Lots of water: inside the VFX of ‘Five Days at Memorial’

How a giant water tank, a bevy of bluescreens and some innovative water sims helped make this Hurricane Katrina story possible.

The visual effects assignment for Apple TV+’s Five Days at Memorial was a tough one: not only were intense storm sequences showcasing the impact of Hurricane Katrina at a New Orleans hospital necessary, so too were many invisible effects of the resulting flooding and rescue scenes a requirement.

Visual effects supervisors Eric Durst and Matt Whelan took on the VFX task, working to help tell the story of those trapped in the hospital for several days, while also detailing the levee break and resulting mountains of water.

In this befores & afters interview, Durst and Whelan walk through the planning stages of the work, shooting in an enormous water tank, and their toughest shots.

They also detail the challenging visual effects work achieved by principal vendors Stormborn, El Ranchito and UPP.

b&a: Let’s go back to the beginning. I’m curious about the first conversations you had with the creators and other filmmakers here, knowing that you were going to be dealing with a storm, water and extended sequences.

Eric Durst: There were two things that really helped enormously. The first was to have everyone all-in on making this massive water tank in Hamilton, which is outside of Toronto. And the second one–I give great kudos to Matt here–he is incredibly talented at being able to visualize conversations. So, you can have conversations about all kinds of ideas and thoughts. And then Matt goes up and says, ‘Like this?’ And he shows you a drawing of what we’ve talked about. I would say it was more ‘future visiting’ the set than previs, where we were able to interactively go into the more difficult sequences and wrap our heads around it.

Matt Whelan: Yes, I remember when we first walked on that set for the ER ramp and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve been here before.’ We had previs’d it for months beforehand. We’d use previs just to even work out things like the sun direction, for planning our shoot days.

We got into Unreal pretty seriously on this. It was just a great way to build stuff. Eric and myself and Ramsey Nickell, the DP, would have lots of discussions about just where we could be and where we wanted to be. It made a lot of it a lot easier.

b&a: How did that planning period inform what could be built for real here, especially for the boat scenes?

Matt Whelan: We had a lot of traveling shots in boats. So we just said, ‘Build the biggest tank you can physically hold the water in, and we’ll take as much footage as you can get and we’ll extend it after that.’ For a few of the shots, we ended up resetting the boat a few times and then stitching the shots together in a way that made it feel contiguous or continuous throughout.

Eric Durst: The tank we had was 9 million gallons, and 225 by 150 feet. It dropped the water pressure in that whole neighborhood of the city.

b&a: What about decisions about how much bluescreen to try and put up behind your actors?

Eric Durst: That was an interesting one because it was driven less by the hospital and more by the helicopter sequences, because we were trying to find a helipad or some kind of platform high enough that let us look at the city of Toronto and buy it as being New Orleans. We were not able to do that. But we were able to find a wide open space where we had a platform and then we put bluescreen everywhere.

The challenge was it became a lot of bluescreen wrapping the platform, which made it hard to have helicopters landing. So what we did was he had 10 or 12 telehandlers with 30 by 60 bluescreens on these, and then just parked them around. We were even able to cheat a little bit to get maybe 80 feet high as needed.

They were very versatile and we used those for the helicopters, and then we brought those over to the tank. It wasn’t one bluescreen, it was 10 to 12 movable bluescreens that we used.

b&a: There’s also the walkway which seemed to have a practical build. Can you talk about that as well?

Matt Whelan: They built a huge portion of that, thanks to production designer Matthew Davies. It was all on gimbals in sections. In VFX, we took it over and enhanced it in order to make it feel more dangerous than we could achieve indoors. It didn’t help us that the whole set was shaking for tracking purposes, but we figured it out!

b&a: Speaking of things that help and hinder visual effects, I was curious how you deal with rain. Were there scenes where maybe you said, ‘Can we have no rain in these plates’ for clean plates? How did it work?

Eric Durst: We tried to use as much practical rain as possible, and I think we got away with having rain pretty much on every shot. I don’t think we ever really went clean in any significant way. We tried to use that for atmosphere, just to give us something there rather than a super clean window or super clean car.

Matt Whelan: One of the things we ended up doing, for both around the helicopter pad and the tank, was hiding GoPros in the sets. We used these as witness cams to help with tracking. Production design helped us build spaces for them. Also, we had to have a team of people who would run around and fill things with dry ice because everything was overheating and the cameras would shut off. Eric and I actually designed a little box that could hold dry ice in the back and have a GoPro in the front, and they would take portable fans to just keep everything moving.

b&a: What kind of reference gathering effort was involved in terms of surveying the location? Could you also look to archival footage? Could you scan buildings and areas?

Eric Durst: We did LiDAR scans of the hospital. We had a lot of helicopter drone footage where we could use photogrammetry. The thing is, one of the aspects of this that we wanted to be very strong on was to be as authentic as possible. But, of course, a lot of the structures that we were trying to build were not there anymore because they had been destroyed. Some were still there, so we had a team that went down for about two weeks, and LiDAR’d neighborhoods, including the real houses around the hospital.

Matt Whelan: Eric’s a real historian. He introduced me to the fact that you can go back in time on Google Earth, and it was like a crime scene. We were studying things in terms, ‘Oh, this was like this before. And here it is just after.’

Eric Durst: Yes, one thing that’s interesting about Google Earth is you can go to pretty much any area in New Orleans and look at essentially the day before Hurricane Katrina hit, see that date, and then after when the floods came in. That really helped us a lot.

b&a: Tell me about your VFX vendors? How did you choose them? What were you looking at in terms of their environment and water sim work?

Eric Durst: One of your first challenges was the levee breaking in the Lower Ninth Ward. So the water sims had to be really at a prime level. We found the company Stormborn, which is in Vancouver, were just phenomenal in terms of water. On Gods of Egypt, I had worked with one of the principals of that company and they had done spectacular work. They’re very much into detail. They spent nine months or so on that shot.

We also talked to El Ranchito in Spain who had done the incredible tsunami work in The Impossible, combining large miniatures and tank work. Here they did some great hospital shots. Then there was UPP in Prague. They did terrific work on the wide shots of the hospital and the helicopter sequences and wide views of the city.

b&a: In terms of the water itself, what conversations did you have between yourselves and the visual effects facilities about the look and feel of the flooding?

Eric Durst: One thing that was interesting was to learn how levees break. In our heads it was originally, ‘Oh, it’s a crack, and then it breaks and it’s like an explosive kind of thing.’ It really isn’t at all. What happens is that water goes over the side, there’s a big swell, and then the water goes over the wall itself, goes down the other side to the ground, and then it starts to permeate the structure that’s holding this wall up. And if that structure isn’t very good, it will give way and the whole thing will just flop.

What happened in New Orleans is that this giant wall of water was created, being held back by the levee wall, and then all of a sudden they just flopped and boom came this massive wall of water, up to 12 feet high, really like a tsunami. It just flattened everything.

So understanding that power really informed us on how intense that would be. In the shot where we demonstrate the levee breaking down, one of the things we wanted to do was make it look like initially an aerial shot, like a helicopter was going over a disastrous event, and then all of a sudden, get hooked into it. It’s almost like you’re a boat in the water and the levee breaks, and then you’re swept up in it. A lot of effort went into getting that to look like a normal aerial shot of this disastrous scene that’s about to happen. Then it happens in front of you, and then you’re looking at it a little bit too close, and then you get swept up into it, and then all of a sudden you’re in on the ride.

Matt Whelan: Also, we had a lot of water on set. It was this beautiful pearlescent, gasoline brown muck to tie into, and it gave us some really great just reference for later in VFX.

b&a: Some of the scenes in this show that I really like are very much invisible effects kind of shots where you might be on the corner of the hospital and people are wading through things, and there just seems to be some really nice environment extension work, that often go on for very long frame times. Tell me about those.

Eric Durst: A lot of it comes back, again, to Matt and his ability to work with the directors and figure out what these shots were, so that we had enough real water in most cases. In terms of doing the simulations, we obviously wanted to have them be as much real water as possible and then extend from there. El Ranchito did a majority, if not all, of those shots, and they’re just super good about it.

Matt Whelan: In terms of the longer shots, it was a real lesson for me to work with such austere filmmakers, John Ridley and Carlton Cuse. When talking to Ramsey, Eric and I would be in these meetings and they’d just be like, ‘Do less.’ And that was a real lesson for me, that the verisimilitude was almost the opposite side of the coin from flashiness that we usually associate with visual effects. And the believability comes from not needing to prove yourself in every shot, but to stay in the shot and say, ‘Just look at what happens.’

b&a: How tricky were those helicopter shots to pull off? I’ve got to say I love the staircase up to the landing pad.

Eric Durst: First of all, we had a platform which was the top of the helipad, and there were certain restrictions. We didn’t want to have to have people up there with safety lines and things like that. So we had to throw these nets around. We wanted it high enough that we got a lot of sky, but we wanted it low enough that the helicopters could come in and land. A lot of the logistics about that sequence had to do with the real helicopters and the weather that changes all the time lso in that part of Canada.

We had a Coast Guard helicopter, which was, I think, the first time a US Coast Guard helicopter has ever come into Canada. We also had a Black Hawk helicopter, and we had a crew, and they were just incredible pilots. That helped drive a lot of the helicopter sequences in terms of just the helicopters themselves.

In terms of the staircase, we built four flights of narrow stairs. It’s to scale–it’s really how it was. We had bluescreen behind that. We would have people climb up those, and then we would tie those into what’s on top, sometimes multiple passes to do that, multiple passes without motion control. That worked beautifully.

Carlton especially really wanted to have this sense of vulnerability up there. It’s like you were on this staircase and you were on the highest level of a Ferris wheel. You’re way up there with nothing below you. We cheated a few things like the actual placement of the helipad and the parking structure below. We opened that up a little bit to give that feel that you’re walking in space, to show just how hard it was to carry patients, sometimes 350-pound patients, up these staircases to get them to the helicopters and get them to safety.

b&a: Just finally, there’s often in a production like this, one shot or one sequence that really stood out from amongst the others. Is there one that you can identify?

Matt Whelan: The opening shot, well it’s actually three shots, has the very first boat coming into the hospital. It’s a few weeks after the event and they find the bodies and realize what has gone on. That was the first shot, the very first shot we talked about, the very first shot I previs’d, but it’s one of the last shots we filmed.

What I love about it is it’s one shot. It presents itself as one shot, but the tank wasn’t big enough to be able to achieve it. So it was stitched together. It’s actually in three pieces. El Ranchito did the work on that, and it’s one of those ones that you previs and you talk about and you plan for and techvis.

In the end, when it was all stitched together, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I believe that we’re on a boat with these people.’ It sets the story and the pace of everything, and it’s one of those very austere shots that takes its time.

b&a: What about you, Eric?

Eric Durst: I’m going to cheat and give you two.The first one is just the environment around the hospital itself. Having gone down to New Orleans and seeing what is there now, and then knowing what we had to do, and seeing what UPP had to do, it still amazes me.

UPP really dug deep and did many, many, many iterations of the shots. All these little details, all these little pieces of wood and pieces of paper that are floating in the water, and all these little things to make those wide shots really sell the fact that you could see the entire city, plus show how isolated this hospital was. I think, emotionally, those are really excellent shots.

The shot that we spent the most time on and spent so much time doing iteration after iteration after iteration, and refining and refining and refining, was the Lower Ninth Ward, and having that get destroyed. I probably spent most of my time on the show just researching that and figuring out what really happened, because no one was there to photograph it. No one saw it really. There are a lot of different interpretations of that.

Stormborn did an amazing job on that shot. Having it be an aerial shot that the camera person gets swept up in, I think that was a unique twist on it and made it an emotional shot rather than just a shot that looks spectacular.

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