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Nvizible’s Adam Rowland and colourist Rob Pizzey talk about the subtle FX and grade that tell the story of the MV Maersk Alabama hijacking.


CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – A Pirate’s Life

Visual effects house Nvizible worked on over 180 shots for ‘Captain Phillips’, the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years.
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Nvizible started working on the film after the shoot had been completed, mainly to help with the extensive clean-up needed on the dramatic, critical sequence on board the lifeboat where Captain Phillips is held captive. The scene had been shot in a tank, unlike other sequences taking place at sea. While the main visual effects vendor Double Negative was looking after the ocean surface extensions and light adjustments, Nvizible assisted with cleanup and sky-replacements. From there, they were awarded further shots.

Visual Story

Nvizible’s VFX supervisor Adam Rowland  said that across the production, the director Paul Greengrass and editor Chris Rouse were concerned with authenticity and also with portraying as much of the story visually as possible, thereby avoiding the need to explain story points through the dialogue. “They put attention into the way scenes were shot,” he said, “and experimented with putting their visual message across. An example of this is a scene early in the film in which the audience looks over Captain Phillips’ shoulder as he writes an email to his wife. The visualisation of his short message and the timing of sending it help describe his frame of mind and how he will handle the drama that follows.”

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Therefore, when Nvizible were awarded the task of creating animated graphics for the Maersk Alabama’s radar screen inserts, these animations had to help explain as much of the action - such as the relative positions and speeds of the Maersk and the lifeboat - as the dialogue or the photography. The director and editor were aiming to portray the mounting tension on board as the pirates approached, and wanted to use the radar monitors to graphically reveal the rapid progress of events. Authenticity was critical. “Our graphics designer Chris Lunney developed the motion graphics in After Effects based on a huge amount of research material the production had compiled of the actual event, showing exactly how the graphics and animations should look,” said Adam.

“This graphics work extended to the map work in the ship’s control room, for example in the design of the icons for the different boats. These had very specific looks, and were shown correctly to scale. Sound waves from the microphones from the life boat were displayed at the key moment in the drama.”

Low-Poly Models

When it came time to augment various environments with elements to match the story, the team proved their ability to adjust their approach to work with the action, the camera work and the light. In a scene in which the team needed to populate an aircraft carrier at sea, shot from a helicopter, the deck in the plate was largely empty, with only one helicopter and no crew.  In this case they added in 3D helicopters and animated people in a fairly conventional way.  That is, the shot was 3D tracked, then animated, lit and rendered in Maya, and composited in Nuke.

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“But when we addressed the sequence where the Navy Seals are boarding their plane at the airfield, we planned to avoid the time-consuming, expensive task of 3D tracking,” Adam said. “Because all the vehicles in the airfield were shown essentially as background set-dressing, not as the real focus of the scene, we worked out a quicker way to get our result.  

“We rendered our low-polygon previs models on turntables, with the lighting parented to the models.  These could then be tracked into the plates in 2D, with the animation of the turntable retimed to match the change in camera perspective.  Other vehicles, placed in areas of the shot where their angles wouldn't change dramatically, were given animated cycles and rendered from static cameras, and could then simply be tracked in. The technique allowed us to get the placement, speed and orientation of the many vehicles signed off very quickly.”

Using low-poly models worked well, because the vehicles were seen at a distance and largely out of focus.  Dust clouds and exhaust smoke were also composited into shots to give the models a layer of interaction with the scene.  The director’s and DP's preference for handheld camerawork would also have made 3D tracking, animating and lighting the complete scenes fairly labour-intensive.  The 3D in this sequence was overseen by Stefan Gerstheimer, and composited in Nuke by Gavin Digby.

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Night Time Skydive

Nvizible handled environmental work on the night time skydiving sequence. Because the shoot was over land, not over the sea as it was in the story, the team replaced the mountainscape below with a night seascape, and the camera track was created as a nodal move.

Instead of the usual skydome, they built a ‘seadome’ to depict what the skydivers would see from above. Adam explained, “The seadome was a still image, painted up from source material of other airborne shots.  As the skydivers actually did descend over the sea for other parts of the shoot, we had ample footage of the sea shot from high altitude that we could use.  This was also useful when creating the sea surface in other parts of the film.

“For the main in-air skydiving shots, some plates filmed POV from the helmet-mounted GoPro, clearly showed the actors skydiving directly over mountains, and so we were required to remove any sign of land. Initially, we 3D-tracked these shots in Nuke as if they were simple nodal moves – in a static, rotating camera.  However, because the skydivers were so far from the ground, or anything else to use as visual reference, there was little or no perspective shift.  It made more sense to think of the divers as rotating at the centre of an environment, rather than falling through one.  This concept allowed us to paint up a sphere with sky and sea textures, which, once filmed through the rotating camera, would match the plate in movement perfectly.”

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Full CG Rebuild

They were also responsible for a full-CG shot to show the moment when the divers fall into the water. Shot during the day with a helmet-mounted GoPro, the original footage showed the POV of the actor as he lands in the water very close to a number of safety boats and camera crew.  Adam said, “The brief was complicated - remove the crew and boats, replace the sky, grade it to look like night, and add in the Maersk Alabama and various military vessels.  It was obviously a huge cleanup job, not only because of the proximity to the boat, but also due to the direction of the light from the sun and the consequent reflections on the water.  

“We decided instead to do a full CG rebuild, using only the movement of the original camera and whatever water interaction we could extract from the plate.  An interactive CG ocean surface was created by Sam Churchill, but it proved difficult to get the same effect of the actor actually hitting the water.  Mid-distant ripples were animated, but for the foreground we were able to key and rotoscope the water from the original footage. 

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Nvizible added the muzzle flashes to this shot, composited in Nuke by Moti Biran using live action elements.

“Our compositor Riccardo Gambi combined these with a number of other filmed elements like foam, splashes, water-on-lens and so on to create the effect.  This was layered with the newly painted sky, ships and CG sea to complete the shot.  It has inherently the same motion and foreground interaction of the original shot footage, but with an entirely new, artificial environment.  I really don't think that when the audience sees it in the cut, they actually question it.”

CG Camera Move

In a shot from the same sequence, captured as the actors float down, the camera pans across the parachutes to boats on the water. In this case they extracted the parachutes and boats, but altered the camera move and the proximity to the boats and the timing – all to tell the story more effectively. This shot would have been almost impossible to shoot in reality, due to the nature of falling parachutes, arrangement of boats and composition of objects in the frame.  

“Initially, again, we were to remove any traces of land on the horizon and then it would be graded to night.  However, the director wanted the camera to pan from the parachutes over to the military boats they were aiming for.  We had to create a substantial seascape, complete with ships, and reanimate the camera to create a convincing move.  The look of the shot was established quite early on, but the camera move went through a number of iterations, as Paul Greengrass had a very specific story-point, in terms of proximity, timing and drama, that he wanted to tell.”

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The Nvizible team worked on this film from September 2012 to January 2013. Almost at the last moment, they helped the director comply with censorship requirements when the censors had issues about the scenes just after the bandits had all been shot, which they found too bloody. The artists aimed to tone down this look with grading, for example, by casting shadows from off-camera objects. Getting the right level of blood on Tom Hanks after the bandits strike him was also difficult to achieve in camera.

Matching the Grain

The film’s DP, Barry Ackroyd used a wide variety of cameras and formats, both film and digital, for the project – from the ARRI Alexa, Aaton Penelope, Canon EOS C300 and GoPro HD Hero to various ARRI film cameras. Although all footage was supplied to the VFX team as DPX files, the images were still in different aspect ratios and showed other variations.

Most of their night shots and control room shots were recorded on 16mm film. They showed more grain and were harder to track. “The 16mm cameras are quite handy for moving around on small sets, but using them did mean that our screen insert work, for example, had to match the looks of these images in terms of grain,” Adam said. “Handling this work in Nuke allowed us to quantify the grain. The different film formats all had their own idiosyncrasies, not least the grain, and for each sequence we would have to create a bespoke grain node to match the structure.  In each case these were tweaked on a shot-by-shot basis.

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“The Go Pro shots tended to lose detail in brighter and darker spots, in which case we sometimes added cloud and detail into the ‘clipped’ areas for the graders to work with when applying the important day-for-night treatment."

On Top of the Action

Colour correction for ‘Captain Phillips’ was carried out by Company 3’s senior colourist Rob Pizzey. Rob said, “Barry Ackroyd has a naturalistic style of shooting. Everything is filmed handheld, so you never have any locked off shots during the film. Because of that, Barry is right on top of the action. You almost feel like a part of the film.”

Barry and Rob worked very closely together setting the looks for the different scenes, including America, Somalia, on board the Maersk Alabama, lifeboat, day-for-night, US Navy boat and the final climactic scene of film. “Working this way gave me a colour palette for the whole of the film,” Rob explained. “After this, Barry left to shoot another film in the US, while I matched everything up. Barry and Paul Greengrass returned when I completed the grade for a review, made some small tweaks and then we wrapped.”

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Referring to the variety of cameras the DP was using on the project, Rob commented, “Barry is a genius with the camera. The shots on the skiffs when the pirates attack the Maersk Alabama, for example, are amazing. He chooses the camera for each scene that enables him to capture the best footage.

“For example on the skiffs with not a lot of room to move around, he shot with a 16mm camera, which was far easier for him to operate than a 35mm camera. The same was true in Somalia, which has a gritty, hot feeling. For the helicopter shots at night, he used the Alexa which is great in low light levels. Obviously, it’s my job to match all of the different formats up with the tool set available. I used grain addition on the digital formats and de-grain on some of the film footage shot in low lights.”

Camera at Sea

A month before the DI, Rob and Barry had a chance to work on the conformed day-for-night scenes, allowing them to start setting the look. The plan was to match the actual night footage as much as possible. He didn't have much leeway to lift the night footage very much so he had to darken the day footage considerably. This was quite tricky and was achieved but applying various layers of colouring and complex hand drawn shapes.

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“We worked through the scenes making sure that we could achieve what we wanted and flagged areas where we could do with some help from VFX. I was working on the DaVinci Resolve grading system, which has unlimited nodes and auto tracking. These helped us a lot during the major day for night scenes,” Rob said.
 
“The camera is always moving because you’re at sea. With the tracking tool I could hand draw shapes and then grade within that area, and the auto tracking would then map to the movement of the camera, so we could get on with matching all of the footage. It was also really useful for lining up faces and pulling out eyes. With the auto tracking, you get the shape on there, and it maps it all the way through. It saved me a lot of time.”

Bright Clouds, Dark Sky

“Once it was looking pretty good, we rendered out the DPX files with the grade baked on and sent them over to the visual effects house, where they were able to help us in areas where I’d darkened bits down to help sell the look. We’d spent about five days creating the look and on most shots it worked perfectly, but there were a few shots where there were bright clouds in the sky. I darkened them down as much as I could but we could still see them and decided it would look more realistic if the effects artists could remove them.

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“Where I had graded down shots of the lifeboat, the frame lacked impact so we also asked the VFX team to add lights on the boat, changed the dynamic of the shot and added contrast. They supplied me with all the mattes so I had control over the areas they were helping me with. We also asked for some very faint horizons to be added in some of the very dark night shots. This helped a great deal as well. When those shots came back into the timeline for the main DI, they were 90 percent final.”
 
As always, faces were an essential part of the shots as the tension mounts between the pirates and the ship’s crew. Rob isolated characters faces all the way through the film to make them stand out and have more impact in the frame. “It was tough when the pirates ventured down to the engine room of the boat when all of the power was shut down,” he said. “I pulled out the expressions on faces in very low light conditions. The auto tracker saved me a lot of time doing this also.”

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Copyright - Columbia pictures, all rights reserved.