You might have heard or read over the years about the very fun Phantom Menace factoid that salt was used to make the waterfalls seen spilling out underneath the city of Theed. And…it’s of course true; salt was filmed by ILM for waterfall elements and then composited along with Theed building and landscape miniatures and CG and matte painted elements to form the final shots.
I’d certainly picked up little pieces of the salt story since the release of Episode I, but now with the film’s 20th anniversary, I decided to try and find out more. Luckily I was able to track down former ILM-ers – visual effects supervisor Scott Squires and effects director of photography Marty Rosenberg – who told me all about shooting the waterfall salt elements, including why salt turned out to be a much better option than that other common table item, sugar.
Salt, not sugar
Although salt became the ‘condiment’ of choice for the practical waterfall elements, sugar had in fact initially been considered the go-to option. “I had used sugar to simulate moving water wake on a BP spot,” recalls Scott Squires, who was the ILM supervisor for the Naboo and Theed sequences in The Phantom Menace. “[Fellow ILM visual effects supervisor] Scott Farrar was going to oversee the shooting of this element since I was tied up with other shots. We talked and he opted to go with salt since we wanted to avoid a lengthy particle renderer and salt was cheaper and easier to get in large quantities than sugar.”
There was another reason that sugar was abandoned, too, notes Marty Rosenberg, who would ultimately film the salt elements. “We considered sugar, but that was out, and it’s a funny story why. Steve Gawley, the modelmaker, had put little sugar sprinkles that you put on ice cream to mimic flowers in the distance in Theed. And the night before they went to move those buildings outside, ants attacked them and took them. So we knew we weren’t going to be able to use sugar, but salt was the perfect solution.”
The methodology, then, was to shoot pouring salt elements and composite them into the final shots. This process began with a salt pouring test, which the ILM crew did at small scale. “We said, ‘Yeah, this’ll work,” recounts Rosenberg. “Then we built some sort of a platform about 20 feet in the air. The salt came in really heavy bags, and the modelmakers on cue would pour the salt, and then had to bring it all back up to this 20-foot high platform.”
The salt elements were filmed at high-speed running down curtains of black velvet that had been draped against scaffolding. “We left the seam right where the salt would flow in the middle and poured it off a trough and it fell down,” explains Rosenberg. “It looked great. Then we’d shovel up the salt and bring it up and do it again.”
Safety was paramount during the shoot, and Squires strongly suggests if you want to replicate this kind of element to “wear face masks since there’s a lot of salt dust and it tends to really aggravate your lungs.”
Rosenberg couldn’t recall exactly what camera the elements were captured with, but believes it may have been one of ILM’s usual VistaVision film cameras turned on its side. “We did that regularly for a vertical element like this,” he says. “You’d turn the VistaVision camera on its side so you could get a much bigger negative of the image and you’d photograph it full, as big as you could, and let the optical department reduce it. And I think it was a four perf camera going maybe 120 frames a second, which was the max speed of a standard camera you could get without going into something really expensive and elaborate.”
Giving salt a little more personality
What those elements provided was a 12-foot stream of running white particles that looked just like flowing water. However, at some point during the shoot Rosenberg realized the salt would look more interesting – and more like water falling over a rocky surface – if it ‘bounced off something’. “So,’ he says, “I took velvet wrapped sticks and mounted them with little baffles or pieces of wood, that’s all they were, were pieces of wood, two or three, four inches, and then we poured the salt, moved these sticks out until they were just breaking the salt up like it was the hitting a rock on a cliff face.”
“This gave it a much more interesting look. We just shot different looks over a long day, over and over, moving that salt back to the top and lit it inside with one big light so it looked like the sun.”
The salt result
Squires then oversaw the incorporation of the salt elements into final frames for Theed shots via digital compositing (the elements tended to be layered, treated or adjusted to suit, and also combined with particle effects simulations).
After having shot them, Rosenberg next saw the elements when the shots were finaled. “We’d have dailies every morning and you’d watch your work,” he recalls. “The salt worked well – it was dry, it had great scale, even though it was hard to see scale. There was a certain amount of mist from the dust, although I don’t think that really made it into the composites, but that was also kind of interesting. When it would hit the bumps there would be those little subtle things that made it work.”
In the video below, ILM digital effects artist Dean Yurke describes how he took the salt elements and layered them together along with other elements to build up a waterfall for what was ultimately a deleted Theed scene in The Phantom Menace.
The salt waterfalls became elements in a complex mix of miniatures, other live-action elements, CG renders and matte painting (and don’t forget digital birds) in the Theed scenes, led by technical director Louis Katz and digital matte painter Brian Flora, among other artists.
Squires believes the salt elements helped ‘sell’ the realism of the shots, and provided a convenient way to turn-around the work quickly, and could even be something filmmakers use today. “I see some people spend a lot of time trying to perfect all the parameters of particle or other effects,” Squires says. “But with digital capture these days it’s worth considering doing some elements as practical or at least as a reference.”
“Salt was just a very functional, inexpensive, practical way to create what is essentially just moving white particles, in this case, aerated water particles,” adds Rosenberg. “And in effects, you’re always looking for the most readily available, cheapest material. So salt it was.”
Explore more of our in-depth ‘The Phantom Menace’ 20th anniversary coverage during #phantommenaceweek.