek, Hammack found Deepwater Horizon to be one of the most rewarding projects to work on. “We don't usually get the chance to work on films that are socially relevant,” he says. “It's usually lot of fantasy work, you know, monsters, or dinosaurs, or spaceships. It was a real treat to be able to work on a film that felt important. It felt like a story that needed to be told, and it needed to be represented in a way that family members of the victims could be proud of, which I think is rewarding.”

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.