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Water whirled

'Master and Commander' plunges depths of digital H2O

The sea epic “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is conspicuously the only film in this year’s f/x bakeoff that charts a course toward realism rather than fantasy.

Director Peter Weir never intended pic to be an effects movie. These days, however, any movie starring the sea automatically becomes one.

“Digital water is one of the hardest things to do successfully,” says visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler, of Santa Monica-based Digital Domain. Butler, who’s worked on everything from “Titanic” to “XXX” and has a master’s degree in computational fluid dynamics from MIT, notes that anything involving real, live physics instantly restricts your artistic license.

“We’re born with the innate capability of seeing if something is wrong, so any photorealistic move is hard to pull off,” he explains.

For “Master and Commander,” it took three visual effects companies — Asylum, Industrial Light & Magic and New Zealand’s Weta — to create the more than 700 effects shots that deliver the film’s incredible ocean battle scenes and digitally enhanced storms.

“Peter Weir was very concerned about it looking real and organic. He saw ‘The Perfect Storm’ and didn’t want to create something Hollywood-esque as that was,” says ILM’s Stefen Fangmeier, whose previous experience supervising effects on “The Perfect Storm” made him both an unlikely and a natural choice for the same job on “Master and Commander.”

Fangmeier came on board late in the film’s evolution, when it became obvious that more effects work would be needed than originally planned. At the director’s behest, Fangmeier minimized reliance on CG, instead using photographic images of water and miniature ships built by Weta. Compositing tools were used to fine-tune all the layers of material.

“The film in its approach is a little bit of a throwback to the old days of using miniatures. Asylum did use 3-D models for some of the shots, but we at ILM didn’t have time to get them into our pipeline,” he says. “Often times we warped the images of the water and the miniatures to make it work.”

Asylum’s Nathan McGuinness took a similarly retrospective tact for the pic’s central storm sequence. He made several trips on the high seas to collect footage, encountering a full-on storm off South America’s Cape Horn that gave him the needed source material.

“There’s not one piece of ocean in that storm sequence that isn’t real,” says McGuinness, who describes the sequence as “one giant illusion,” created with layer upon layer of computer-assembled ocean-wave footage.

McGuinness had the scene spliced together in the Avid, then went in and built the digital ocean piece by piece.

“CG water is obviously more controllable from a visual effects standpoint, but I felt after testing my theories that compositing was going to be a more believable solution. Peter Weir only wanted to see the most believable images. There were some shots that were 100 layers deep, with the layers of water, rain, mist, the ship going into the water and the enhancements on the ship itself. It was like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.”

Though the software tools for creating water effects improve with every project, a combination of live action and CGI is the most effective solution.

For the fantasy pic “Peter Pan,” another f/x contender, Digital Domain’s Mark Forker went to Australia to shoot footage of whitewater specifically for the scenes with the croc.

“Going into it, we did some development on our fluid simulation, and that gave us confidence that we could move bodies of water in ways as it related to the croc,” Forker says.

He dropped various objects into the water to get a library of movements he would later use to embellish shots. “I shot as much as I could of the castle sequence with objects moving through, into and out of the water,” he explains.

Still, the future for water effects, adds Oscar-winning f/x whiz Kevin Mack, lies in improving computer simulation.

“All of the understanding and equations are there, it’s really now just a question of people creating robust, production worthy applications,” he says.

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