Six ‘Perfect Storm’ SFX stories

“After the second take, somebody gave me a baton.”

Before Industrial Light & Magic worked its wonders on the photoreal water effects in Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm, scenes featuring the doomed Andrea Gail and several other sailing vessels and partial set-pieces were filmed on a soundstage at Warner Bros.

On that stage – stage 16, which was re-fitted to house a 20 foot deep water tank – special effects supervisor John Frazier oversaw the building and operation of a six-axis hydraulic motion base to house different set pieces, including the full-scale mockup of the Andrea Gail. A number of other gimbals and ‘room rolls’ were also constructed.

The film would go on to receive a VFX Oscar nomination for its stunning mix of practical, animatronic and digital effects (nominees: Stefen Fangmeier, Habib Zargarpour, John Frazier and Walt Conti). The Perfect Storm turns 20 this week, so befores & afters decided to ask Frazier about a couple of his practical effects memories from the shoot, including the time he was literally composing the action.

1. Digging a tank

John Frazier: What they did at Warner Bros. was they picked the biggest stage and they literally cut it out and made the tank inside the stage. Putting in a big motion base like that under water was a really, really big deal back then. The ship weighed 150,000 pounds. Plus we had a turntable which let us turn the ship around 360 degrees. And the tank was 20 feet deep! We had to drain it sometimes to make any fixes and that always took a little while.

2. Making waves

The base of the tank was all concrete. In between that base and our wave makers – which were all computerized – we put up big cylinder that acted as our flotation. So when we needed to move the wave makers, we would drain the water out of the tank and the wave maker would float up about two or three inches above the pool. Then we could pull them out the other side of the ship and then fill them full of water again so they would sit on the bottom and we could make waves again. Being able to float those wave makers around so that DOP John Seale could make the waves come from any angle was very handy.

3. More sprayers!

We made these sprayers that were in big accumulator tanks that were then mounted on forklifts. We just kept shooting water at the ship constantly, and then there’d occasionally be a big dump of water from the dump tank. With the sprayers, every day we’d get, ‘You gotta make me another sprayer! You gotta make another sprayer!’ So my guys at night, they’d be making these sprayers. And it seemed like they were everywhere on the set by the end!

4. Increasing the angle of attack

For the sail boat scenes, Wolfgang wanted that to really be shown leaning over to one side. So we had added this extra cylinder to the gimbal set-up, supported by a ram on the motion base, so it would have that list to it. We were able to make it lean over another 25 degrees. And then the camera could take it another 15 degrees and it really looked like it was toppling.

5. ‘Chop’

It’s interesting; the thing about our waves is that they were really just chop. You can’t make waves in the tank we had. You have to build a special tank. If you want to make a big breaking wave – and this is what they do in theme parks – you make a special wave break. But what we found worked well was generating the right kind of splashes and just not over-doing it.

6. Sometimes ‘simple’ set pieces can work the best

We had all these gimbals – six or seven of them – but for the coast guard cutter scene, we just had a movie set piece being held up by cranes and these guys on it. We bobbed it up and down in the water and you just couldn’t tell.

They wanted to do a test and it was going to cost $100,000 to do that. I said, ‘Why don’t you roll cameras on it? Everybody’s here. You may get it and you won’t have to do it again.’ So they did and Wolfgang loved it. He said, ‘I can’t believe it looks that good! It’s just a set-piece hanging from two cranes.’

It worked great, but Wolfgang did ask to shoot it again just to make it lean a little bit more to one side. So we put two cables on it, one with a hydraulic cylinder. So it would become a little off-balance and it would literally fall into under the water and lay out onto its side.

When we shot it, the crane operators couldn’t really hear the cues; the cranes were too loud and all the water effects and fans running were running. So I literally got on one of the cranes and used my arms, like somebody on an aircraft carrier, to give them all the cues.

After the second take, somebody gave me a baton – he said it looked like I was conducting an orchestra. I kind of was.

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