Charted Course: Adam Rowland talks about Captain Phillips

Trevor Hogg chats with Adam Rowland about charting the course of the visual effects for Captain Phillips…

When Oscar-winner Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) teamed with filmmaker Paul Greengrass (Green Zone) to tell the true story about Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship some digital trickery was needed to augment the on-location settings.  “We were approached originally to work on some environmental clean-up and screen inserts,” explains Nvizible Visual Effects Supervisor Adam Rowland (Trash) as to how the London-based VFX company became involved with the making of Captain Phillips (2013).  “The number of shots increased – as did their complexity – as production progressed, and we ended up doing nearly 180 in total.”  Greengrass had a particular mandate for the visual effects.  “He was most interested in conveying the story.  Almost all of the notes that we received from him and the editor, Chris Rouse [The Bourne Ultimatum], were to do with enhancing various plot points throughout the film.  They were less interested in the technical aspects of what we were doing, and more interested in reinforcing the narrative that they wanted to tell.”  The historical nature of the film affected approach taken to convey the cinematic content.   “All of the graphics that we created for various screen-inserts had to be not only accurate to existing graphics, but had to help tell the story as accurately as possible.  The production team gave us a huge amount of paperwork that contained information on the original hijack.  Our AfterEffects artist, Chris Lunney, had to trawl through it all for the relevant parts to use.  It means that when you see information on-screen on either of the Navy vessels, the time, location, speed, and direction is all as true-to-life as possible.”
Along with the screen inserts Nvizible was responsible for CG helicopters, airplanes, vehicles, CG seascape and environments.  “I think that with a film like this, people don’t particularly expect there to be much in the way of effects,” observes Adam Rowland.  “It’s all hand-held, immediate and visceral, and within that quasi-documentary format, it is genuinely expected what you see onscreen is what was shot.  As a consequence, the effects seem ‘invisible’ because within that genre of film, nobody expects them to exist.  Of course, it also helps to have a really solid compositing team.”  Background replacements and CG augmentation was required to enhance the sense of being out at sea.  “We did a lot of simple clean-up removing land from the horizon in the scenes on board the Maersk Alabama.  The Skydiving Sequence was shot over land, not sea, so that required quite a bit of work, especially as it was also shot day-for-night.  A helicopter shot of the aircraft carrier and the scene with the Navy Seals at the airfield required 3D assets of both people and vehicles to populate the area.”  Rowland notes, “With a project like this, the emphasis is always on realism.  We had to make sure that the vehicles were all the correct models, as was the information on the screens and the look of the software used.  We were fortunate to have a dossier compiled by the production of the details of the real-world events, so we referred to that when required.”
Complicating matters was the need to handle the compositing of different footage formats such 35mm, Alexa, 16mm, and Canon 5D.  “They were often used within one scene, as was the GoPro,” states Adam Rowland.  “We had some shots within which the highlights had been clipped, so often we had to put more detail in for them to play with in the grade.  The colourists would have had a trickier job getting a lot of the shots to look consistent, as they were often shot at entirely different times of day, so sometimes we were able to assist in that respect.  Grain is always an issue, as is lens distortion, but they were reasonably consistent within a scene or sequence, so once we’d been able to establish the specific idiosyncrasies of each stock, it was just a case of maintaining it.”  Rowland reveals, “Much of the 3D that we completed for the film was of distant, incidental detail.  We created background vehicles and people, never intending them to be seen close-up.  Fortunately for us, we were able to worry less about the accuracy of the 3D in this respect as much of it would be out-of-focus anyway.  Textures and shaders could therefore be less detailed.  In these cases, we decided to give as much control to the compositor as possible, in terms of position, tracking and re-lighting.”
Adam Rowland
“We had a shot that was filmed from a helmet-mounted GoPro of the skydivers as they hit the water,” recalls Adam Rowland.  “It was shot during the day, with a lot of visible safety boats and our job was to make it look like an isolated piece of sea at night time.  Initially we looked at it as a large-scale clean-up shot, but it became more and more obvious that a full CG rebuild would be required. The shot was tracked, a new 3D sea-surface was rendered out of Maya, and a new sky was painted up.  It was all lit fairly flatly, as we knew it would end up being graded to night.  Often with shots like this, it’s possible to lose the perceived interactivity of the actors and the water, but in this case we were able to keep the foreground water elements from the original plate.  Essentially everything else was faked though.”  Nvizible was not the only visual effects company working on Captain Phillips.  “We shared very little with Double Negative, the other vendor, because very few of our sequences were shared.  There was a sky or two that we had to match to, but generally our scenes were self-contained and did not overlap.  The unified look that you see up on-screen has to be credited largely to the great colourists at CO3; they juggled many formats and footage shot in hugely varying light conditions, and it all looks seamless.”  Production schedules are becoming shorter with every movie.  “It didn’t feel like a particularly tight schedule.  I think, however, when the project does get fraught and pressured, which often happens near the end, it’s worth remembering that you’re working on a really good film, for a great director.  This is not often the case, and is a powerful incentive to do the best work that you can.”
Many thanks to Adam Rowland for taking the time for this interview.

To learn move visit the official websites for Captain Phillips and Nvizible.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.