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Scanline VFX Takes a Big Bite Out of ‘Meg 2: The Trench’

The studio delivers 590 shots across 20 sequences, including the prehistoric opening, the final battle, and loads of creature work on a T. rex, giant octopus, snappers, and megalodon triumvirate of Apex, Haiqui, and Bob, in Jason Stathom and Warner Bros.’ ‘The Meg’ sequel.

Just when you thought it safe to go back into the water! Swimming with the sharks once again is Olympic diver turned action star Jason Stratham in Meg 2: The Trench, though this time around, he must contend with not one but three megalodons. Returning for more oceanic shenanigans where humans become bite-size snacks is Scanline VFX, responsible for 590 shots over 20 sequences that involved the prehistoric opening, helicopter refueling, and final battle as well as creature work on a T. rex, giant octopus, snappers, and the megalodon triumvirate of Apex, Haiqui and Bob.  The work was divided between facilities in North America and Europe with Sue Rowe looking after the former while Roland Langschwert and Sebastian Becker supervised the latter.

“Who knew that I would become the shark expert of visual effects!” laughs Rowe while sipping a freshly brewed cup of tea.  “Something I learned from the first Meg and carried into the second one was when you’re underwater, sometimes it’s hard to know that you’re underwater. I ended up doing what I called ‘streamers’ so every time you see a shark there will be air bubbles coming out of the gills or mouth.”  The hook that brought Rowe back to the franchise was the creature work, especially after seeing previs for the prehistoric opening. She continues, “You see a mosquito and it gets eaten by a dragonfly.  The dragonfly gets eaten by a little lizard that crawls along the sand and gets eaten by a snapper.  The snapper then gets eaten by a T. rex.  You think this the moment where the apex predator is about to munch down on this lesser being and then this enormous megalodon comes out of water and eats the T. rex.  I was like, ‘I’m in!’  I went to the virtual production team at Scanline and using Unreal Engine I was able to do beautiful techvis for them.”

Some of the VFX assets were unarchived from The Meg.  “Apex is an oversized version of the meg from the first movie and has a scar across his face,” explains Rowe.  “He was the leader and had strong movements and was muscular.  What I learned from the first Meg was making sure that the head movement leads the rest of the body.  The other thing that I learned which I shared with the team was tilting the head down a little bit goes from goofy to scary quickly.  If you don’t tilt them down, they look like a smiling Jack Nicholson!  Then there is Haiqui, which is a white megalodon, and Bob, the younger one who follows the other two. The T. rex was built from scratch for that one sequence but the snappers are in the rest of the movie.  The snappers are a made-up breed which are like prehistoric hyenas meet alligators and were the most interesting characters. I am big fan of studying anatomy and always give my characters a skeleton.  We muscled them in a way that is also anatomically correct which is tricky with a made-up character.  I looked at salamanders, which can live above and below the water; their gills are open when underwater and closed above water. Will anyone notice that with the snappers?  I don’t know but I do!  The tail had a flat paddle-like end to it. Whenever the snappers went past camera, I made sure that the tail did a little flap so you get extra bubbles in front of the camera and you feel the strength of these creatures.” 

The underwater research facility Mana One returns for the sequel as well. “We did set extensions and a full CG version of Mana One with helicopters arriving and a bit of underwater as well,” states Becker. “That was set in the real-world because they had built a nice practical set that was one level.  We had to extend Mana One in all directions, but mainly up, and make the actors fit seamlessly within our set extensions, which also meant extending the ocean into all directions. The problem with the tank is that it’s not infinite and you have walls; the water goes to the end of the tank and comes back.  We had a few shots where it was easier to replace all of the water because we couldn’t tie into it.  We swapped most of the skies out and tried to be true to what they had with the tank that was outside.”

Plates were stitched together to create a long single take of a dive down into to water.  “We tried to use as many of the plates as possible,” Becker says. “It was a bit of a back and forth to get everything to fit but it looked good in the end.”  A level of murkiness had to be maintained for the underwater shots.  “Murkiness makes shots more menacing because you don’t see much. It’s a shadow coming out of the depths,” he continues. “But also, without the murkiness it doesn’t look real. It’s a tool to tell the scale of a shark.  You can see the head, which is not depth hazed anymore, half of the shark is still in depth haze, and the tail might still be in shadow; that’s how you tell the story that the shark is actually huge together with all of the various other elements that we use.” 

The film pays homage to Jurassic Park where Juiming Zhang and Mac are trying to escape through a corn field from a pack of hidden snappers and make their way to a helicopter that has to be refueled while being attacked by the prehistoric creatures.  “That was shot on location,” explains Rowe.  “We replaced the grass, set the snappers throughout, and simulated the grass to be flattened.” In the scene, Juiming falls from the helicopter and sprays the snappers with fuel that Mac then ignites with a flare, causing an impromptu inferno. “The big thing about that is if you have a huge fuel-based fire, its black smoke and turbulent red fire blackout the sky.  The plates were shot in daytime’; however, we had to relight them so the light was obscuring and our snappers were running through that black smoke.  We knew the scale of the snappers, and LiDAR scanned the ground surface, so we weren’t guessing distances and scale. The snappers get engulfed in the fire and one makes it out barely missing the helicopter. I did a lot of research into how characters look burning through fire and found a festival in Spain called Las Luminarias where horses ride through rings of fire. You could see how the head appears surrounded by warm fire as it gets engulfed in smoke. I used a lot of that with my compositing and lighting teams to say, ‘Less is more. It’s a flash of the teeth.  It’s a moment when you get a sheen on the skin.’”

A personal favorite is the 100-foot octopus with each of the tentacles having a sensor and moving independently from the central brain. “One of the things that we did that Ben loved was when the octopus was under the cabana and you see a tentacle coming out here and there,” Rowe shares. “It’s almost as if the tentacle is searching for what’s on top of cabana.”  The ink of the octopus was well used.  “There is a beautiful wide shot of the cabana where you see the full extent of the octopus beneath the water and at that point the ink is starting to seep. It helped us as a storytelling method because I was able to use the ink to semi-hide the octopus and shark. For those moments where we knew the shark was going to be tearing at the octopus’ flesh, we made specific models for those areas.  There is a shot when the octopus and shark breach the water and then go back underneath. I was able to embrace this idea that water is trapped on the surface of their skin and starts emitting off; that gave a beautiful complexity to the images.  My effects team would say, ‘There wouldn’t be any bubbles coming off of it.’  And I would go, ‘I know.  But trust me it will look really good if you add that in there.’” 

At one point, Apex destroys a pier in an effort to turn a running Jonas Taylor into a lunchtime snack.  “We had Jason Stratham on a fairly intact pier so we were replacing everything around him,” remarks Becker.  “When Jason kicked the shark, he would be fully body tracked. The backgrounds would be DMP bubbles, we would have digital water, a little bit of plate with Jason, and then we would put the shark and all of the carnage going on around him with planks flying off, water coming from everywhere, and Apex dripping.  It all came together fairly late so we were animating and putting some clips together.”  The weight of the jaws makes it believable that Apex is actually eating through the planks of wood. “Once the animation was finalled, we had all these bubbles going on. Then the other main thing was the creature effects.  We always went on the jiggly side to get all the muscles moving, which also gives it scale.”

Continuity was an issue.  “There’s a hole through the pier, Apex goes along the entire pier destroying it all, and we had to track the continuity across the entire sequence while some of things were still in flux,” Becker reveals. “We try to be as true to the simulation as much as possible.  Overall, there was less art direction of the pieces of the pier than you would have thought. We tried to use simulation templates as much as possible, especially when the sharks interact with the boulders, to get the animation finalled. There are some hero simulation moments like when Apex bites part of the pier, goes underwater, bites the pier again and does a turn; that’s a full-on simulation shot.”

“Right at the end of the movie there is an equivalent of the ‘punch of the shark’ from the first one,” shares Rowe.  “A helicopter crashes, rolls and comes to a rest on an island.  One of the blades from the helicopter washes up on a rock.  Jonas Taylor swims up to that rock to lead the meg away from his friends who are inside the helicopter.  He lifts up the helicopter blade at the last moment when the meg is about to rise out of the water and the blade goes right through the top of the head!”  There was a studio water tank used for the rock where Jonas makes his last stand.  “At first, we had a stunt double of Jason, but then we went to an actual plate of him that had to be integrated on the death rock,” states Becker.  “It was the integration of having this huge shark coming towards Jason without it looking stupid which can be quite a challenge sometimes.  He was pre-lit and we were going to be backlit so there was major treatment on the Jason element.  Then there was the shark coming in with the huge fins, along with the water, spray, drips coming off of Apex and creature effects; it’s a major undertaking.  Apex jumps on the helicopter blade, gets pierced, and we had to make sure that still worked with the plate.  Jason was holding the blade one way and we had to make it work with Apex hammering against this blade.  What we found helped was having god rays coming off of things, even the bubbles, which are caused by the all of the particulates in the air and that is also going across Jonas. That’s what we used to tie everything together. And of course, always a good old lens flare from the backlight!”       

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.