Hunt for Red October 1990

Visual Effects Supervisor –  Scott Squires

Visual Effects Director of Photography – Patrick Sweeney

The effects for this movie were originally being done at Richard Edlund’s Boss films and nearly five months of miniature submarine construction was undertaken under the supervision of Greg Jein. The original methodology was to shoot all the models mounted on model movers with motion control and matte them into backgrounds shot separately. At some point during the testing phase, there was a falling out between the production and the visual effects facility over the look of the test shots and the entire project and the existing models were moved to ILM leaving them around three months to complete the 50 or so effects shots required to complete the movie.

At ILM, due to the short deadline, it was decided to similarly shoot the models using motion control but for the most part in a smoke environment thus capturing the background at the same time. This was done to limit the amount of optical compositing that would otherwise be needed.

The miniature submarine line up consisted of a 21 ft (6.4 m) and a 4 ft (1.2m) Red October model, a 9ft (2.7m) Kronolov sub, two 10ft (3m) dallas subs, a 2ft (0.6m) rescue submersible and a 6 ft (1.8m) torpedo.  ILM then added an inbetween sized 11ft (3.3m) Red October, a bottom section of a 21ft Red October for some new shots that had been added and a 2ft (0,6m) torpedo.

Most of the time the larger red October model was mounted on a rigid pylon which allowed for motorised pitch and yaw action and was framed out of shot. The other models in shot were generally hung from a wire rig, developed by Tad Krzanowski originally for Batteries not included and also used for some of the submersible  shots in the Abyss. This consisted of a 12 wires running down to one of 4 points on the model, 3 wires to each of the 4 mount points. The wires were controlled by something like the swash plate of a helicopter and allowed for yaw and pitch motion of the model. The 3 wires to each point plus gravity, effectively created a cross braced support and a relatively rigid structure. The models were hung from this rig which was mounted on a camera crane arm adapted for motion control that ran on a track that was atop a 25 foot (7.6m) long scaffold structure 12 ft high (3.6m). For a few shots the 250 pound (113kg) Red October model was also hung from this rig. The other relatively light weight models averaged 40 -45 pounds (18-20kg).

A smaller 16ft long motion control track and crane was mounted on a mobile scaffold that could be re-positioned relatively easily. This was mostly used when a second submarine needed to be seen maneuvering in the background.

One of the tricks to getting the smoke to look like it was deep underwater was to light a curtain of smoke in the background. These lights were on dimmers and as the subs moved through the space the backround lights would be slowly faded up and then down as they entered and left the frame. Without this the background density would be too bright. The lighting also had to be very soft and indirect as obvious delineated shafts of light would not be correct for the deep ocean. Each shot was a very difficult and time consuming choreography of moving models, camera and dimming lights. The camera framing had to ensure that all the lights and support rigs were out of frame or at least hidden in the smoky gloom. This meant that the output was around 1 shot per day.

In order to achieve the really close passes on the model mirrors were used in a periscope like arrangement, where the bulky Vistavision camera body would have grazed the hull. Various grades of Super frost filters were used on the lenses to enhance the murky underwater effect.

The smoke was generated using a cracker system which is a method of atomising mineral oil using compressed air. A sensor would turn on and off the smoke automatically to maintain the right density.

About 40 miniature rock spires were built to represent an underwater trench. These ranged from 3 ft (1m) to 22 ft (6.7m) high and could be arranged in various formations to suit each shot in the sequence.

The miniature work in the film and the simulation of the underwater environment is pretty convincing however in a few shots, the optical compositing, particularly the shots concerned with the counter measures and the torpedo trail, is less successful.


One other miniature of note is the Russian Bear bomber aircraft, seen in one really quick shot flying over the ocean. It looks to me as if it is supported at its tail which is just out of shot, and filmed against a real sky and ocean, possibly from the deck of a boat or a truck driving along a coast road. However the shot was achieved, the highly detailed and reflective model is very effective.


Source; Cinefex number42


Sphere 1998

The miniature effects were by Grant McCune Design. Clark Schaffer was the miniature set designer with Monty Shook the chief model maker. David Stump was the miniatures director of photography. Jeffrey A. Okun was the production’s visual effects supervisor.

The entire underwater environment was built at 1/16 scale, 40 ft by 20 ft (12m x 6m). It included the habitat base, the sea floor, coral reef and a forced perspective alien spacecraft with a 16 ft (4.9m) tall fin. Plywood was used for the under structure, and coral was represented by spraying polystyrene foam shapes with acetone giving a pitted texture to the surface.

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1cd8157277f9a28f2c69e19e737f8a8fLarger close up sections of the habitat were built at 1/6 scale. Both scales of habitat domes were built on acrylic forms covered with vacuum formed styrene panels.

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Also included in the sixth scale build was the descent submarine and an escape submarine. The escape submarine featured a pyrex glass sphere for its cockpit bubble as well as a complete interior with sixth scale costumed occupants.

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dd4688190f01c9535bf02b7feb71e146 8697497191c6d8abaa0446d71093375e 9c8ae1595d43615b456c3f71604eb404The arrival of the descent submarine at the habitat was achieved by mounting the 1/6th submarine model on an arm attached to a dolly at its stern. It was then moved into shot with the large habitat section casting its miniature lights onto the submarine’s surface.


Virtually all the models were filmed dry in a smoke filled studio for the underwater look, with CG drifting particulate added later in compositing.

The scenes of the escape craft surfacing were the only wet shots filmed at a tank at Universal Studios called Falls lake. Filmed with two high speed cameras by Pete Romano, the model was originally mounted on a surfacing rig but it was found that the escape craft had to be pushed by hand out of the water to achieve the speed required. The background ships were painted plywood shapes mounted on stands at the back of the tank.

While I have no criticism of the miniatures themselves I feel the production design by Norman Reynolds generally leaves a little to be desired in this film. As far as the miniatures go the habitat suffers the most as being very unconvincing as an underwater structure. I feel the production as a whole ( as flawed as it ultimately was ) would have benefited from some decent sci-fi concept design to start with.


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Source: Cinefex 74 July 1998, DVD special features.





Magic Island 1995

The previous post was about Producer/director Sam Irvin’s quest to complete his research on the 2 part miniseries Frankenstein: the True Story from (1973) for a comprehensive article he writing. Sam also sent me some details and screen grabs from a direct to video kids film he directed called Magic Island which features some shots with a miniature ship. Sam describes the modelship aspects of the production below;

MAGIC ISLAND (1995) was a direct-to-video kids film I directed for Paramount Pictures and Moonbeam Entertainment (the family film division of Full Moon Features). The film subsequently played in heavy rotation on the Disney Channel.
My recollection is that the production designer John Zachary rented this 15 foot model ship from a local Mexican film studio and literally had it anchored off the shore of Ixtapa, Mexico, where we filmed scenes on the beach with the boat in the background. I remember John taking a small motor boat to and from the model ship to make adjustments and to add and subtract the skull-and-crossbones pirate flag, depending on the scene.
Poster to MAGIC ISLAND.jpg
SHIP, Magic Island 1
SHIP, Magic Island 2
15 foot model ship anchored off the coast of Ixtapa, Mexico — with skull-and-crossbones pirate flag flying.
SHIP, Magic Island 3
Buccaneer from shore uses his telescope to see that his ship has been commandeered by pirates — with a skull-and-crossbones flag raised.
SHIP, Magic Island 4
Confrontation between the buccaneers and the pirates on shore. Hard to see, but the model ship is on the horizon in the center. It is anchored in the actual ocean off this beach in Ixtapa, Mexico.
SHIP, Magic Island 5
Again, very tiny, but the white spec on the horizon in the center is the model ship anchored in the actual ocean.
SHIP, Magic Island 6
Model ship anchored in the actual ocean, between boy and buccaneer.
SHIP, Magic Island 7
15-foot model ship anchored in actual ocean off the coast of Ixtapa, Mexico. Now, the pirate flag is no longer waving. The buccaneers have taken back their ship.
I thank Sam for supplying the screen grabs and information for this post.


Crimson Tide 1995

The US Ohio class Nuclear submarine the USS Alabama of the film was represented by models built in three scales from 1/96 scale at 6 foot (1.8m),  1/48 scale at 12 feet long (3.7m) to  the largest 1/24 scale at 24 feet long (7.3m).   The smallest 1/96 scale was a hobby RC model while the other two were a custom lightweight model built for dry for wet motion control photography in heavy smoke on the DreamQuest overhead gantry motion control stage.

The model crew was lead by Dave Goldberg who designed the models in cad and decided that as there was only going to be one model at for each scale to use a build up technique rather than a master pattern, mold and then cast hull method. The large models started with laser cut acrylic ribs strung along an aluminium pipe spine. Over the ribs was laid thin vacuum formed styrene sheets, molded with a rippled surface. The rippled surface replicated the way the real submarine hulls  have a subtle indentation between the frames.  Further detail was scribed and added to the styrene sheet surface. The nose and tail ends were carved in dense foam complete with the rippling surface and these were then used as molding masters for a cast part. The largest model weighed 175 pounds when completed (79kg).

Two scales of the Russian Akula class submarine were built, a smaller one out of wood at 1/96 scale at roughly 4 feet long (1.2m) and a larger one at 1/24 scale measuring 16 feet (4m) in length built in the same way as the larger Alabama. Both of these models were for use on the smoked in motion control stage and were primarily hung on wires from the overhead gantry system while the larger Alabama was supported from the ground.

During testing it was determined that the smaller models used for distant shots did not end up looking realistic enough and so the two largest models were the only ones that ended up on screen.

1/3 scale torpedoes, 7 foot long (2.1m) were constructed with air powered propellers and filmed underwater at the L.A. Swim Stadium. The physical effects supervisor John Gray set up an underwater guide wire and winch system to pull the torpedoes at the 40 miles per hour (64kph) required for the high speed shoot.

Also shot in the pool at the L.A. Swim Stadium was the destruction and implosion of the Akula submarine by the torpedoes fired by the Alabama. Three 20 foot (6m) specially fragile models were constructed from thin sheet lead over aluminium ribs by lead modelmakers Jim McGeachy and Ken Swenson. The thin lead sheets were hammered into fibreglass molds to impart the surface details and curvature. Inside the aluminium frame of each of the models were 7 glass vacuum jars end to end each rigged with a small explosive charge designed to shatter the glass. The very delicate models had wooden cradles built for transport and for lowering into the pool.

An underwater track and dolly system sitting on the floor of the pool was used to move the still positively buoyant model which was tethered by wires. Around 300 pounds (136kg) of lead had to be added to counteract the displacement of the 7 glass jars. The underwater dolly was moved by grips above the water at the poolside.

Once a take was ready to shoot the air in the glass jars was extracted by a vacuum pump and the hose removed. A series of electronically timed explosions was triggered starting at the stern and rippling forward to the bow. First a balloon filled powder charge for the initial blast followed by the glass shattering charges and finally a powder charge at the bow 24 separate events in all. Four high speed cameras and two high speed Vistavision cameras captured the action.

After reviewing the angles the director asked for some timing changes and bigger explosions. The remaining two models were slightly modified and three weeks later a second attempt was made which proved satisfactory and the third model was not required.

Bruce McCray supervised the painting of the models.

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