Translating the raw power of 2004’s cataclysmic Thailand tsunami to film would be an immense feat under any circumstance. But the task was all the more challenging for Félix Bergés, the visual effects supervisor of The Impossible (out in limited release on Dec. 21), who opted to skip the CGI in favor of real — read: unpredictable — water. After more than a year of testing and planning, Bergés and his team had precisely “one and a half takes” to pull off the film’s most pivotal set piece. Below, he explains the process behind the stunning, 10-minute sequence.
As told by: Félix Bergés
I began preparing this sequence one year prior to filming. The key aspect for us was always to do something realistic rather than spectacular. First, we needed to understand how the real tsunami in Thailand was. We looked at a lot of documentation. I saw real images that were very hard [to look at]. We wanted to be very respectful because this was a huge tragedy.
Also, for all of us, it was very important to have the point of view of the people [on whom the story is based]. We spoke a lot with the family, and they explained to us the feeling that they had when they were in the tsunami. We wanted to get as close to that point of view as we could.
The tsunami sequence is very long — 10 minutes — more or less in real time. This is the time that they [were swept up] in the water. From the beginning we decided to use as much real water as possible. It was very important for us. We knew CG water can be effective for very wide shots like in a Roland Emmerich movie… but it was more important to have real water because we love its behavior.
We knew it would be more or less easy to produce medium and close shots with the actors in real water, and we knew it would be more or less easy to do very wide shots with CG water. But, because we wanted to do everything with real water, we had to figure out a way to do the very wide shots [that spanned] 200, 300 meters with real water also. For us, that was the most challenging thing.
In these shots, our best plan was to use a lot of different scale models.… Our idea was to match a lot of different plates of real water [shots] in different scales in order to have the illusion that you have [this massive wave]. We ran tests for months with small amounts of water. We also prepared a very extensive preview of the flood and the wave sequences. We [wanted] to go to the set having a lot of ideas, a lot of experience.
For the huge first wave, we had the budget to produce one and a half takes. That is completely true. I think there was a component of luck [that it came together]. There is no such thing as being totally sure what will happen, but I think we knew more or less how the water would behave [because of all our preparation]. We had enough budget to make the scale model (a 1:3 miniature), and we had money to make one take with 12 cameras. Then we rearranged the miniature a little bit and did a re-take. The second take was not very good because the miniature wasn’t in very good shape, but it was useful because we used a lot of plates from the second take to create the effect of more water in the finalized shot.
The flood sequence was the most difficult sequence. The wave sequence was a lot easier [in comparison]. The most central physical obstacle was building a channel. The final channel we built was 60 meters wide by 80 meters long. We began with a small channel — four meters wide by 20 meters long — and then we increased the size a couple of times in order to have a real idea because, with water, it’s very difficult to work in scale.
It was also unsafe to have debris [in the water] with the actors, so we had to make a lot of plates with only debris. Ultimately, we made a lot of layers and shot a lot of material in order to have real things to compose the final shot. We more or less spent five weeks of working with the actors and one week shooting IFX plates.
The director [J.A. Bayona] spent probably four months planning his part so he would have complete freedom on set. My team also spent months making technical previews for every single shot in order to translate how this free way of shooting could logistically work in our tank. A lot of times, the visual effects team imposes a lot of technical things that make the shooting not free for the director. The shooting was very technical, but I think the director and the actors were comfortable. In this sequence, the relationship between Maria (Naomi Watts) and her son Lucas (Tom Holland) was very important, so it was essential to shoot in a way that the director was comfortable he’s shooting something real.
I’ve been working in the business 30 years. It’s completely true that this is the most challenging movie I have ever done, but I’m very comfortable creating realistic effects. I don’t know how I could make fantastic science fiction movies like Star Wars or Prometheus. With all the movies I have done, I try to think of my work as invisible. My company is very proud of The Impossible. It was two and a half years of our lives and turned out to be a very beautiful experience.