The VFX of ‘Greyhound’

Delivering ships at sea, submarines…and water…in limited time.

What follows is a long chat I had with visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness and DNEG visual effects supervisor Pete Bebb about their work on Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound, which stars Tom Hanks as a WWII navy captain of a destroyer guarding a merchant ship convoy across the Atlantic during WWII.

I’m presenting our chat here largely unedited because, firstly, I really enjoyed the discussion and, secondly, I felt the VFX supes were really candid about the work they were able to pull off for this film in a shortened time-frame (for several reasons, the production, which was originally a Sony film before moving to Apple TV+, had a long road to release).

The VFX team’s tasks were complex; delivering elaborate WWII ship and submarine shots, producing ocean sims, and taking limited live action set photography, including on board the museum ship USS Kidd now berthed on the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, and crafting the North Atlantic around it–all while coming onto the film after principal photography had finished.

b&a: What was the first thing you both had to do, coming in to this film?

Nathan McGuinness: Well, coming in, we had an edit that covered Tom’s performance and everything from Tom’s POV. And that was really well done. But filling in the blanks was what you saw from Tom’s point of view, what the audience saw, and what was going through his mind—it wasn’t there. And it was kind of like a puzzle of just filling the film with the visuals to complement what’s going on at that moment in time. Plus, the only photography we had to work with was the work that was shot in New Orleans with Tom. But the rest of it, we had to structure a storytelling character, which is everything outside of the wheelhouse.

For me it was a challenge just to watch the cut and realize there’s no boat-to-boat scenes shot, there’s no water elements shot, there’s no gimbal work shot in the way of anything to help us along. So with the time and what was in front of us, we couldn’t even think about going and shooting boat-to-boat elements and even ocean elements. And the story being that it’s a two-and-a-half-day or three-day event, didn’t really allow you to be able to just find stock footage. None of that. It was really a character that we had to bring to the show to complement the performances and the story.

So that was the challenge, and I reached out to Pete and DNEG. It was not about going to a place that masters in water. It wasn’t that. It was a company, and Pete, with the ability to hand pick the team to create an environment that is unique, and ‘unique’ meaning as real as possible. And that doesn’t mean a push-button idea. So it was a selected cast from Pete’s end, which I felt really comfortable about.

We had very little to work with, we had no assets, really. We had nothing to go by. We only had the story. We had Tom’s point of view as the main cast and producer and obviously, writer, and we had to really start so fast that we really had to start filling in the story around Tom, and that is all visual effects. It evolved so fast over a period of four months with DNEG. A couple of months prior to that was me, hammering away at creating a database with as much historical footage of that period, not necessarily in the North Atlantic, but in that period, to capture the feel and the look and the sense of what we were trying to create, so we could try to remain as realistic and authentic as possible.

And when Pete engaged with us, at least I had certain ships, the Bofors, the guns, the five inchers, flares, torpedo, everything that I could get my hands on. Sound, audio recordings from journalists who were actually on the ships or on the merchant ships at that time, anything to ground us into this movie. And then that was it, and then we were away.

Pete Bebb: The first thing that we did was just assess an inventory of what they had. Mike Chambers, the visual effects producer, was there for us, and there was a huge amount of trust. But what was different about this show is that we didn’t have a linear timeline in the same respect as you do in a normal show, where you previs, you storyboard, you build the assets, you do this, you do that, and you take it all the way through to animation, lighting, rendering, all the rest of it.

Here, everything was running in parallel. We were spinning all these plates at the same time. I was bombarding them with questions regarding research on vessels, as we were building those. Equally, we were designing shots and making them as authentic as we could. So we basically just sat down and tried to design something, a methodology, and a plan of action that would suit this film and the associated kind of creative restrictions that you might have with it as well, in order to try to get it done.

Now, thankfully with a film like this, it’s not like we’re dealing with magic, it’s not like, ‘What does a spell look like?’ What’s great about Nathan and Mike is they got huge amounts of footage—you could just pick one piece where you’re saying, ‘What’s the ocean you want for a Beaufort eight to 10? Give us a hero piece you want it to look like,’ and then I give this to the crew. We found a piece that was perfect, and that is what we managed to do.

The effects crew like specific stuff to match to, and you’ll get the best work from it. I think that’s where we worked together very well from our side of things. Nathan said, ‘This is what we want, match to this.’ And that means that there is no wasted time from an artist perspective, it’s all additive. And there’s no going off down a tangent and then wasting it, and then coming back to version one. It was everything that we did and the time that we had was productive. The plan of it was very military in that respect, it was by the numbers and had to be.

Nathan had a cheat sheet, which was essentially all the scenes broken down into absolute military specifics. And when I say military, I mean they were because we also had the naval advisor on, Gordon Laco. And of course, obviously Tom Hanks’ knowledge of it all, and Nathan’s VFX editor, Jeff, broke it all down. So we had wind speeds, we had Beauforts, we had what the weather should be by and the impression that Tom and Nathan and Aaron wanted for that particular scene.

So then I thought, well, okay, the most important thing is for something like the images, fundamentally full CG, because obviously, we came into it late and didn’t have the opportunity to shoot lots of places and all the rest of it is lighting, it’s all about lighting at sea. Ocean is dictated by what the sky is, and the sky dictates what the ocean is doing, of course. The ocean is a character in the film, and that character had not been established. And it was a huge, huge character. It’s Tom’s second adversary. Of course, there’s the German and the Wolfpack, but equally, there is the weather and the North Atlantic is unforgiving.

And when we came onto this show, it was winter in the UK, so we were perfectly set for shooting some quite awful weather, which suited the scope of the film very well. The first thing was, I got this contraption that we built at DNEG, which is 10 HDR cameras called Sky Capture, and it basically captures a huge hemisphere, multi-dynamic range, and it’s a time-lapse. And we sent a crew to the four corners of the UK for basically coastal stuff, that allowed us to get that clean horizon and no light pollution, which is key, of course. And that’s what gives you, right from the off, a very, very realistic looking ocean and great looking skies.

Now we shot loads of this, as you can imagine, we shot for days. And then I looked at Nathan’s cheat sheet, and I said, right, I think these would be okay for this. And I gave it all over to Nathan and Aaron, and Tom, and I said, ‘Look, pick what you want from this, but pick one, because once we’re going, we’re going.’

Nathan McGuinness: What was great about it was I ended up getting delivered from Pete around three days of footage with a timestamp. And what I had was my beat sheet, which was the days. And I was literally matching the HDRI timestamp with my beat sheet, and then giving that back to Pete to drop in that time, and that particular HDRI, as the lighting and the look and feel.

As Pete said, instead of 85,000 clips and, ‘Here you go guys, match all this,’ we narrowed it down all the time. We narrowed down the guns, we narrowed down the torpedoes, we narrowed down the sea and the swell and the look. It wasn’t a frenzy, it was more direct. And we had to make choices and we had to make good choices and not have to go back at any stage. And we never really went back. We always went forward. The problem is we wanted to keep going forward…

Pete Bebb: Yes!

Nathan McGuinness: But we did have the luxury of having a really good previs team and visual effects editors that also integrated with the visual effects editors at DNEG, and the animation team at DNEG, and we were hammering away the story. And I wasn’t worried about what happened with the previs once it left and got to DNEG, because I just know that the animation team and Pete just took it, and that really made it feel like we were in there, shooting live. And actually, we were doing it quite well in previs, so we weren’t having to do a lot of animation changes, which was pretty good because we really were cutting it, we were slamming it together, we were doing it really fast, we were delivering it to Pete, and we were getting sign-offs from the producers and filmmakers really fast.

So it was pretty regulatory-driven and we were all about that, and we pushed, and we pushed, and we pushed and we started to see results that we hadn’t seen quite before. Say, the bow of the ship, when it hit that that big Beaufort, the eight or nine, that shot that you constantly see from Tom’s POV, that is where you start to see the, ‘Oh, wow. We’re going to get somewhere here.’

There was shots like when you’re just smashing through on a wider angle, but you’re still tight. And we were never cheating, we were never being scared, we were never pulling the camera back. We were getting close, and we were really getting into it. So we were taking risks all the way through, but the risks were paying off as we went.

What the great thing was, was there was no boss, it was just us guys all doing it. And the only time was where Pete said, ‘Sorry, we’ve got to stop now.’ I think we would have loved to have gone for another six months.

Pete Bebb: It was a, ‘Pencils down,’ wasn’t it?

Nathan McGuinness: Yeah. We had to put the pencil down. But we saw a future, I feel like a very different future when it comes to the water work, than I’m used to, and I’m not as scared of CG worlds anymore at sea as much. And I’ve said this to Pete a few times, but it shows a lot of the future for what we were trying to achieve.

b&a: Let me ask you, Pete, about that because the water work is fantastic. What was your approach to doing that, despite having so little time?

Pete Bebb: Again, I would actually say that it went back to the beat sheet again. So we looked at the scenes and then we looked at every shot in the film, or potential shot in the film, and broke it down. We broke it down into categories of shots. So category one being quite simplistic shots, and the category one would be potentially a simple paint. And then category two might be a radar shot. We were doing the crux of the radar, three, CG, four, very difficult, five, incredibly difficult. So we broke them all the way down. And then with each of the scenes, I would pick one shot that’s indicative to that. So I had one category type shot like that in each of those scenes. And then we pushed those all to the front. So they were fast-tracked.

It’s a bit of an old-school way of doing it, you push these shots forward in order to try to give the client an idea about what a final shot from that sequence would look like. And I think that’s done as a twofold purpose. It’s basically to allow us to push the technology to make sure that we can achieve it and then, and marry to it. But it’s also to, shall we say, reassure the client that they’re going to get something which looks great.

Now, typically on water shows, this amount of water shots is fundamentally a hugely time-consuming undertaking, purely because of the physical amount of calculation you need to do, which is all linear, of course, you can’t fast track it. It is what it is. Water does what it does, and you can’t cut into it, you restart the simulation again. We used Houdini for the water simulations but DNEG is a Clarisse-based lighting and rendering tool. That’s what we use. So we used those two packages together.

From the classifications of the shots, we go, ‘Right, category five is big shot.’ The typical shot you get on this type of ship, you might have 30 shots of Tom looking out towards the bow, it’s smashing into a wave. There’s about 30 shots of that, so I thought, right, that’s one to fast track, we’ll get it right, we’ll marry it to the authentic footage, the footage that Nathan and Mike and Aaron have supplied, and then we’ll push it as far as we can. And that’s typically one shot you’ll see throughout the film. And they look great. I’m really proud of those because they do have that realistic feel.

And then we just push that as fast as we can and see how much we can do to dress towards camera for the level of the sim. We basically catered every single simulation, we pigeonholed it, and go, ‘There’s a bow wave. There’s the front of the ship, left turn, front of the ship, right turn.’ And typically, those sims, when they started getting faster and faster, we’d hone the detail that we needed in order to get that so nothing is wasted. But equally, we gain as much as we can, experiment about how much more we needed to get, and if it was wasted, then you don’t bother, because there’s always a plateau curve with this stuff, especially with effects sims, where they can get incredibly expensive and very, very quickly, exponentially so.

We’re basically all about efficiencies, and it wasn’t just efficiencies within effects. Of course, it’s all supportive. So it’s all the way from a base level of layout. They had military advisors, they had maps of all the radar, showing the entire film, plotted out like battleships. And we had one master scene in layout, which did that entire thing. You could see from a bird’s eye, the entire film plotted out. And we used that master scene for our simulations, because then we could work out where the camera was in proximity to the ship, what level of simulation it would need, and what it would require in order to do that, the take over naturally into the ocean and the different levels of detail that you’d have with the ocean going off into the distance.

So it was a very, very, efficient way of doing it. And I think that’s what was great about doing this film is that if we’d had typically the money and the time that you normally have, you wouldn’t be forced to do that. Basically, when you’re put up against the block, you need to do this and there’s no other way, and I think that’s what it was. It really was like that. We knew we had to do some 1500 shots, I think it was in total. I think there’s 1200 shots that you see on the screen, and most of them are category three to five. There’s a lot of radar shots, of course, but there’s a lot of full CG in there, and there’s a lot of render time in there. So we knew from the off, that would be a challenge. That was catered for right from the very start.

Within, I would say, two to three weeks of working with Nathan, and all that hero footage, we were getting the HDR weather come in, selects, and then we were starting rendering the ocean. And we were building up the ocean as a means of getting the ocean swell, which is very quick, because that’s just geometry displacement. And then on top of that, once Nathan was happy with that, then we started building in the white caps, and then we start building the spray, and then you build up all of that stuff, which makes the ocean look like what it does.

Then that’s basically just shown every day. Basically, we were showing that to Nathan to make sure that we were not going off on a wrong direction. And I think that’s how the ocean was done. I would say that methodology was applied to everything. Assets as well. Every time Nathan would see a shot, he would see the ship in it after a while, and then we start doing something that’s indicative to something that you see in the film, and where the objective was to get it into the film, the real shot as quickly as possible, because you might start with a look development shot, like a boat-to-boat thing, just to get going. But as soon as we got into a shot, it started to come alive, and that was what was great.

So that’s where, literally every other day, you see an update on the asset, you see the ship getting better, you see the ocean getting better, you get the sky a bit better, you get the pre-made comps, which we’d done as part of the actual methodology, they’d get better as more detail came in. So the whole thing, you could run it all the way back, which is what’s nice about this show, from a final shot, you could run that entire thing all the way back to a very base-level thing. And that’s when you know, from my perspective, that you haven’t wasted any time. And that’s a perfect recipe.

b&a: Nathan, just to draw a line from some of your great previous water work on Master and Commander, I seem to remember back then your team was doing mostly manipulation of live-action waves in compositing for that film. What do you feel about the difference between then and now? Obviously, it’s a huge one, but I was curious about your thoughts on the change in approach.

Nathan McGuinness: Well, there’s not a lot of control over live action. My opinion is completely different now. We had to manipulate ocean plates so heavily on Master and Commander, which worked out really well, obviously, but we didn’t have a lot of flexibility when it came to camera angles and styles, and the way the ships were moving, and we were stuck mostly with the angles that we shot of the ships on Master and Commander, and then we were pretty stuck with the angles of the ocean, but we were having to dissect it all.

It’s still a great way of working, don’t get me wrong, but you would not have been able to be as dynamic as we were on this show because we’re able to move the camera and put it wherever we wanted. And it was a different style and an approach that enabled us to tell the story without storyboarding. So on Master and Commander, we had to pre-think everything out and shoot the gimbal work. We built a full-scale ship that was on a gimbal, it was massive. This didn’t have that. Also, Master and Commander didn’t have the angles like we had on this one, that we could have done over and over again, we couldn’t do on Master and Commander. So I still think that Master and Commander was a great approach 15 years ago, whatever it was, but I would never have dared to do CG water then. I think at that time, I think it was Perfect Storm was around the same time, and we talked about CG, and I just couldn’t even bear to even do that.

Even today, I haven’t seen anything that really blows my mind, besides from just a couple of things on Interstellar that I really loved with water, but not a lot of really good water work. So I think this is a new era and it’s not all technology driven. You have to feel like you’re shooting Master and Commander. You have to talk the same, you have to say that you are on a 25-foot Zodiac, hanging on to a harness with a handheld camera, trying to chase after the ship. You can’t lose that dialogue and not keep thinking like you would go and shoot a storm chase situation that we did in Master and Commander. We had to keep that dialogue going because that’s where we would have failed. We would have failed if we didn’t think like we were there, that we were there and in that place, at that time. If it was Master and Commander, it would have been on a fishing trawler, shooting a fishing trawler in the highest swells possible, as we did. Same deal here, but only in the dialogue to the artists and to the animators, and to Pete and the team.

We had to always think like filmmakers, we had to think we were still shooting at sea, otherwise, it would not have looked as awful and ugly and dangerous and the reality. You have to, from my point of view, explain what it would be like if you were there shooting, and you have to think about what you would have done and how you would have done it and try to let that overflow into, it is visual effect, but you can’t say it’s a push-button world of visual effects. If you don’t have the essence of what you’re trying to do with the cameras and the imperfections and everything that happens when you’re out there, we wouldn’t have got what we got. Peter and I talked about this daily.

Pete Bebb: Yeah. I’m a fervent believer in that. The computer won’t do that for you. It just won’t. The computer will do whatever you plug into it, or the ingredients to do it. That’s what it’ll do. So it’s a bit of to and fro. I think a lot of people get very excited about new technology and stuff, but it’s more than that, which is why I think that having the background of filming and camera work, as Nathan has, and I have to a degree, you have to respect that side of things in what you’re doing. So I was always very keen, as Nathan was, that we didn’t do any kind of impossible cameras in this, because it just doesn’t suit what you’re trying to create. And I think that the audience, maybe subconsciously, always picks up on that when you do these crazy cameras. It doesn’t matter how realistic it is, how photographic it is, if the actual camera takes you out of the narrative, then you’re lost.

I think what’s great about this show, what I thoroughly enjoyed about it, and my crew thoroughly enjoyed about it, was the authenticity. And when you get people into that frame of mind, and let’s face it, I hand picked my crew for this, which was great. So I picked a bunch of old fuddy-duddies like me, who love war films, love Tom Hanks stuff, so it didn’t take them very long to get into the mood for it at all. As I was saying to Nathan, we all jumped down to the HMS Belfast in Tower Bridge, to go and have a look at that World War Two destroyer, because we were wanting to get hands-on, see how these were made, see how they were maintained, speak to the people who used to basically sail on these things, to get really into it.

And I think that’s key, and I think that paid dividends in some of the shots that were designed, because they really did feel barren, they felt ominous, they felt scary, and you felt for the poor bastards that were there, stuck in the middle of the Atlantic up against it, not knowing if they’re going to get blasted out of the bloody water. And that was great. And I swear to God, I really miss the fact that it wasn’t a big-screen release, because I was looking at this on the big screen when we were doing dailies and stuff, and they were phenomenal in the dark room.

There’s so much subtlety to the tone that you have. The weird thing is we knew we were doing it right. And I don’t mean that in eccentric ways, because when we did the ships and then we put them in the ocean, the ships started to disappear because of the camouflage, because of the greys of the ocean, the greys of the sky and the greys of the ships. It’s a very bizarre thing, and Nathan’s going, ‘I can’t see it. I can’t see them.’

Nathan McGuinness: Yeah, because that’s what that was supposed to be doing.

Pete Bebb: I was going, ‘That’s great!’