‘Dark Waters’: VFX Supervisor Chris Haney Delivers Subtle Effects for Todd Haynes

Working to produce convincing effects within the modest budget of an independent film can stretch the talents of even seasoned creatives. Case in point: VFX supervisor and  artist Chris Haney.

Haney has top-line experience, working on blockbusters including “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Avatar,” “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” But after more than a decade in Los Angeles, he moved back to his hometown of New York City to work on smaller projects. He certainly got his wish when he was contacted by Michael Sledd in summer 2018. Sledd sent the script for “Dark Waters,” the Todd Haynes-directed, environmentally themed drama that he was executive producing.

Dark Waters” is the true story of corporate attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who in 1998 took a trip to see his grandmother in Parkersburg, W. Va. Bilott began his journey down the rabbit hole after meeting Wilbur Tennant, a local farmer who had lost 190 cattle to a mysterious disease, with horrific consequences not only to creatures but to his brother, too.

Bilott’s methodical investigation yielded an eventual class-action suit against DuPont, which knowingly suppressed evidence that its huge plant in Parkersburg was dumping toxic chemicals that leaked into the local river as well as the landfill abutting Tennant’s farm.

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A corporate courtroom drama typically doesn’t need extensive visual effects, but “Dark Waters” had a few key moments that could not be created practically. These included a polluted river and a deformed cow that attacks Bilott. Haney had previously worked with Haynes on “Carol”; he was brought in early to help plan the effects for “Dark Waters.” Since the movie takes place over a period of 10 years, Haney knew he would need to finesse several changes of season to maintain continuity.

“A big VFX challenge came when we had to show a polluted river that runs near DuPont’s Washington Works factory,” he says. “Originally the plan was to do this practically. There was a lot of discussion about whether this could be done without environmental impact. The irony of worrying about special-effects pollution actually polluting a location for an environmentally themed movie is obvious! We finally determined that the practical effect was harmless, so that became the solution. But on the day we shot, it suddenly became windy. The special-effects team carefully placed an environmentally safe foam for the necessary shots but the wind wouldn’t have it and blew it all away. Pollution effects were suddenly on my ‘do list.’”

A great deal of what goes on in VFX isn’t very glamorous: cleanup work and seat-of-the-pants solutions when effects are added without extensive preparation, as with the foam pollution being knocked out by the weather. Instead of focusing on the latest innovations in computers or render farms, however, some of the most challenging shots for effects artists arise from independent features with small budgets. This is Haney’s métier. He manages his own team in Manhattan, one of a handful of dedicated movie FX houses in the city. That means he’s no stranger to indie budgets. Adding in the CGI pollution to shots of water with kids splashing and camera movement meant every shot required a custom solution. Haney’s success comes from not only knowing how to achieve an effect most economically but also his ability to tap into a network of top artists, whether in New York or in other locations.

But sometimes his effects setups need to go native. “From the beginning, we knew we would have a poisoned cow that charges at Bilott,” says Haney. “Early on, we thought we would make a fully rigged CGI cow and storyboards showed us a general idea of the shots we needed. Eventually, we felt we would also need to use a real cow and track CGI elements to it. On the day of the shoot, we placed approximately 500 tracking markers on a dairy cow. At the time, we debated if we really needed them, but it turned out the decision to go all out with markers saved us during compositing. My assistant, Ricardo Marques Montilla, and I spent hours with our fingertips freezing applying small felt dots to two cows in a field. I think they were quite patient with us.”

Much of “Dark Waters” was shot on location in Ohio. Since it was in mid-winter, the weather was unpredictable. As Haney was on set as VFX supervisor, it was his job to catch any issues that might require effects. “For example, if the script indicates summer but it starts snowing, then a quick decision has to be made whether we need to start laying down tracking markers, melt snow with a heat blower, plan reshoots or just go with the flow of the seasonal aspect is not crucial to the story.”

What happens when you don’t have the shot and a reshoot is not feasible? This is something all VFX companies have to deal with at some point. For indies, this is often where a budget can be saved by having a sharp eye on site. “In ‘Dark Waters,’ there were many shots that needed total reconstructions,” says Haney. “These included shots placing Mark Ruffalo in different environments by grabbing skies from one plate, trees from another and matte paintings for seasonal changes. Or enhancing the charging cow’s performance, which we followed with a full CGI build for the flailing cow after [the scene] was shot.”

As with any period piece, weather, time of year and scheduling issues require several dozen fixes, which might include set extensions and removing anachronistic elements like modern cars.
Haney knows how big-budget movies revel in the effects they can deliver, something that still appeals to VFX artists who could point to a creature or hero effect they worked on that takes center stage at the multiplex. He is not so interested in bragging rights for that kind of “hero” effects nowadays.  “There are effects that are eye candy and effects that are invisible. You don’t get credit
for what the audience doesn’t see, but in a way, that’s just as satisfying.”

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