Tumultuous titles: the crazy story behind ‘Waterworld’s’ opening moments

One of several memorable Universal logo take-overs, and it even involved a giant globe…

Over the years, a number of Universal Pictures films have begun with clever ‘re-imaginings’ of the Universal globe logo, setting the scene for the story about to unfold on screen.

Such is the case with the opening titles for Waterworld – released 25 years ago – in which a view of the Universal globe transitions to a push-in on the northern polar region of the world to reveal melting ice caps and rising sea levels. The scene continues, with narration, through wispy clouds to a solitary vessel in the ocean below, and the further reveal of the film’s title: ‘WATERWORLD’.

The Universal logo take-over and the film’s title design were created by Pittard•Sullivan•Fitzgerald (PSF), whose founders were prolific film title designers. The opener would become one of the most well-known Universal logo re-imaginings. However, like the production of the film itself – which famously went over-budget and had several production troubles – the titles travelled through their own complex history of development (which even involved the delivery of a giant globe…).

The titles begin with the classic Universal logo opening.

‘An idea that tells the story’

Eric Ladd was executive producer at PSF at the time. “I was working with Wayne Fitzgerald at PSF,” he told befores & afters. “Wayne was one of the premier title designers around and Universal hired Wayne to do what Wayne did, which was to composite typography over a shot, which is the actual title of the film.”

Ladd recalls an early meeting involved Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds, lead actor Kevin Costner – who would ultimately assume directing duties during post-production of the film – and several other producers and Universal executives in which he and other PSF crew were asked, ‘Can you guys come up with an idea that tells this story?’ (the logo idea had also been hinted at in one of the script drafts).

“We came up with the zoom-in idea, pitched it to them and they said, ‘Great.’” says Ladd. “Then Wayne looked at me – pale-faced – and said, ‘How are we going to do that?’ And I said, ‘It’s OK, we know how to do this.’”

Based on title designs and storyboards by Fitzgerald and titles designer Jennifer Grey-Berkowitz, a budget was submitted to Universal. “It was a lot of money,” states Ladd. “But they were, like, ‘Okay’. And then Kevin Reynolds kind of disappeared, and it was Kevin Costner who was now in the meetings.”

The change in leadership was an indication of the tumultuous nature of the Waterworld production, with many of the crew-members already having experienced a tough shoot. “It was a super-charged political project with way too many egos involved,” reflects Kirk Cameron, a PSF producer and VFX supervisor who worked under Ladd.

More observations about the minefield production of Waterworld from Cameron and Ladd, later, but first a look at how the actual melting ice caps work for the opening titles was done.

The text drops away and a zoom-in begins on the globe.

Getting a globe, by courier

The logo take-over would require a significant degree of digital intervention into Universal’s existing logo. Certainly this time in the mid-90s had seen a rapid explosion of digital VFX but it remained relatively early in the history of CG in filmmaking. Still, the plan was to accomplish the melting ice caps via digital means. Cameron worked with John Scheafer and Miles Vignol’s Helium Productions on this aspect of the opening titles, including how the actual fluid simulation of the melting would occur.

“Conceptually, it didn’t seem very difficult,” Cameron attests. “I would just get the 3D model file of the Universal globe used in their logo and build a displacement map layer to fill the terrain. Eric Ladd and I ordered the globe model from Universal through Mike Greenfeld [Universal marketing]. I expected the model to arrive in an email as an .obj file.”

It didn’t arrive as an .obj file.

“Four days later,” continues Cameron, “I got a call from CNN security – PSF was in the CNN Building in Hollywood at this time – saying they could not get my ‘statue’ up the elevators. I went to the building lobby and there was a massive 4’ diameter globe encased in wood crating blocking the CNN Building lobby. It was a gorgeous object but not helpful for the project. Eric Ladd brilliantly didn’t want to shame Universal execs for not knowing what a 3D model was, so he moved the massive ball to some holding place while I found a new solution.”

“Eric played the difficult role of managing the egos while I worked with Wayne, Jennifer Grey-Berkowitz and the Helium 3D guys,” outlines Cameron. “I remember that the marketing people made decisions about typography that we were a little uncertain of. I can’t remember how Wayne and Eric worked around Greenfeld’s people but we somehow got to present type design directly to Costner right about the time that The Hollywood Reporter was calling Waterworld ‘Kevin’s Gate’. We were deep into the hornets’ nest now!”

In the end, public domain topographic data from NASA became the source for Helium to use for the melting ice cap moments – “Strangely, they were able to get me files in a few hours rather than the weeks I thought it might take,” says Cameron.

To deal with the melting ice caps, Cameron and the Helium team worked out a way to make them look like they were thawing and displacing.

“We quickly discovered that undersea and mountain topography is really boring and makes a visual mess when you let factual data derive the water displacement. The most interesting displacements were happening in China and Argentina while the 3D camera was aimed at Europe. So we had to fake several ‘Marianas Trenches and ‘Himalayas’ to make the water fill up at the correct on-camera moments while the globe revolved. We also had to fly the camera around to cheat the timing of the submerging land masses.”

That solved the melting simulation. However, there was an additional complication relating to the Universal logo elements. They only existed on film negative and interpositive film. Ladd and Greenfeld had obtained the original camera negative for the logo elements, made up of the star field, purple nebula, globe, type, light flares, glints and associate mattes. “They were all separated and shot in both in anamorphic scope (2.35) and flat (1.85) but Super-35 for a scope extraction didn’t exist and the Waterworld workflow finished in S-35,” states Cameron.

Also, the scans and practical photography of the giant globe were not steady. “The planet did not stay centered in the frame,” recalls Cameron. “I think the globe was shot spinning on a wire. Wayne Fitzgerald was the first one to point out that the globe in the logo was just too old and ‘looked like a model’ while we were trying to get a realistic look on a high-tech visual effects film. The purple nebula didn’t really exist as a 3D element so we had to cheat that as well.”

The zoom-in continues as the polar ice caps melt away.

Global solution

Today, of course, there would be no hesitation in crafting the globe as a 3D object for this task. But Cameron – perhaps rightly – felt that there may be too many layers of approval required to approach things this way.

Instead, the plan became to scan all the negative and make a S-35 version from the elements. However, these did not end up lining up correctly in a composite. The idea was abandoned and a more ‘tedious’ compositing approach attempted instead.

Helium “grabbed each, or most of the frames of globe in the film logo, flattened it out to a layer, and then used that as a texture map and wrapped it around the new sphere wireframe,” explains Cameron. “We didn’t tell anyone at Universal for fear of complicating the executive approval process; the legal department might even have to get involved for changing their corporate logo.”

“We then had to rotoscope the ‘UNIVERSAL’ text off of the old film logo and lay it back on top of the new 3D digital globe because the type elements on film did not interact with our new lighting,” says Cameron. “It was more pain-staking than complicated. I think an assistant editor on the film was the only person who noticed that we had actually changed the Universal logo when he tried to line up the film version with our new digital version and it was out of sync. I’m sure that he too, didn’t want to get more committees working on the mess.”

Cameron adds that Universal continued to use these revolving digital elements to make logo variants of the evolving Universal company in subsequent years. “I remember someone in Universal Home Video called to request the files and I had to sleuth out how Universal learned that they even existed. I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”

One other technical challenge remained with Waterworld’s opener; a transition to the opening helicopter shot of Costner, the Mariner, working alone on a giant catamaran. “I ended up having to get a physical effects company to shoot a bunch of thick smoke being blasted around with air canons to create cloud mattes that layered to make the transition from 3D atmosphere to practical film photography,” details Cameron. “There’s no cloud cover in the Universal logo but there are clouds in the opening shot. The way I built the transition no one seemed to notice.”

The shot continues through clouds and onto the water surface below, to reveal the film’s title card.

A lengthy VFX shot

As more publicity continued to surround the production of Waterworld, PSF finally revealed the work to Costner, and others, on film at a screening room at Universal.

“I remember this moment very well,” says Cameron. “They had a number of other VFX shots threaded up that Costner needed to see. One of them was this scene where blue whale bladders were sewn together to make a hot air balloon and I thought, ‘What the hell are we working on?’”

“Anyway, this wasn’t his only creative note but it was Costner’s biggest note: ‘Make sure you don’t see the back of his head too long.’ Costner referred to the character he was playing in third-person. He was starting to bald at the time and was hyper sensitive about it, especially on the opening shot of the epic film dumped in his lap.”

Looking back, Cameron remarks that the whole experience was a “crazy adventure,” but thinks of it fondly. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “I threw away tons of old paperwork a few years ago. In that was Wayne’s original ‘cocktail napkin’ storyboards that we shot onto film as an animatic for editorial to slug into the cut. They used it for weeks or months while we trudged through digital. I’m sure it had to have been a joke in the cutting room that the world’s most expensive CGI film opened with 50 seconds of pencil sketches!”

The final opening titles would for a short time be one of the longest ‘CG shots’ ever produced and committed to film, according to Eric Ladd, who after Waterworld went on to found titles house Picture Mill, and now owns Ignite XR, an augmented reality content creation company working in motion picture marketing.

“Nobody had ever done anything that long,” Ladd says. “Of course, Pixar then released a full-length CG movie later in 1995, but we had the record for about six months. It was great, if not stressful, project to be part of.”

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