Although nominated for visual effects, “Deepwater Horizon” production designers built an 85%-scale model oil rig as a set large enough to sustain what would become the star of the film. Directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, the film, which narrates the 2010 explosion and spill that killed 11 people in the Gulf of Mexico, took up a parking lot at an abandoned Six Flags park in New Orleans.
But immersing audiences into this daunting world meant maintaining authenticity by all means necessary — even through Louisiana’s tumultuous weather conditions. Chris Seagers, the film’s production designer, has said that working on Louisiana’s coast posed challenges to the construction, as working with tons of metal forced them to shut down daily due to lightning. But the weather was only a slice of the crew’s setbacks. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana coast in 2005, floods took over the land occupied by the Six Flags park, and a swamp engulfed the abandoned territory. The crew had to dig 50-foot by 50-foot holes, with 45 piles in each hole. Two feet of concrete was placed in each hole, becoming the base for the rig. Nearly 3.2 million pounds of steel, 85 welders and eight months later, the model was complete.
But creating the rig was only a portion of this massive construction, as the 73-foot high oil rig needed a body large enough to house a simulation of the Gulf of Mexico. This meant constructing a tank built to hold more than 2 million gallons of water. The massive water tank had to be set on fire with liquid propane poured in to simulate the blaze of oil on the water’s surface.
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Instead of relying on VFX to create their effects in post, the team used large LED screens on the rig’s deck, playing back images of enormous flames to create the correct interchange of light and shadow on set. Visual effects took footage of fire, blowing it up to give the exact color and flicker of a real large flame.