Inside Cinema
Monday, 27 August 2012 15:00

Building a Better Battleship

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Battleship features a big leap in computer water effects. Out August 28 by Universal, the movie is entertaining, over-the-top and filled with action sequences.

In an exclusive for The Digital Bits, I visited Industrial Light & magic (ILM) in San Francisco to get a glimpse at the talented wizards who up the ante in special effects for Battleship.

Willi Geiger, digital supervisor on Battleship, has previously worked with CG water before for Poseidon (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) and The Last Airbender (2010) accumulated experience in making water look real. "When I first looked at Battleship, it was pretty clear we'd have to go to the next level yet," he said. ILM revamped their entire system to accommodate the changes necessitated for the movie with so many shots dealing with the lead characters. "There were hundreds of those hero shots in this movie and that made it pretty apparent that we were going to have to do something bigger and newer for this," he said. It took many months to work on perfecting the water effects. "There's a lot of water, billions of gallons," said Geiger. "It's absolutely huge."

Grady Cofer, visual effects supervisor, a veteran of Lady in the Water (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Star Trek (2009), spoke about the advancement of CG technology in relation to water. "We walked through all of the sequences with Peter Berg, the director, and realized how much of this movie was gonna take place in the ocean and how much intricate interaction there was going to be between these ships and the water," he said. "We knew we were going to have to raise our game in terms of creating CG water."

Still from Battleship

The complexity of the simulation turned out to be quite the challenge. "We had very intricate ships that were breaching up through the surface," said Cofer. Many things are going on: ships are pulling water out of the ocean and then pouring it over the surface. "If you're trying to represent all of those collisions and you're representing water from a meshed volume to a splash, to mist and reincorporating back into the ocean, that's a very kind of complex simulation," he added.

Pablo Herman, visual effects supervisor and second unit director, has worked on many big budget movies such as Men in Black (1997), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and The Last Airbender. According to Herman, the key on Battleship was using plate references to ground the movie in reality as much as possible. "We started with plates that we shot on location, on the water itself, even if the water wasn't doing what it was supposed to be doing, at least we started with the right reference, the right lighting and everything else," he said.

Berg's mandate was authenticity. "He wanted real oceans, real ships at sea and so he was capturing lots of footage like that," said Cofer. The movie offered many complexities to deal with, the dynamics of how water splashes and everything representing the motions of the ships in the water. "You have to represent all of that in what you're doing in CG and so, we were really holding ourselves to the standard of reality in this movie," he said.

Glen McIntosh started as a character animator on Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999) and was promoted to animation supervisor on Battleship. One of his biggest challenges was creating CG ships with some individuality to each one. The effects had to reflect how the ships were using the water as part of their characteristics. "There's certain shots where just before it's getting ready to jump and just before it's getting ready to fight, it's putting its legs out so it's the equivalent of getting angry," he said.

Still from Battleship

It was all about using water as a way to express the alien ships and imbuing them with individual characteristics. Cofer relates how Berg wanted the ships to "build up all this energy at their wing tips and slap down into the water and launch themselves into the water and splash down," he said.

For Geiger and McIntosh, the goal was to use the water effects as part of the storytelling. "You're in the service of telling the filmmaker's story and getting the filmmaker's vision up on the screen," said Geiger. After getting feedback from director Peter Berg, McIntosh said the animators began to see how much water was influencing the character of the ships. "All of a sudden they were putting more movement into different areas of the ship which would kick start the simulations so there was a lot of back and forth to sort of make these (ships) as alive as possible," said McIntosh.

The animation was refined and then sent to Geiger's department to incorporate the simulations. Cofer concurs about the breakthrough in interaction between water and the characters in the movie. "I definitely think that we kind of push the limits and are representing water in a very intricate and realistic way," he said. The artists and effects supervisors at ILM will keep pushing the envelope. "You're never done," he said. "You're always kind of progressing things and making things better."

Still from Battleship

On the Blu-ray, the special features go into details about all the hard work that went into giving life to a variety of characters and objects in the movie. Geiger hopes viewers will notice details on the Blu-ray that would have flashed by too quickly in the movie theaters. "The details that went into building some of the models is just incredible, stuff that would be very easy to miss," he said. In fact, 135 CG models were created for Battleship. Geiger mentioned the huge explosion on the deck of the Missouri as one example.

McIntosh said everybody at ILM tried to help Berg by adding a history to the designs of the aliens. "We didn't know how extensively they would be used in the close ups," he said. "If you look closely, there's scars. We looked at Gregory Peck in Moby Deck, Robert Shaw in Jaws, that weathered old-salt skin that we thought was important to sort of show that these guys have done this on other planets."

Battleship represents an important milestone in making water effects as realistic as possible on screen.

Still from Battleship

Here is a list of special features on the two-disc Blu-ray:

Alternate Ending Pre-Visualization with commentary by Peter Berg

The Visual Effects of Battleship: From ground-breaking water-simulation programs to cutting-edge motion capture, the team at Industrial Light & Magic pushes the boundaries of visual effects to bring the aliens to life.

All Access with director Peter Berg, who gives fans an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie.

USS Missouri VIP Tour: Onboard the historic "Mighty Mo" for an exclusive tour with director Peter Berg and actual Navy veterans as they reveal some of the coolest facts and amazing action that has graced the decks of this legendary ship.

Commander Pete: director Peter Berg energizes the cast and crew with his endless enthusiasm and relentless good humor.

Universal's Second Screen: viewers can enjoy an innovative and interactive viewing experience that allows them to control, interact and explore Battleship with groundbreaking features right on a networked tablet or computer, in synchronization with the movie on the television screen.

While the movie plays, experience features such as Alien Tech 3D Model Turntable Explosions (during the movie, 3D models of the aliens and the shredder become available to the user to view at various angles), All Access with director Peter Berg (viewers get an all access look at the making of the film featuring interviews with cast and crew), and Flick View (interact with the movie, move content from the Tablet to the TV screen, and compare storyboards, animatics, and other executing content by "flicking" them from on their tablet to their TV screen).

• The Blu-ray contains UltraViolet, a new program that allows viewers to download and stream the movie to a computer, tablet or smartphone, and BD-LIVE, using your Internet-connected player to access the latest trailers, exclusive content and more online.

- Mario Boucher 


A clip from Battleship's Second Screen BD bonus feature All Access with Director Peter Berg...

You can order the Blu-ray from by clicking on this cover image. The disc streets on 8/28.

Universal's Battleship Blu-ray Disc

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