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‘Deepwater Horizon’: How ILM Created Fiery VFX for the Oscar Contender

ILM scored an Oscar nomination and two VES wins for its realistic oil rig disaster VFX.

“Deepwater Horizon”


One of the VFX surprises has been the awards success of Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” which nabbed two VES wins last week for Industrial Light & Magic (supporting VFX and the Deepwater Rig model) to go along with its Oscar nomination.

Based on the real-life offshore drilling rig disaster, ILM mixed digital environments with full background replacements and extensions to physical sets built on three parking lots in New Orleans.

One featured a steel rig more than 60 feet tall, weighing millions of pounds, which included machinery, pumps shooting tens of thousands of gallons of mud, and millions of gallons of water, as well as propane bars, poppers, and mortars to portray the explosive pyrotechnics. Added to this was underwater CG, with many layers of micro bubbles, silt, floating seaweed, and current simulations.

ILM worked out stages of destruction, painting different levels of detailed scorch and mud maps. Director Berg wanted to be able to drop a camera anywhere on the rig and have it hold up to intense scrutiny.

But the star of the movie was the dirty, toxic, and uncontrollable fire, requiring innovative CG work, since the fire’s onscreen for 30 minutes. Thus, it not only had to look realistic but also beautiful and cinematic with the help of interactive lighting.

“Deepwater Horizon”

“We pushed the look of the fire even further with Plume [ILM’s Academy Award-winning simulation and hardware renderer],” VFX supervisor Craig Hammack  told IndieWire. ” We also took advantage of the fact that it all happens on the rig. So we were able to spend a lot of time and energy developing great-looking fire that can play for those 30 minutes.

“But with such a violent fire you end up with simulations that just want to explode, and a lot of the work goes into how to tame those simulations.”

Typically, fire simulations get stacked on top of each other, but for “Deepwater Horizon,” increased hardware rendering capability from Nvidia delivered higher resolution and greater detail, especially with thick ribbons of black smoke and fall-off glow.

Additionally, the new and improved Plume also reduced the need for individual simulations when the fire spreads. And with this disaster, you had a fire that scatters into a 300-foot column.

“We were able to re-engineer the scatter model of the look so it takes into account open space between the fire simulations,” added Hammack. “We advanced our ability to have fires interact with themselves and with the other simulations. It brought this out to a scale of realism that we hadn’t reached before.”

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