A trip (back) to ‘The Beach’

The Beach VFX

The VFX of that steamy plankton-fuelled love scene, two decades on

It’s now 20 years since Danny Boyle’s The Beach was released. It wasn’t a huge VFX film, but there were some neat effects additions, including environmental augmentations to the Thailand lagoon setting, a video game hallucination, and some intense shark encounters.

There’s also a highly memorable love scene between the characters Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen), set underwater and illuminated by phosphorescent plankton.

That scene was aided by visual effects by the Computer Film Company, and to get a sense of what was involved in that kind of work two decades ago, I asked VFX designer Adrian de Wet (who most recently was the production VFX supe on The Meg and See), how he and his team approached the plankton shots.

Adrian de Wet (VFX designer, CFC): I remember reading the novel ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland in the 90’s, in my 20s, and being completely blown away by it. It had everything: it was part adventure (a treasure Map but the treasure’s a beach!!), part horror, with a good dose of MDMA-fuelled rave culture, murder, a psychopathic narrator, tons of video game references – all set in a beautifully escapist version of paradise in Thailand. ‘Lord of the Flies’ it most definitely was not. The novel was so visually rich, that when I heard that it was to be filmed and directed by Danny Boyle, who had recently achieved Total Hero Status with Trainspotting, I knew that I had to at least try to work on it or I’d never forgive myself.

The main sequence that I somehow managed to blag responsibility for was the phosphorescence scene, where Françoise and Richard go swimming at night in the ocean among bioluminescent plankton. It plays sort of as a montage in the final movie, set to music by All Saints, so there was a nice little tie-in there. The sequence got a lot of exposure because of that.

The action plates were shot in a tank, with some green screen. As anyone who has shot underwater green screens will tell you, forget about pulling a clean key – especially if you’re shooting film. So there were days and days of roto, which pretty much saved the shots. The hundreds of thousands of bioluminescent plankton were simulated by the absolute legend that is Stephen Murphy, who might actually still be rendering that main wide shot, in fact I think the last frame is due to finish about now.

This was twenty years ago, and we didn’t really split up VFX tasks like we do now. Stephen did pretty much everything 3d related – he body tracked the actors and attached particle emitters to their limbs, and added noise to the paths of the particles to make them look like they were moving underwater. He also did the camera match moves, the lighting, and rendering. We were credited as “digital effects designers” or “3d designers” back in those days, rather than the myriad of department credits you get now.

I was very lucky to get an opportunity like that back then, on such a high profile project – it was way more than I deserved. The best part was working with people like Stephen Murphy and VFX supe Rob Duncan. I remember seeing the movie at a Cast and Crew screening and being amazed at how visually original, bold, and uncompromising it was. Seeing it again twenty years later, that’s even more true.

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