Wolfgang Petersen has directed some of the best action sequences ever staged on and under the sea, which is a big reason why he’s been named ShoWest 2001’s Director of the Year.
The award recognizes the helmer’s career achievements, particularly the box office success of last summer’s “The Perfect Storm.” Twenty years earlier, the German-born helmer landed on American shores with “Das Boot” (1981), a submarine-thriller that earned him Oscar noms for director and screenplay.
In choosing two aquatic scenes that were the hardest to shoot, one from each film, Petersen reveals how much — and how fast — technology has transformed the process of rendering the power of the sea on film.
The scene: Two German subs unexpectedly meet on a stormy ocean. The two captains, played by Jurgen Prochnow and Otto Sander, try to communicate from their bridges, hollering over the roar.
Playback: “If you write this on the page it’s fine,” says Petersen, “but to shoot this with two subs meeting each other on a storm-tossed ocean. … It’s tough — especially in 1980, when we shot it.”
The answer, for this and other scenes, was to work with miniatures. The crew spent three months in the North Sea on a tiny island called Helgoland. The main sub model was designed on a 1:6 scale — any smaller and it would begin to look fake. But even at that scale the boat was still about 40 feet long, but very narrow (“like a cigar,” recalls Petersen). A tiny camera was fitted on the bridge and a stuntman, slenderly built, squeezed inside.
“Because we were shooting in storms, we had to shoot (the model sequence) in a real storm,” says Petersen. “Whenever we pulled the sub to our main ship and the stuntman got out, it was hard to look at him. He was green and yellow. It was terrible, but it was the only way to do it.”
That left the problem of the crew on the bridge, which had to conform to the same scale. What is one-sixth the size of an average person? A Barbie doll.
“We dressed them as Germans, with painted beards and little rubber outfits,” confesses Petersen.
The dolls were wired to do three things: wave, look through binoculars and duck under pounding waves.
In summary, a stuntman was squeezed into a cigar with Barbie dolls on top.
“It’s so funny when people say how realistic the scenes are and to see how we did it, it was almost ridiculous to watch,” Petersen says.
The Perfect Storm
The scene: George Clooney climbs out onto the mast to try to secure the anchor that has come loose.
Playback: The boat is still storm-tossed, only now it’s a real boat in a fake storm. And this time the sea itself is a gigantic tank inside Stage 16 on the Warner Bros. lot.
“We had huge amounts of water, tons and tons, crashing over the boat, throwing the actors back and forth,” says Petersen.
Clooney’s pursuit of the anchor is filmed in layers. For close-ups, a painted backdrop was used. For the wider shots and climbing sequences, Industrial Light & Magic took over.
“ILM would put in huge waves on some shots; other shots were entirely done by ILM,” says Petersen. “George climbing (the mast) was created completely by computer, but you couldn’t tell the difference. Cut that all together and it looked seamless and fine. It looked more dramatic than what you did on the ocean for real.”
Petersen says he had to be careful only to rely on ILM when absolutely necessary. “When you make a decision you better have a calculator there because it’s easily $100,000 per shot.”
Another gee-whiz technology tidbit: The computer-controlled water movements in the tank were recorded and sent to ILM so the background and ocean swells would match.
“It’s still hell on the actors but nowadays it’s much easier for me,” says Petersen. Instead of being out on the rough sea, I was sitting behind the monitors watching them suffer.”