16 October 2014

Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass
Studio: Sony
Released: 16th October 2013

VFX Supervisor: Charlie Noble
VFX Producer: Andy Taylor

“I’ve worked with Dneg a lot on my films and I think they’re one of the best around.”
Paul Greengrass, Post Magazine

On 8th April 2009, the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship was boarded by 4 pirates near the Somali port city of Eyl- the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th Century. Captain Richard Phillips offered himself up as a hostage for the pirates, along with $30,000 from the ships safe, in exchange for the safety of his crew and release of his ship. For the next 5 days, he was held captive by the pirates as they tried to make their way back to Somalia.

The ordeal finally came to an end on 12th April 2009 when US Navy Seals shot and killed 3 pirates in a covert mission authorised by President Barack Obama.

Charting The Journey

Our involvement began in early September 2011 with Paul Greengrass and Editor Chris Rouse, planning the choreography of the first and second attacks as the pirates attempt to and subsequently succeed in boarding the Maersk Alabama.   We storyboarded and produced animatics initially for these two sequences and then went on to cover 6 more – over 1000 boards covering around 40 mins of screentime. This exercise proved a valuable means of disseminating Paul and Barry’s vision to the departments and provided a common base from which to discuss the practicalities of achieving the required shots given the nature of a maritime shoot.

Setting Sail

Captain Phillips joined his ship and crew in Salalah port. Filming took place in Malta Freeport: A busy working container port that, despite its size, required further vfx extension to better play for the global tran-shipment hub at Salalah Oman. We spent two days at the port shooting enough stills and HD footage to ensure that we could realise any required extension using 2.5D methods without the need to resort to more expensive 3D builds.

All at Sea

During shooting on the Alexander Maersk (sister ship/stand-in for the Alabama) the crew embarked from Valetta harbour every morning and steamed up and down the North East coast (staying out of international waters). Pleasure craft and glimpses of Malta were then painted out in post.

The First Attack

Shooting from the atttacking skiffs was less simplistic. The practicalities of chasing a 17,000 ton ship travelling at 18 knots in small underpowered skiffs through rough seas dictated that we employ a variety of ‘cheats’.

Sometimes we had the ship travel slower, requiring us to add its considerable stern wash back in. On days when the ship was in port shooting interiors, we boarded the skiffs to chase imaginary ships, later adding in both ship and wake, using ship elements from other takes and wake elements from shot footage and cg simulations.

The character of the sea was extremely important as Captain Phillips used the power and weight of his ship to cut effortlessly through the swells, whilst the pirates hammered from one whitecap to the next and, ultimately, the ship’s stern-wash itself. Inevitably there were days where the sea didn’t co-operate – glassy Mediterranean replaced with choppy CG swells more akin to the Indian Ocean. The design of the skiffs leant themselves well to this as they naturally rode high and bounced on the slightest ripple, giving us believable skiff motion and interactive bow splashes to comp into our cg sea.

The Second Attack

Pirate captain Musi, now with two outboard engines, rapidly chases down the Alabama and Captain Phillips employs the remaining limited countermeasures available to him. Unable to outrun the faster skiff, Phillips attempted hard turns to throw out a stern wash and hinder boarding. To underline the hard turns we produced CG underwater shots of the massive rudder as it turns the ship.

The only ‘weapon’ Phillips has is his distress flare which he fires at the oncoming skiff. SFX rigged a safe charge to give us smoke interaction as Phillips fires, we then created cg flare, smoke trail and splash. The last line of defence for the ship were it’s firehoses (lashed to the side railings), these form a barrier of water designed to swamp any small dinghy coming alongside. During the attack one hose slipped its binding and left a clear boarding window. The approach was shot with the actors before stunts took over and completed the boarding in spectacular style with just a few safety lines to paint out.

For safety, the water jets were limited to provide just enough force to interact on the sea surface. These were subsequently all amplified tenfold with a combination of filmed hose elements, cg water jets and cg surface interaction. We also added a good amount of bullet hits, muzzle flashes and drifting atmos to amp up the jeopardy.

Man Overboard

The shots boarding and launching the lifeboat were a mixture of sunny Malta at sea and exterior partial set build in rainy London. The latter requiring cg seas and sky plates shot in Malta. The majority of interior lifeboat shots were on a stage with the boat on a gimbal and required window comps and views through the open rear hatch of plates subsequently shot in Virginia.

As the third act takes place mostly at night a variety of approaches needed to be employed; night for night, day for night and dusk for night depending on the framing. Closer shots of Phillips’ night escape attempt were shot night for night on the tank in Malta and required cg sea extensions to the tank water and compositing of day for night Virginia plates to the bgs to add the warships.

Wider shots were filmed day for night, which required sky replacements and extensive roto to enable selective regrading and, on occasion, cg sea to enable us to add ship light reflections to the ocean surface.

The Navy Saves The Day

The seal team deployment required addition of cg military planes and vehicles to the empty runway location and involved multiple formats for the splashdown sequence including Canon 5d’s and Gopros which needed day for night treatment, sky and sea replacements.

Night for night shots needed the subtle addition of a faint horizon to add depth and retain the “at sea” motion. The Combat Information Centre scenes, shot on a real Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at sea, all required extensive monitor replacements.

Due to the extreme maneouvres undertaken as the end game unfolds, all actual aircraft on the carriers had to be secured below decks. CG replacements were added back in to underline to sheer weight of force facing the pirates.

In all, over 600 visual effects shots went into the making of Captain Phillips.