Unleashing a Storm

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It howls like a werewolf. It kills with the brutal indifference of Dracula. Like a rabid dog, it rages and spits. Like a shark, it never sleeps.

We speak of the storm the title character in The Perfect Storm, the adaptation of Sebastian Junger's 1997 nonfiction best seller that opens this week. We do not speak, however, of the $140 million film. For more on that, you, along with the Warner Bros. executives (you'll know them; they'll be the ones with the gnawed-down fingernails and little voodoo dolls bearing a striking resemblance to some of their competition: Rocky, Bullwinkle and Mel Gibson), can read the critics or check out the box-office grosses after opening weekend.

No, here we speak of the storm, because it may be the most ambitious cinematic undertaking since Sylvester Stallone tried comedy. For most of the movie, it conspires to destroy the Andrea Gail, a 22-m swordfishing vessel that sailed from Gloucester, Mass., on Sept. 20, 1991, into a meteorological hell. After looming ominously in the distance for a while, the storm moves in for the kill, drowning a rescue worker, swallowing a helicopter, attacking a freighter and upstaging George Clooney, who stars as the Andrea Gail's captain, Billy Tyne. Let it be said right up front that Clooney is a terrific actor, a funny guy and a sexy movie star (he and co-star Mark Wahlberg never looked better, by the way, than they do here), but even director Wolfgang Petersen who was drawn to the project because of his interest in the characters concedes that the storm is the movie's major player. "It is massive; it is gigantic; it is something made from nightmares," says Petersen. "It is the bad guy of all bad guys."

But is it perfect? We'll answer that question in the last paragraph. For now, let's say that it is something of a milestone in filmmaking. Although computer-generated images, or cgi, have been around for a couple of decades, Petersen's film is traveling the highest plane of the state of the art. Using weather reports, scientific formulas and frequent flights of fancy, a team of artists at Industrial Light & Magic, the prolific special-effects house behind Terminator 2 and the Star Wars franchise, has rendered the roiling seas and crashing waves almost entirely on computers (no miniature boats were used, and the film's actors and crew spent only three weeks shooting on real ocean water). The Perfect Storm also leads the charge in this season's digital bonanza, which includes Dinosaur's realistic talking reptiles, Titan A.E.'s beautiful 3-D space-scapes, and the casts of computer-generated thousands in Gladiator and The Patriot. And that's not all. See Kevin Bacon disappear in The Hollow Man! See Eddie Murphy dance with himself in the sequel to The Nutty Professor! See Rocky and Bullwinkle act with Robert De Niro! See Rebecca Romijn-Stamos turn blue in X-Men!

"You couldn't have had Dinosaur without [digital] technology," says Andrew Millstein of Disney's ambitious new special-effects division, the Secret Lab, which is computer-generating puppies for its upcoming 101 Dalmatians sequel. "As technology evolves, it's going to unfetter our imaginations." The Perfect Storm, in fact, is a perfect example of a story told in a new way thanks to digital know-how. Says visual-effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier: "Here we are really creating the whole environment of the movie."

Fangmeier, like Petersen, hails from Germany and both speak with hefty accents, but the director didn't hire the f/x (Hollywood parlance for special effects) wizard out of Teutonic solidarity. Petersen tapped Fangmeier because of his impressive, all-digital work on Twister. Still, there were no guarantees; while water has been digitally drawn before (notably in Titanic and Waterworld), The Perfect Storm would require a level of simulation that had never been attempted. On Warner Bros. soundstage No. 16, a shipping vessel doubling for the Andrea Gail was harbored in a large tank 7-m deep (the same tank where Spencer Tracy sailed in The Old Man and the Sea 42 years ago). In front of a blue screen, mounted on a gimbal, the Andrea Gail tossed and turned while the actors (in addition to Clooney and Wahlberg, the boat's crew includes John C. Reilly, Allen Payne, John Hawkes and William Fichtner) employed their craft amid wind machines and torrents of pelting water. Meanwhile, just up the California coast at ILM headquarters in San Rafael, near San Francisco, animators awaited footage so it could be digitally plugged into the computer-generated storm.

Since the gimbal could turn the boat only so much, the ILM crew had to jostle it further after scanning footage into the computer. And since no miniatures were used, "for a very wide shot," says ILM's associate effects supervisor Doug Smythe, "the boat would be computer-generated as well." At times, so were the actors. During a sequence in which Clooney climbs an outrigger to cut loose a flailing stabilizer, a CG double was created for certain camera angles. (Basically, when you're not seeing Clooney's face, you're seeing a digital dummy.)

No feat, of course, rivaled ILM's waterworks. During the film's research and development stage, another associate effects supervisor, Habib Zargarpour, studied how waves break and froth by leaning out of a helicopter and sailing on choppy seas with a video camera. "First we found out it's all about foam," says Zargarpour. "Then we found out it's all about mist." Reality was then simulated by ILM's software creators, fluid-dynamics expert John Anderson and programmer Masi Oka. Given variables like wind velocity, for example, the program could determine the size of a wave or the magnitude of a splash. ILM artists would often test hundreds of variables for a single shot, and Zargarpour's team would provide "shaders" to simulate texture and reflection of light.

"On top of that," says Fangmeier, "you have the texture of the water and the white stuff, then you have a boat going through it, then you have a wave that breaks and has its own foam." Since the systems governing the individual elements could not be run simultaneously, mist, foam, splash, wake and currents had to be integrated for each shot. To do so, f/x artists manipulated the foam with more tiny white particles, each one with its own marching orders. By the end, The Perfect Storm's 336 detail-intensive f/x shots consumed more computer memory than the nearly 2,000 shots in The Phantom Menace. "Everybody has gone to the beach and looked at the waves and seen them crashing," says Fangmeier. "You get a sense of what that looks like. We had to get to the point where nothing pops out and you say, 'Wait a minute.'"

That was Petersen's job, as in, wait a minute, that wave should be bigger. "You learn all the sciences," says Fangmeier, "but we did break some of the scientific rules when it came to those Hollywood moments." If you've seen the trailer, you've already seen the film's most impressive Hollywood moment the Andrea Gail's scaling a mountainous wave that threatens to fold her into its crest. "I said, 'Wolfgang, that's a [60-plus-m] wave. That's impossible, certainly not recorded in this storm,'" Fangmeier recalls. "So we did scale it down a little bit. A little bit."

And so, little bit by little bit, it was done.

Now we come to the last paragraph, where we answer the Big Question: Does the storm make the grade? Let's see: Its performance is over the top. It pulls focus from the actors. (Even Fangmeier believes that Wahlberg "was a little under-utilized.") And in rare moments, if you look closely, it even lacks sincerity. But even so, it's a wonder to behold, a rocking testament to places moviemaking can take us. So let's give it an A-. Call it nearly perfect.