That time James Cameron gave ILM a day to come up with a test for ‘The Abyss’

The Abyss Waterhead

What should a CG water tentacle should look like, anyway?

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During the recent Galactic Innovations event at The Academy, ILM senior visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren shared a story about a key moment in the history of CGI at the studio. James Cameron, in prep on The Abyss, had given ILM just a day’s notice to come up with a test for the Pseudopod, a tentacle-like being that the film’s characters would encounter in an underwater drilling complex.

Muren mentioned at the Academy event that ILM artist Jay Riddle had been tasked with exploring 3D Pseudopod concepts for The Abyss test. I was curious about what that experience for Riddle was like, i.e. being asked to turn around something so quickly by such a big-name director.

So, with the 30th anniversary of The Abyss now upon us, I asked Riddle about his work for the test.

This isn’t a look at how ILM actually did end up achieving groundbreaking VFX by modeling and animating the Psuedopod for final shots in the film, but instead how that first test was done and what Cameron’s reaction was to the test that ultimately helped ILM get The Abyss gig.

3d model of CG water tentacle
These different passes of the water tentacle were what ILM ended up creating for ‘The Abyss’.

b&a: What do you remember about being asked to work on the Pseudopod test at ILM?

Jay Riddle: Well, I remember Dennis coming by the graphics room, where the graphics team sat. He came by and he said, ‘Here’s the deal. We’ve got Jim Cameron coming tomorrow to take a look around, and he’s got this movie and there’s a water tentacle that he wants to have in the movie.’ And then Dennis said, ‘Is there anything that you guys could do today that we might be able to take a look at?’

b&a: How did you get started on actually making the water tentacle test?

Jay Riddle: I sat down with Alias, which is what we were using at the time, and just started building shape, and I ended up pretty much doing stop-motion animation. Basically, I did the whole test by hand. I made a model for each position, and did replacement animation. I guess there was some thought then that a back-up technique would have been to do replacement stop-motion animation of a model that was all transparent to be like the water tentacle.

I wanted it to have this undulating snake-y motion. The idea was just to show this water tentacle moving across the frame in an interesting, kind of menacing way. My CG tentacle was a little pointy on the end, because back then I didn’t quite know what to do with the verts on the tip of this thing to get it to actually round out.

b&a: Did that water tentacle that you worked on have the reflective qualities that the end result did as well?

Jay Riddle: Well, for the film we used RenderMan, but for the test we had to just do it with what we had, so we used the Alias renderer that was built into the package.

At that point in time there was no easy way to get that model into RenderMan. So we just used the Alias renderer to do something like a refraction. I don’t even think it was a real refraction at the time. I think we even had a little shader-type thing that made the surface undulate, kind of like water, too. And it took us all day, and I think at the end of the day we were able to show it to Dennis. And it was pretty cool.

b&a: What do you remember about James Cameron’s visit the next day?

Jay Riddle: Cameron came through and we showed it to him, and he was like, ‘Oh, this is great. Fantastic.’

CG water tentacle
A maquette of the Pseudopod and human face it replicates is on display at ILM.

b&a: So, was that nerve-wracking for you, or was it no big deal?

Jay Riddle: Oh no, no, no. It was incredibly nerve-wracking! I mean, he was one of the guys who I respected the most in the movie industry, and he was going to take a look at what I was doing, and what I was doing could mean that we get to do this work or not. I mean, c’mon!

I took it very seriously. It was one of those days where I probably didn’t eat lunch and just stayed as long as I needed to, to get the thing done. Everybody there was kind of the same way. We all wanted to make sure we impressed him and that he was going to see something that showed that there was promise in this technique.

So, it was nerve-wracking, but boy did we feel great when it was over, because we knew we had something that was very impressive.

This week at befores & afters is #gettingshotsdone week. Find out how several productions are getting shots done with a range of different methodologies.

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