Shooting in Parking Lots, Recreating a Massive Oil Rig, and Making Clean Fires Look Dirty

Industrial Light & Magic’s Craig Hammack has received his first Oscar nomination for supervising the effects in Summit Entertainment’s Deepwater Horizon. The documentary-style feature directed by Peter Berg dramatized the explosion of an offshore oil drilling rig that resulted in the worst oil spill in US history. The critically-applauded action-thriller topped $100 million at the boxoffice globally.

Hammack joined ILM in 1996 where he was a digital artist, CG supervisor and technical director on such films as Pearl Harbor, Star Wars: Episode II and III, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. He received two VES nominations for his work on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

He became an associate visual effects supervisor at ILM on The Last Airbender and a visual effects supervisor on Red Tails. Prior to Deepwater Horizon, Hammack was visual effects supervisor for Tomorrowland. (Read StudioDaily's coverage of Tomorrowland here.) He also was an additional visual effects supervisor for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In addition to his Oscar nomination for Deepwater Horizon, Hammack received a VES nomination for best supporting visual effects for that film. Also receiving Oscar nominations for Deepwater Horizon are ILM associate visual effects supervisor Jason H Snell, Iloura’s visual effects supervisor Jason Billington, and special effects supervisor Burt Dalton.  

StudioDaily: Why do you think your colleagues voted for Deepwater Horizon to receive an Oscar nomination?

Craig Hammack: I think the reel showed particularly well in that environment [the annual VFX bake-off]. Seeing the work projected large was an impressive sight. It’s the kind of work that cuts into a reel very well. And, it’s the kind of work we don’t get to do very often anymore. In your head, you’re in the story and if there is nothing visually wrong, no visual cues, it’s easy to assume it’s real — even for people in our industry. 

In theory, this movie could have been shot in camera somehow in the right circumstances. The effects are invisible enough to not stand out, so we have to promote the work ourselves and make a point of showing what we did, or wait for something like the bake-off to show what was done. I took it all as a huge compliment about how much work had to be done.

How much work had to be done?

A lot. It’s hard to quantify, but I try to boil it down to one phrase: We shot it in three parking lots in New Orleans. The whole story takes place on the ocean. Except for some quick scenes around the rescue boat that they shot in a water channel, the movie was shot in abandoned parking lots.

Why was it shot in parking lots?

That wasn’t the original plan. The original plan was to use the sister ship out in the Gulf to scan, document, and do approach shots, wide shots, and helicopter passes. But we were never allowed to do that. The oil companies didn’t want to return calls about the movie. So all that stuff became CG. It really did become a movie shot on sets and parking lots augmented with effects.

What was built on set?

When I came on, there was still talk of building a full rig in the parking lot at 80 percent scale. But what ended up being built was the front face of the rig where the lifeboats are. That whole scene around lowering the lifeboats into the water and people trying to get on was done on that set, 60 feet in the air over a giant water tank with real working winches and actual boats from scrapyards. The water tank had propane bars through it so they could bubble up propane and ignite it so it had pockets of fire.  

There are two instances, actually three, where we show people going into the water. The scene where the guy is on fire was shot with a real stunt man. When Mike Williams [Mark Wahlberg] jumps off the rig into the water, a stuntman jumps on cables, but the impact is done with a digital double. And the third scene is when Williams throws Andrea [Gina Rodriguez] off. That’s a stuntwoman. For the travel down, we roto her off and speed her up.

So we had this giant water tank with paddles that make waves for choppy water. But the water was never to the level Pete [Berg] wanted it, so we replaced it.

How many shots did you work on?

Around 300 hero shots, and, of those, 150 are completely CG. The main hero shots are split between underwater work, which is all CG, the daytime walking-on-the-rig shots, and all the explosions and fire work.

How much of the film does the fire consume?

The rig is on fire through about 30 minutes of the story. That section of the movie plays really tight to the actors so we experience it with the actors. So we have 30 minutes where the fire is in the background and whipping through, but it’s in and out. We follow the actors into the bridge where they have dialog, or through the hallways where they find Jimmy [Kurt Russell]. The scenes are short enough that you’re always back out into the fire, the chaos, the madness.


Did the actors work against real fire on set?

We had a 40-foot LED wall trying to throw interactive light. We shot fire elements, processed them, and handed them back to production to run continual fire elements for the DP. That gave the actors the pace and action of a real fire on this video display. For tight shots, it was great, a broad surface that cast light and textures that gave a nice feeling across the actors’ skin. But once we had a medium wide shot, there were too many pockets.

Enrique [Chediak, director of photography,] also had real fire to expose for so we got the ratios of fire to people to work with. But it’s the same problem as we had as on the water. The fire on the set was tremendous for the actors to act against and get the flavor of danger and chaos, to get the actors to react to real things. But the fire in the film was supposed to have toxic black smoke coming off it and be corrosive, almost like tar fire. In the old days you could burn tires and get fire with that quality. But not now. This is a movie about an environmental disaster. We really wanted to pay attention to the environment, so the on-set fire was very clean, and safe, and looks it.  

So is all the fire in the film CG?

If we could see the fire we had to replace it. 

What tools did you use to create the CG fire?

Our Plume tool. It’s great. It simulates and renders at the same time, so you can fine-tune while simming. It’s easy to figure out what’s working and not working. It’s an artistic tool, which you need when you have to match something like this that has a unique nature. The scale and quality of this fire is nothing you see all the time. Our effects supervisor lead, Raul Essig, led a team of great artists who developed the fire. 

I’ve worked on fire quite a bit in the past. For a long time, fire was a big challenge and one of those things only a few people could do. But in the past eight to 10 years, we’ve gotten more experience with it and the tools have grown so much that we enjoy doing it.

Did you enhance Plume for this show?

We added bits. Through the years, the capability has grown naturally as the hardware has grown. But one of the main things we addressed for this film was the scatter model of the fire — how the fire bleeds through smoke. That was a huge leap for us visually because of the smoky atmosphere. Previously, we used an approximation, but if two fires were next to each other one wouldn’t cast light through the other fire’s smoke, and that gave it a real composited look. We rewrote it for this movie so the fires behave more physically accurately. In some wide shots of the column of smoke and fire, you see the fall-off of light through the smoke in a natural way, and it makes all the difference in the world.

How did the artists place and light the fire?

We focused a lot of the work on developing the main derrick fire and the individual oil and methane fires around the rig. We could bring in sims and move them around as we wanted. We were fortunate that we had a fixed set to cover with fire. It falls apart and the derrick collapses, but it doesn’t change that much. It’s a rigid surface that we can meticulously place fire on and use the sims over and over again. We took advantage of that to spend quality time getting the nature and look of the fire correct. Sometimes the trouble with CG fire is that you put it someplace that doesn’t have real light. But, since we were replacing the rig in every shot, we got real fire interaction on it. Once we had placed the fire and run out good-looking sims, the lighters would grab the VDBs — the volume representations that Plume spits out — so they could get interactive light. When you’re replacing the rig, it can all sit together nicely.

Which studios worked on the visual effects for this film?

ILM San Francisco and Vancouver did the bulk of the show, but everything underwater and inside the pipes, where we see the stoppage of mud in the pipes, was done by ILM London. Iloura in Australia also worked on the film. The majority of their work was to add atmosphere and heat effects to clean shots. They would add ash and embers through the air, heat ripple, soot, and smoke, which added a great flavor to probably 400 shots of live action plates. They also did two sequences with mud, one on the drill deck where you see the hole in the floor and a second in a room where they’re processing the mud. Most of the mud is practical, though.

Who did the shots of the oil erupting?

In tight shots with actors and stunt men getting hit, it’s practical. ILM took over for the wider shots. We used our water system without the first step; that is, without the surface. It’s the spray, splash, and mist mixed with more viscosity than usual. Just as with Plume, we set up sources inside [ILM’s proprietary] Zeno or [SideFX] Houdini.

How long were you on the film?

Just under a year. Post was a bit more than five months. Pete [Berg] was the second director on the show. He came on board relatively late and brought us on board, so we were a little tardy to the party. We had some previs, but we brought our team in to do previs for the jump and crane sequences where it’s slamming against the derrick and for the underwater sequences. We had Keith Johnson leading a previs and postvis team that worked in New York with the editorial group for quick feedback and interaction.

What was the hardest shot?

It has to be the jump off the rig at the end. The idea is that you would be with Mike Williams — the camera would follow him off the rig, see him impact, go underwater, come up, go back under, find Andrea, come up and surface and between shots you’d see glimpses of the rig burning. And that’s kind of how it was in the end. 

It was all shot with handheld cameras in basically 12 sections that we stitched together. But it was shot to be longer by another minute. Pete and the editors decided to chop out a section in the middle, so we had to blend together plates not meant to be together.

We replaced everything except the actor and the immediate water around him. We replaced the rig behind the actors. We had so much water. We added stuff raining through the water when they’re underwater. It continually evolved. And we had this march of elements that we had to generate and produce, and it all had to work with plates being stitched together, with camera moves stitched together. There was a tremendous amount of tracking and blending work through the whole thing. Every time something changed or the camera changed, we had to redo everything. It was the first shot we had a team on, and it was the last one finished.


What did you learn from working on this film?

I learned to embrace the shooting style and not try to control the shoot so much. This was all shot handheld, and every shot wanted to be a reaction shot. So it was important to let the actors’ instincts take over. In some cases they were on a steel rig 60 feet in the air, so there were a lot of constraints already in place. I had to let go of VFX constraints I would liked to have put in, like, “We’re going to need a greenscreen here." Or, "Can we try to not shoot into the crane or the video wall?" Or, "Try to keep peoples’ heads from in front of the 40-foot LED wall that throws interactive light.” But it didn’t make sense to make that fight. They got such good, organic performances from the fact that it was kind of chaos. In the end, it made for a more energetic, less controlled feeling. Once the action starts in this film, it’s fast-paced and relentless.

What was it like to work on a non-fantasy film?

It was a pleasure to work on something that was a real life event, that felt it had some importance to the way it was told. Everybody felt an obligation to do it well. That’s a real treat and a real luxury these days when there’s so much fantasy moviemaking — to get something grounded in reality.