Magazine article American Cinematographer

Taking the Plunge on Waterworld

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Taking the Plunge on Waterworld

Article excerpt

Visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister marshals a team of effects experts to create daring seascapes for epic sci-fi adventure.

OUTER SPACE HAS BEEN DEEMED THE final frontier, but we know more about the cosmos than we do about inner space: the oceans of our own Earth represent virtually the last opportunity on this planet to explore the unknown. In many ways, the depths of the waters covering 60 percent of our world are more fascinating than the far reaches of the solar system. Why then, in the history of the cinema, have only a handful of films ever dared to journey into this realm? Because it's extremely difficult to shoot on water, to work with water, and, heaven forbid, create effects on water. Since Waterworld proposed to deep-six our entire planet, it should come as no surprise that it became the most expensive movie ever made.

Michael McAlister, the visual effects supervisor on Universal's controversial megaproduction, first confronted the problems inherent in mixing water and effects while working with Dennis Muren as chief effects cameraman on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at Industrial Light & Magic. While at ILM, McAlister proved himself indispensable, the man who could figure out virtually any mechanical effects problem from the speeder bike chase of Return of the Jedi to the mine chase of Temple of Doom (he actually modified the Nikon still camera that rode on the miniature mine track in that sequence). In recent years, McAlister's effects filmography has ranged from the spectacular (Die Hard 2) to the elegant (The Hudsucker Proxy) to the invisible (Wrestling Ernest Hemingway). So what prepared him for the effects tsunami he was about to face on Waterworld? "Just my entire career!" he quips.

Like most effects artists, McAlister has moved away from the confining equipment-intensive approaches of motion control and towards the freedom of digital solutions. "The thing that most excited me about working on Waterworld was that it was really the first opportunity to deal with what has been historically a very formidable problem, miniatures in water, using the new digital tools. The computer has given us a lot more freedom to be creative on the set - there's virtually nothing we can't do anymore."

The approach McAlister formulated towards Waterworld's monumental effects challenges would put that adage to the test. McAlister and visual effects producer Kimberly Nelson originally distributed some half-dozen unique effects sequences among three effects houses. Specific CG characters and objects were assigned to digital experts Rhythm and Hues and Boss Film (also profiled in this issue's article on Species). The latter facility created a CG balloon hovering over the gondola piloted by Gregor, the scientist/ inventor played by Michael Jeter. Rhythm and Hues handled a similar effect, creating a CG spinnaker box kite that deploys from the Mariner's trimaran - a threehulled catamaran - so he can escape from his enemies. McAlister also chose Rhythm and Hues to handle all of Waterworks 3-D character generation, including denizens of the deep like the Tracker Sharks, which the film's villain unleashes to locate the Mariner after his escape in the kite. McAlister found the Tracker Sharks (later cut from the film) more problematic than the fictitious Whalefin, an unpleasant cross between a whale and a shark, which the Mariner catches for dinner! But the bulk of the work was awarded to Cinesite, which had previously handled such diverse tasks as digitally restoring Disney's animated classic Snow White and creating period effects for Woody Alien's Bullets Over Broadway.

But as the Waterworld production shot and shot and shot on the atoll set they'd built on the ocean off Hawaii (see AC's August coverage), the number of effects skyrocketed from a modest preproduction estimate of 160 to a staggering final total exceeding 400 shots, which necessitated bringing in many more effects houses to process all the work. …

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