Steve Daly analyzes an impressive ''Poseidon'' scene: What was CG? What was real? The EW senior writer explains the brazen trickery behind the movie's opening sequence
Putting a ”Poseidon” scene under the microscope
Another May weekend has passed, and another F/X-laden wannabe blockbuster has opened seemingly at every multiplex in creation. Did Poseidon under-perform? The usual tidal wave of breathless box office analysis has been dominating coverage of the movie since Sunday. It’s fun to play the schadenfreude game, but all that nanny-nanny ha-ha stuff threatens to drown out what movie-loving people should really be discussing: a great money shot in a not-so-great movie.
THE MOMENT It’s much more than a moment, actually: It’s an epic, unbroken, super-Steadicam-style 3-minute-and-7-second opening shot. (4,500 frames shown at 24 frames per second, for you number-crunchers.) The camera — or what seems to be a camera — starts out underwater, then comes up through the surface to reveal the prow of the mighty Poseidon. The camera slowly floats and hovers around the ship, and you think, Okay, it’s neat CG, but nothing earth-shattering. Then things get interesting: We move in closer and closer on a lone jogging figure, until we’re close enough to see that… Behold! It’s no lame, fake digital double — it’s the actual Josh Lucas, in all his snazzy running-tog-attired, well-groomed glory. The camera follows behind him as he nips up a staircase, then retreats back out into a wider vantage again to pass over more of the ship, past luxe swimming pools and big smokestacks, with golden, late-afternoon sunlight bathing every surface in a warm haze. Around the other side, we push in again on Josh as he ends his run.
WHY IT ROCKS Every single thing in this shot is computer-generated — the water, the boat, the incidental passengers, the tacky towels on the railings — except for the two close-up segments of Josh Lucas. Plus, it runs just over 3 minutes, which is really brazen. It invites the audience to pick apart the level of CG detail, and that detail really holds up. Okay, so it’s not quite as long or as physically intricate as the famous opening shot in Orson Welles’ 1958 drama Touch of Evil (which ran about a half-minute longer), nor is it quite as miraculous, since Welles had to coordinate real people, cars, and a moving camera on a crane in one take, with no computers to clean up any goofs. Still, this shot looks so believable in spots, and it’s so damn baroque, that Orson must be smiling somewhere in the great beyond.
HOW THEY DID IT We got the skinny from the movie’s associate visual effects supervisor, Mohen Leo. (He’s a longtime hand at George Lucas’ ILM shop, though he also took some years away from the Lucas fold to work on the second and third Matrix pictures, among other cool assignments.) ”People say, ‘Oh, your work must be exciting,”’ says Leo. ”Actually, it can be incredibly tedious. Most of it is 12-hour days sitting in front of a computer, typing in numbers.” (But hey, we promise, this is still a very sexy behind-the-scenes story, so keep reading!)
There was early talk of finding an actual ship for some of the Poseidon exteriors, but that seemed silly when ILM was going to have to create a CG ship model anyway for all the pandemomium-filled shots when the giant wave hits and capsizes the craft. Also, you could never fly a real helicopter in and around a ship the way director Wolfgang Petersen wanted for the opening shot. So, how about a big model in a tank? It worked for Ben-Hur, and Titanic, for its ship-at-sea shots, mainly used a physical model as well. But ILM decided that wouldn’t work for Poseidon. You need to build ship models for a movie at least one-quarter scale, says Leo, or the water in the tank around it looks fake, even if you shoot it slow-motion. ”People are attuned to how water behaves,” says Leo. ”You know what size droplets and ripples should be.” Since Poseidon was conceived as being 1,100 feet or so long (more than 200 feet longer than the actual Titanic), a convincingly scaled model would have had to be at least 300 feet long. That was deemed too big and impractical. So it was CG all the way — including all the water, done with the help of a Stanford University computer-graphics think tank.
But CG wouldn’t do for the two separate segments of Josh Lucas jogging, because even ILM can’t yet make a virtual-actor clone look rightly hunky. So Lucas — we mean Josh, not George of ILM — had to shlep out to a huge, flat, concrete flood basin at the Sepulveda Dam in L.A., where a ”cable-cam” rig moving on wires at 20 miles per hour (see last week’s Money Shot for an explanation of the rig system) photographed him jogging in tricky ways that would match the physics of the virtual-moving-camera in the final CG shot. Why a flood basin? It was the only outdoor spot big enough and flat enough to get slanting, late-afternoon sunlight with no pesky building shadows creeping onto Lucas’ body; plus, it could be commandeered for the week and a half it took to set up and capture the shots. When the remote-control camera finally rolled, crew folks jogged alongside the star as he ran, holding up greenscreen material behind him — a solid color that helped CG artists subsequently cut out Lucas’ silhouette cleanly, like a cookie-cutter pattern. Lucas’s figure then got transposed into a CG ship model made up of some 180,000 separate component geometric shapes — a nightmare of data-crunching computational complexity. Normally, CG shots are designed so it takes about one hour to ”render” each frame — that is, to translate the data into an image. This one took, on average, about 18 hours per frame to render.
Nobody will cough up an actual figure, but the shot is estimated to have set Warner Bros. back several million smackers of the picture’s hefty budget. So what?, crows director Petersen. ”It’s motion-picture history,” he says. ”It’s never been done. We are just absolutely proud of that shot — it looks totally realistic.”
So, it’s time for you readers to weigh in. Did Wolfgang and ILM convince you, at least enough to entertain you? Was refining that one money shot worth more bucks than you’ll make in a lifetime? And how does it stack up to the money shot from M:I-3?