June 2000--Water, water, everywhere--and most of it not in the ocean. Director of photography John Seale, ASC, describes what he faced making The Perfect Storm: "We had to shoot on a soundstage and convince the audience that they're out in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of a 100-year storm. It's a challenge I've never approached before as a lighting cameraman--taking one little plot of water, approximately 100'x90' (30x27m), and convince everyone that that's the side or the front or the back of a 100'-high wave, in 100mph winds." All these century marks, and one other--"The hammer was down on the desk at Warner Bros. that we had to make the film within a $100 million budget," Seale says of the studio which is releasing The Perfect Storm on June 30. Magic, including the ILM variety, would simply have to be wrought at a reasonable price.
The subject is not your usual summer fantasy-conjuring affair. Instead, it is the somber fact-based account of a 70'-long (21m) Gloucester, MA, fishing boat's encounter in the Atlantic with three violently colliding storm systems, resulting in the calamitous explosion of the title. Sebastian Junger's best-selling book about the 1991 storm, during which the six members of the Andrea Gail crew were lost at sea, is fanciful in one respect: Using what's known from the longliner's communications before the radio went dead, and the climatic conditions the men were up against, the author took liberties in imagining their conversations, actions, state of mind. He provided the dramatic outline for William D. Wittliff and Bo Goldman's screenplay adaptation, and for the real-life characters of Andrea Gail captain Billy Tyne (played by George Clooney) and crew member Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg). (Characters played by Diane Lane and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are still living.) But Junger couldn't help director Wolfgang Petersen and his enormous technical crew figure out how to bring the story to persuasive widescreen life.
"Wolfgang is a great decision-maker, a director who likes to be prepared, so he was the perfect director," says the Australian-born Seale, an Oscar winner for The English Patient. Before The Perfect Storm came along, the cinematographer had been discussing another logistically challenging project, an account of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica, with the director. "Somewhere he got sidetracked into doing The Perfect Storm, and very kindly asked me to stay on and do that. So away we went." Luckily, Seale says, "I had an incredibly long preproduction period--about 31/2 months. And every single second of it was used to its greatest advantage."
The DP, whose credits range from Witness to The Talented Mr. Ripley, admits that it took him a while to understand what he'd gotten himself into. "Since I started in very low-budget filmmaking in Australia, I thought we'd wrap the camera up in a plastic bag and go to Cape Town, the cape of storms, get a couple of lookalike trawlers and get out amongst it. But there's no way in the world we could have made the film that way." Later, while shooting some non-storm scenes in Gloucester, Seale saw nature mock his naiveté. "A hurricane came up the coast, and everyone said, 'We've got a real one, let's get out amongst it.' But the waves were about 8' (2.4m), while the recorded heights in our storm were over 100'. It was just the tail end of a hurricane." The cinematographer adds that the footage made its way into the film, "but it's used in a place where they're just out doing normal fishing. An 8' sea is like dead calm."
So Stage 16 at Warner Bros. it was. But to suggest the kind of tempestuousness the movie was going to require on a soundstage--even an enormous, water tank-equipped soundstage--Petersen, Seale, production designer William Sandell, and special effects supervisor John Frazier were going to need a lot of help. A lot of that help, inevitably, was going to come from the digital wizards at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), headed up by effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier and producer Helen Elswit. The film's lengthy preproduction period was mainly dedicated to detailed anticipation and planning. "Wolfgang's discipline held down the shots," says Seale. "He knew what he wanted to shoot and what he didn't want to shoot, and he didn't waste anybody's time or money or energy by shooting stuff that he wouldn't need. Therefore, I was able to prepare lighting for each shot as an individual shot and a separate challenge, and I was able to anticipate every bluescreen shot."
Preproduction began as a series of storyboard meetings. "We got the storyboard artists in and said, 'In this scene, we need this and this and this, these sorts of shots and those sorts of shots, go away and draw it and link all those ideas together,'" the DP recalls. "They would come back, and then we would edit them; Wolfgang was a master there. Once the storyboards were edited, they went to ILM and became animatics. And then they were re-edited. We'd watch them and say, 'Yeah, that's good, but we don't need that big shot there.'" At some point during all this, the studio stepped in and put down its budgetary foot. "Then Wolfgang's decision-making abilities came to the fore, because we had to reduce the budget by something like $30 million. We sat there and cut the ILM budget by millions every day by simply deleting shots."
It all sounds very Hitchcockian, this tight control of the movie's shape before shooting began. But it was still to some extent theoretical until Seale, Sandell, and their crews walked onto Stage 16, where at various points models of the Andrea Gail and the 32' sloop Mistral, as well as a rescue helicopter, had to be accommodated. "The tank inside Stage 16 was wide enough and long enough at 100'x90', but it wasn't deep enough," says the cinematographer. "So they dug it out to 20' [6m] deep, and bolted this giant gimbal in the floor to maneuver the boat. You could overflow almost the whole soundstage, but we kept part of it dry for all the machinery--wind machines, dump tanks, wave generators, camera cranes, and stuff like that. And then they put in one of the biggest bluescreens I've ever seen."
How big was it? That depends on the day. The basic screen was 60' high by 270' long (18x82m) surrounding the tank across two and a half walls of the stage. "It ran from the stage floor to just under the permanents in the stage ceiling," says chief lighting technician John Carney of the screen, which was added to as needed. With ILM bluescreen photographer Chuck Schuman consulting, "our rigging grips, supervised by Jerry King, covered the hardwood wall with digital blue cloth. It had rounded corners and removable panels on one wall." With this bluescreen backing up the tank, ILM was to contribute in considerable ways to the atmospheric illusion of the storm, as well as enhance shots in other ways.
Carney's crew also had the advantage of generous preproduction time. "John Seale turned his plans over to my department three months before the show began," says the gaffer. "We subsequently began the long and tedious process of coordinating ideas among grip, special effects, and construction, as well as Warner Bros. engineering and safety, and the studio electric department." For the stage's live-action illumination, "the basic plan was to build a huge soft box to be used as ambient fill light," says Carney. "This consisted of an 80'x80' [24x24m] diffusion frame covering 84 10kW sky pans. It was necessary to achieve a solid T4 stop with a film stock rated at 200ASA." The lighting scheme had to accommodate the anamorphic format, which Seale and Petersen had chosen because "1.85:1 would be guys in a storm," says the DP. "Anamorphic is guys surrounded by a storm. And the movie is really about a storm."
Once the shooting parameters were worked out, it was time for Seale and Carney to enlist the aid of various lighting and camera companies. Mole-Richardson helped with the top-mounted soft box. "They worked overtime filling our order, since there were not enough 10k sky pans available to service our show in the beginning," says Carney. The units were mounted individually on adjustable pipe hangers, with dimmer channels designated for each sky pan to accommodate scene changes. "They were pointing straight down through a frame of silent grid cloth," says the gaffer. "We ran a series of tests of diffusion material before production started. The silent grid cloth gave a nice even light, yet was dense enough to conceal any light source which might be seen in reflections bouncing from the water tank. Also, we asked Mole-Richardson to build safety screens that would not block any of our light, but were dense enough to capture any glass particles from an exploding 10k globe. That never occurred, but we were prepared for it."
For the giant task of lighting the stage's bluescreen, Seale went to Kino Flo's Frieder Hochheim. "Frieder listened to my story early in preproduction, and got a glint in his eye," the DP says. Hochheim was thinking of the company's Image 80s, 4' 8Bank units fitted with high-output blue fluorescent tubes, and how they would be perfect for the movie's bluescreen requirements. Perfect to the tune of 150 Image 80s, just to light the top half of the hard wall. "Rigging gaffer Dennis Lootens installed them in two rows, attached to a green bed on the outside frame of our soft box," says Carney. "They were connected to a DMX line, and ran to our dimmer board."
For the bottom half of the bluescreen, Image 80 units were also required, but here water entered the equation. "We needed something substantial that would take the brunt of water being forced on them," says Carney. "Because of the wind machines and wave generators, water was always, always breaching the set and spilling off into the lights." HydroFlex, Inc., the underwater photography company that also provided the production with camera equipment, supplied upwards of 60 HydroFlo units, the waterproof version of the Image 80s (see "The water dance," page 56). These were rigged along an 8' steel containment wall, or "weir wall," around the edge of the tank. HydroFlex president Pete Romano says, "Thank God they had a good rigging crew that was able to foresee things. The original contract was for 50 of the 8Banks, but the rigging gaffer, Dennis Lootens, took me aside and said, 'If I were you, I'd build more.' To put a lot of money and work out front, I had to take a gamble, but it paid off in spades."
The bluescreen area of the stage kept growing on the crew. "At times if we were going to turn the camera around, we extended it with 100' bluescreen curtains, and had to add an additional 50 Image 80s," says Carney. But the storm also sometimes needed to be shot from above and below, so the bluescreen had a way of creeping into the ceiling and the floor of the stage, next to the overhead soft box and down to the water itself. At most, the stage contained five bluescreen elements, all of which had to be lit separately.
"Up above, there was a 40'x40' [12x12m] bluescreen silk in the center, and to join with that we could angle what we called the high-flier, a 50'x60' [15x18m] bluescreen panel hung from a crane," says Seale. Below, the weir wall was also covered in blue. "It was always problematic, because it was right up against the water and there was no way to light it," says Carney of the wall, which also was suffering "pollution" from the tungsten toplight. "So from the green beds we rigged 6k HMI PARs with Rosco's CalColor 4290 gel to match the color of the bluescreen. The gel is quite dense and absorbs about two stops; we had to use the 6k PARs to compensate for the distance and loss of output. We always used heat shield with the 4290, but the powerful PAR lights would still bleach it out after a full day's exposure." The floating bluescreen panel was lit from the floor, also with 4290-covered HMIs. "This was always a challenge, to find a suitable platform for the lights on a water stage full of large equipment," says the gaffer.
The other major light source needed on the stage "was a strong backlight which would give us at least two stops greater intensity over our foreground," Carney says. "To achieve this, the riggers installed a ring of twenty 20kW fresnels on the outside green beds, high up on the stage walls. All of this was controlled by dimmers, and had a full complement of correction gel and diffusion frames. They were positioned to cast light on the boat in the middle of the tank, and to accomplish this, they had to make a path underneath duvetyne teasers attached to the soft box. At the same time, they had to clear the top of the 60' bluescreen wall." Additional fill light came from nine-light Mini-Brutes.
Another element which sometimes came into play was 200'-wide by 60'-high (37x18m) scenic backings that essentially took the place of the bluescreen. "There were three to reflect various stages of the storm," says Carney. "We mounted a long row of 1k far cycs between the Image 80s to light the daylight backing, and clustered spot PARs from the green beds to light the clouds and isolate them from the rest of the backing. Sometimes, depending on the effect the DP wanted, we would let the spill from the top soft box fall off on the backing." Seale and Carney also installed a ring of Lightning Strikes units around the top of the set, to add to the violence of the storm. "Lightning Strikes developed a parabolic effects generator which was used extensively, in addition to the conventional 70k fixtures we carried," says the gaffer. "The Lightning Strikes technicians also had to beef up the flash capacitors in the fixtures to withstand the heavy use they received during the show." Adds Seale, "Sometimes when the lightning went off, it was synchronized with smaller ones pointing into the backings, so suddenly, you would see our apocalyptic sky backing lit up. The industry uses the term 'poor man's process' for this kind of effect, but Wolfgang said our budget was big enough to call it middle-class process."
At the same time as lighting for The Perfect Storm was being worked out, Seale had to address the equally troublesome issue of camera systems for a wet stage. "We went on the set of Cast Away, with DP Don Burgess," says the cinematographer. "They were having a few wet problems, condensation in the cameras, that kind of stuff. I vowed that we wouldn't, because more of our film was done with water than theirs. I also didn't want cameras running on battery power, I wanted them on solid, constant mains power. I had two Super Technocranes for the cameras, and I wanted double the cables running to them, so if one went down, the other one's ready to run. My number one camera assistant, Trevor Loomis, took up this challenge. Between Trevor and Pete Romano and Panavision, they created stuff I don't believe has been done before."
Romano, who ended up providing the production with around 20 of HydroFlex's zipper-sealed camera splash bags, concurs. "John knew what he was in for, being onstage with cameras and Technocranes and water and a shooting schedule. We showed Trevor and him our splash bags, and told him some of our improvements. But at that point, we had not installed any of our interior blowing systems." This air-powered system, for preventing water droplets and condensation from forming on the lens, was in development, but not quite ready. "I told them I could have a working model for him in a week's time, and that's what we did." In fact, HydroFlex offered the splash bags in so many different configurations--models with viewfinders for heads or handheld, ones with no viewfinders for crane work, as well as bags to accommodate various types of lenses--that the company found itself constantly ramping up over a six-month period to cater to the production.
"Pete made those splash bags so waterproof that we were dunking them underwater as if they were solid housings," says Seale. (Though HydroFlex stresses this is not the product's proper use.) "We had three different cameras running on different power systems going into them, so Trevor worked out a system of clip locks with Panavision that allowed us to unzip the bags and swing a new camera inside, or just unclip a bag, take the camera away, and clip in a new camera already in another bag. We had a lot of magazine changes, because we were using ILM eight-perf cameras for bluescreen shots, and those run best with only 200' (61m) mags. I wanted to shoot the whole picture on zoom lenses to get the really impressive shots, and sometimes I ran into problems and had to use four-perf cameras. ILM was on the set at all times and would usually say, 'Go ahead, don't worry.' "
For water level shots in the tank, Frazier's crew built two floating camera platforms to hold the Super Technocranes. "We couldn't let them float during wavemaking, because they'd rock around to the point where the cameras would be unstable," says Seale. "So they designed these platforms to float into position, and then you'd hit a button and hydraulically lift them out of the wave, 4' in the air. The Technocranes had a 55' (17m) reach with their swings, so if one camera couldn't do it, the other one could overlap it. With two 11:1 anamorphic zooms on both Super Technocranes, wide open at 4.5, our focus pullers should get Academy Awards."
The DP found that normal Libra heads were moisture-proof rather than waterproof, and couldn't take the weight of the cameras and heavy zoom lenses. "So we used other heads from Libra which are much more waterproof and much more robust," he says. "We had third access on those, so we could use not only pan-and-tilt, but we could roll the camera as well." This related to the illusion Seale meant to create of 100' waves, when the actual swells were only about 4'. It all had to do with angle and perspective. "We worked out on a computer that 100' waves are on average 700' (213m) apart, and we drew a curve from crest to trough to crest. We could take a flat piece of water, and angle it quite considerably. Now the boat is going up the 45º side of a giant wave, and we could pan and tilt within that, and maintain the roll, take it over the crest, hit it with a dump tank as though it's reached the top, and then roll it down the other side. Then ILM would paint the proper leveling in the background."
Again, all of this was worked out in advance, which helped considerably. "I analyzed every scene with ILM, and then with the department heads, and predetermined which way the boats were pointing, where the wind machines and wave makers would go, where the lighting would be, where the lightning would be." Part of the process involved deciding on a very simple geographical continuity--"All the ships going out to sea went left to right, as on a world map, with the camera in the southern hemisphere of the shot," says Seale. "Anything returning went right to left. Once that was decided, we knew which direction the boats would go in the tank. That also helped us with where the dump tanks were, and what direction the wind machines were blowing from. And if we had to reposition the vessels in the tank, we moved the boat instead of the dump tank, because it was quicker."
Of course, all the planning in the world couldn't account for every circumstance. The uneasy conjunction of water and safety could stop things cold at any moment, for example. "My best boy, Steve Givens, and Dennis Lootens worked with several vendors to address safety and rigging issues," says Carney. "K*TEC Electronics supplied a three-point shock block system for electric shock safety at the 400A, 100A, and 20A levels. But it was so sensitive that the slightest water contamination into the power system was enough to trip a GFCI. The forces generated by the wind machines kept pushing water into our system, and the moisture inside the hull of the Andrea Gail always managed to penetrate our watertight connectors."
In general, Carney continues, "It was difficult to antipicate what problems would occur." Night scenes of the actors on the Andrea Gail model's aft end, for example, were illuminated by lights installed on the boat's boom arm and rigging. "We bought the largest housings that would be used in a marine application and fitted them with 2k globes, to give John the stop he required," says the gaffer. "These lights would have to be saved between setups; otherwise, they would either burn up the housing or heat the safety glass so much it would crack when hit with water." In addition to HydroFlex equipment, Pace Technologies' waterproof MR-16s, underwater PARs, and cyc lights were used for on-camera navigational and cabin sources. "For the interior of the Mistral, a sailboat which is abandoned early in the story, our riggers retrofitted the Pace PARs into the cabin lights," says Carney, "and the effects crew rigged a garden sprinkler system to keep them wet between takes."
The constant combination of wet and dry filming was also an issue for the HydroFlex Kino Flo ballasts. "Whenever we used the HydroFlex tubes," Carney says, "we had to rig the ballasts somewhere out of the way on the set. The problem was how to protect them from water and condensation. We solved this by fitting the ballasts and bringing power inside several Pelican cases, sealed off with marine washers and silicone to make them watertight. The cases were large enough to handle heat dissipation, but we still had to open them frequently for ventilation."
Not all of The Perfect Storm production was so complicated. Location shooting in Gloucester, and later, off the Pacific Coast near Los Angeles, was a comparative holiday for the crew. The seaworthy version of the movie's Andrea Gail was docked in Gloucester for the former scenes, shot in late summer 1999. Then the company moved back into the Warner Bros. soundstages (Stage 15 at the studio was also used), while the longliner made the six-week trip down from Massachusetts, through the Panama Canal, and up to California. "As long as we had control of the weather, we could stay on schedule," Seale explains. "And we decided that we were more likely to have constant weather on the West Coast."
The cinematographer discovered that the stage was good for shooting storm scenes and nighttime scenes, and adequate for scenes set at dawn (with a little boost from ILM). "What we found was, we couldn't work out how to make a horizon on the stage," says Seale. "And with the open aft deck, which is the fishing area, of a big longliner, you really need to have a horizon. So we culled out the daytime scenes we thought we couldn't get away with, and scheduled those at sea."
After principal tank work was completed on Stage 16, the boat gimbal was removed and underwater sequences, photographed by Gary Kapo, commenced. This is not a huge part of the finished film--mainly moments such as a rescue pilot ditching his helicopter for lack of fuel, for example. HydroFlex provided camera housings and a "rainbow" of underwater lights, including HMIs, incandescents, and fluorescents for these scenes, says Romano. Working around the clock--Stage 16 was powered 24 hours a day, with second unit shooting at night--production wrapped in December, on schedule and slightly under budget.
But the experience was hairy to the end for Seale and the others. ILM's needs were a constant worry, for one thing. "I was asked to use the SFX 200T film, which Kodak makes especially for bluescreen work," says the DP. "Early on, I was matching 5293, the 200ASA stock, to the SFX. But because of the anamorphic lenses and wide-open aperture, I was struggling to get enough light. When my back was to the wall, we moved over to 5279, the 500ASA stock, and later, I did force-develop the SFX 200. We ended up working at 80% perfection, and we asked ILM to work at 80% to be able to finish the film on time. ILM does demand perfection in helping them do their job--they want the bluescreen perfectly lit overall to a tenth of a stop. But on a screen that size, that's a bit of a dream. Working at 100% perfection can be detrimental, you can fall behind schedule. So they sanctioned that. And I think between us all we worked at 80%, but managed to hit 100."
The cinematographer adds that, in addition to the bluescreen work, ILM is providing a certain number of CGI shots, "where the whole frame is theirs." These scenes include boats, helicopters, people, "the whole megillah," including, of course, water--one of the most difficult of digital simulations. Here, the work is not just 100%, it's "in a word, awesome." Seale is speaking on holiday from Australia, where he retreated after shooting on The Perfect Storm wrapped. But he goes online constantly to see what wonders ILM has come up with, and to otherwise complete postproduction work. The technological marvels that can be purchased these days for only $100 million--from whipping up the storm of the century to timing a movie from half a world away! Seale doesn't have time to ponder this any further, however. Making his excuses, he says, "I've got to get online with Wolfgang and continue making the film."
All photos: Claudette Barius ©2000 by Warner Bros., except bottom photo: ©2000 by Warner Bros.