Under the ice: the VFX of the thrilling submarine scenes in ‘Dead Reckoning Part One’

Behind the scenes with VFX studio beloFX.

The opening sequence of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One features a next-gen Russian submarine Sevastopol tricked by its own AI into firing onto a hostile sub. Ultimately, the fired torpedoes turn back and destroy the Sevastopol itself.

Scenes of the submarine under the ice, inside the sub, and then of its demise were realized with the aid of visual effects from beloFX, overseen by visual effects supervisor Joel Green (Alex Wutke was the film’s production visual effects supervisor, and Robin Saxen the production visual effects producer).

Here, Green explains to befores & afters how beloFX approached its shots, including how the visual effects studio utilized Unreal Engine as part of its workflow in building the under-ice environments.

He also explains the real underwater depth charge reference that was shot, the plates filmed for drowning sailors, and the invisible effects for inside the submarine.

b&a: What was beloFX’s brief for this sequence?

Joel Green: When we came on, they’d already been filming for a while. And it was actually beloFX’s first project we’d ever been awarded.

b&a: Oh, wow.

Joel Green: So that was very exciting for us to go in with such an A-list project. We had an initial briefing with Alex Wuttke, director Christopher McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton to go over the sequence. The emphasis from McQ was to make sure that we were considering how it would all be done if they’d got access to a real nuclear submarine and been able to shoot 50 meters below the ice, which obviously was not going to happen.

We went into a deep dive of research in terms of underwater photography, how you would practically do this stuff, how you’d be able to light things. On the project, there was a retired Navy captain called Chris Ratliff who was on hand at all times. He was often there for our visual effects reviews and he was always on hand for us to ask questions. So we learned a lot about how submarines operate.

b&a: You had quite a large underwater environment to deliver leading up to the explosion, how did approach that?

Joel Green: A lot of our environment set-up was done in Unreal Engine, embracing a USD pipeline. We would take the beats of the sequence, mock up a load of options and give that to editorial at the very beginning. We set things up in a way where we were able to get really nice-looking animation renders and blocking passes straight out of Unreal renders, and then we could export out of USD from Unreal, bring that into Houdini and Arnold with Solaris, and do our final renders from there.

All the rocks and layout of all the ice was all done in Unreal, and then we’re just pushing those environments out from there and hooking up the instances in Houdini. It was a core key front-end of our pipeline on this show.

b&a: That’s really interesting to hear, because of course many VFX studios are adopting Unreal, but there’s still many other tools that come into it, say animating in Maya and then doing comp in Nuke. I guess what you’re saying is Unreal has just become one of your tools in the pipeline.

Joel Green: Yes, the fact that it handles that huge environment in real-time is just crazy. But it is just another tool in the arsenal, and we are trying to be pragmatic about using it where it helps and not trying to force it to do things where maybe something else does it better.

We were effectively rendering everything with a large volume. Everything’s encompassed within this volume and then we’d be splitting out our render layers and managing a lot of that in comp. As soon as you are adding that volume, it completely transforms the look of everything. So with that volume dictating the look so much, we ended up with a deep comp workflow.

Stephen Newbold, our comp supe, did some great work in terms of developing a little toolset for us so that we could directly control the density of the volume in nuke so we were able to art direct each shot. We could push out the visibility or bring that in to find the best look per shot. For example, in our sequence we might have to see out further than you might in reality and would need to make everything a bit brighter and clearer to tell the story.

Then, in terms of the explosion — where the torpedo hits the submarine – we shot some depth charge elements in a tank, which were great but there is a limit to the size achievable. But we ended up so close to this thing, it fills the frame effectively, that we ended up having to go for a full CG solution. That was done also because it needed to wrap around the submarine. But, it was an incredible reference and gave us loads of great cues in terms of texture and detail and the way that it really reacts underwater.

b&a: Was that something production shot or did you take that on?

Joel Green: We went out to Longcross Studios and worked with a special effects team to shoot that in a little tank. It’s one of those things where you get a few goes and then it murks up the water so much that you then need to do a complete reset and an emptying of the tank. But it was super fun to do and a key element for us hitting the final look.

b&a: There’s quite an interesting camera move–a rotating camera move–under the ice. What challenges did that bring?

Joel Green: It was really exciting for us to have that very opening shot of the film, and it was cool because I think it was a disorienting opening to it. You’re traveling over what you feel like might be dunes or something very otherworldly. And then as the camera spins, you start understanding what you are seeing.

We essentially built a kit-part ice set-up with these big discs of ice, maybe 16 of them. We could scatter them all together and could create kilometers of this ice sheet, which we used throughout all of the shots. For that opening shot where we are skimming a couple of meters below it and then the camera inverts and drops down away from the ice to 50 meters down below it. For that part, we had to do a bespoke sculpt and do a load of extra scattering for bits of dirt and stuff under the ice, along with bubbles and air pockets trapped under the ice, and even little crystals scattering those along the edges to break up the geometry. One of our lead CG artists, Davide Prato, just absolutely knocked it out of the park.

b&a: I thought the torpedoes in this underwater sequence and their trails looked amazing. I guess you were also trying to find the right reference for those, and a ‘movie look for them, too?

Joel Green: Absolutely. We found some great references. There’s some really nice practical model shoots that have been done. I think probably the reality is that they would have a bit less of an air ‘whoosh’. But it’s not very interesting to look at. So we dialed in a very particular look.

b&a: I thought also there was some particularly interesting invisible effects work belo did for inside the submarine, with some interior environments.

Joel Green: They actually had an amazing and pretty complete set. There were multiple parts of it. There’s the main control room where we were just extending out of the doors, but the rest of the set was 360, completely finished. In there we did a load of monitor replacement stuff for all of the screens and control panels which were blank when they filmed the scene. We received motion graphics work from BLIND for that.

There’s a section where the captain and the XO travel from the sonosphere in the bow of the sub and walk back to the control room, and that’s stitched from a few sets. Where we did add CG set elements we had great reference because they built this incredible set. It was nice bread and butter work, really some solid CG assets and nice comp work. I’d absolutely hope that no one would’ve thought twice about that stuff.

b&a: The end of the sequence has the bodies rising up from the submarine. Tell me how that was done.

Joel Green: The filmmakers always wanted to do everything as practically as possible. So, again, we had underwater footage of stunt performers holding their breath and rising up. They shot people in groups and then as individuals so that we could use them as cards and position them at different depths. They did a really thorough job of getting us the collection of elements that we could use to dress the shots.

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