The Abyss 1989 Part 5

This is Part 5. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here,  Part 3 is here and Part 4 is here.

Looking back at the visual effects work on the Abyss I was struck by how the miniatures shot both in a real underwater environment and motion controlled in smoke filled studio  are still as effective and compelling today as they were back in 1989. At the time it was the computer generated Pseudopod which captured all the attention, which ironically, looking at it today , rather shows its age.

This film was at the very start of the digital revolution which has transformed the field of visual effects irrevocably. There are visual effects supervisors today who have never been on a miniatures shoot, they have no experience of it, the technique is slowly being lost. My aim with this website is try to keep the knowledge alive in any small way I can. There has never been a CGI film that has in any way been close to capturing the deep felt enthusiasm I have for miniatures. The tragedy is that in this day and age where the constraints of the photochemical film process and optical printing have been totally overcome by digital  compositing, where it is a relatively simple task to remove wires and control rods from a scene and where radio control is now reliable, flexible and interference free, miniatures could now more than ever be a practical and economical visual effects solution.  It’s not gonna happen but I can dream…

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The Abyss 1989 Part 4

This is Part 4. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here and Part 5 is here.

Montana interior flooding

Two miniature sets were constructed  and shot to provide rear projection plates for the live action portion of the Montana sinking. One set was of the engine room built by Wonderworks and filmed at Gaffney. it was about 4 feet wide, 12 feet long and 18 inches tall. Installed  with miniature lighting and hoses emitting spray it was lowered rapidly by a crane into the tank at a 45 degree angle with the camera attached so it looked like a wall of water was rushing forward. This plate was then combined with actors in a full size set and co-ordinated dump tanks to complete the illusion of catastrophic flooding.



Miniature Montana engine room set.


The other set was of the torpedo room which was rigged with a radial nozzle that sprayed water out as if coming from a blown hatch seal on the torpedo tubes, followed by a large dump of water under pressure which blows the hatches off. Unusually for a miniature shoot, this shot was filmed at 16 frames per second to really sell the power and speed of the water. Once again this was rear projected in a live action set with actors and sychronised action.

 Sea King Helicopters

It looks like these were shot motion control with a separate UV light pass for the rotor blades however I cant be certain as I can not find any information about them whatsoever.  They may not even have been used in the final cut. they look to be about 1/12 scale.

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Bud Puppets

A couple of different scales of Bud puppets were made for motion control shots of Bud falling down into the abyss in the Fluorocarbon emulsion breathing suit.

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NTI Scout and Manta

These models were made  by Dave Golberg and his crew . the outer hulls were made of a vacuum formed UVEX plastic which in one pass glowed under UV light. Inside was a series of acrylic frames and nested glass shapes. One evacuated glass vessel was filled with a gas mixture which would glow when subjected to a specific radio frequency. Other lighting was included with miniature neon tubes and sequenced fiber optics making a spinning turbine effect. Around 9 separate exposures were built up over the same piece of film to complete the look, shot using motion Control at Dreamquest.


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The NTI puppets were made by Steve Johnson’s XFX mostly from a flexible translucent cast urethane and vacuum formed rigid acrylic shells. They had a number of fiber optic light sourced embedded in the castings. They were shot in water tanks both at the San Pedro facility and later in the 8 foot (1.5m) square cloud tank at Dreamquest.  For shots where the puppet,s wings are undulating for propulsion purposes, the puppet main support and the camera were attached to a rigid beam that went up and down. The resistance due to the water made the wings flap as the body travels up and down with the camera linked to the same motion outside the tank. The body of the creature to the camera appears to stay still with just the wings motion evident. There is a very illuminating series of videos about the filming of these puppets on youtube.


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Part 5 will complete this series with screen grabs from the movie.

Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here and Part 5 is here.

The Abyss 1989 Part 3

This is Part 3. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.

1/4 scale submersibles

Walt Conti was commissioned to develop and construct 1/4 (quarter) scale working miniatures of Flat Top and Cab 1 for the chase sequence.

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Jim Cameron wanted the submersibles to be able to move at about 4 knots and sustain damage through various collisions between themselves and rock walls. The Model construction was supervised by Rick Anderson and they were built very strongly to survive the action called for in the script as well as the pressure exerted by up to 50 feet (15m) of water. The hulls were cast from 1/4 inch (6mm) thick fiberglass. The various tube frame components were made out of thin walled copper tubing which is strong but could dent realistically when hit. The models ended up weighing around 450 pounds (240kg) and had to be moved around with a crane. In order to move such heavy models at the speed required and the fact that the designs were not particularly hydrodynamic in shape, meant that very a powerful propulsion system had to be developed. It was calculated that to get the models to do the 4 knot specification they would need 14 horsepower in a very small package to match the full size submersible thrusters. In the end they had to re-engineer 2 hp electric trolling motors to produce 150 pounds (68kg) thrust each. These motors needed a lot of power and had their own set of batteries which allowed for around 10 minutes at full thrust. Originally they calculated they would need about 1000 footcandles of miniature lighting but more and more lights kept being added to the fullsize submersibles which they had to match. In the end they needed to 3000 footcandles of miniature lighting. This ate into the storage capacity of the 120 pounds (54kg) of Nicad batteries onboard and meant that they had about 6 minutes of lighting power before a battery change. This meant that the lights were only switched on for the take and battery changes needed the models to be craned out of the tank and took about 20 minutes.


Ron Cobb’s Flat bed design

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They cockpits also contained 1/4 scale puppets with radio controlled head turns.


It was decided that the radio controlled vehicles would be better operated underwater and so developed an waterproof RC controller system to go with the models. The under water set they traveled across was about 80 feet (24.3m) long and 40 feet wide. As the visibility was only about 15 feet (4.6m)  and the lighting came predominantly from the models themselves they could easily move around rock set pieces to produce a new area of sea bed for each shot. The camera was run somewhere between 72 and 96 frames per second. After 6 weeks of underwater photography at Gaffney only 10 useable shots had been gathered.


Walt Conti and the 1/4 scale Flat top submersible

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Some months later the crew re-convened at the University of Southern California’s swimming stadium to continue the chase sequence. 90 gallons (340 litres) of blue food colouring was added to the water as well as the sea floor set pieces. Over four 16 hour nights of filming the remaining shots were captured. Also shot at this location was the implosion of the wrecked Flat top submersible as it plummets into the abyss. Jim Camerons brother Mike supervised a special breakaway 1/4 scale model  constructed over a thin walled glass vessel. The Glass container was wrapped in tightly wound Bungee cord which when the squibs detonated shattering the glass, helped pull everything inward. Inside the glass dome was a miniature gelatin Coffey cast around a 1/4 scale plastic skeleton. The cockpit had many details made from thin lead. The pool was only 17 feet deep (5m)  so the bottom was blacked out and there was a lot of particulate to drop the visibility off. The model had a cable running down to a pulley which imparted the dropping action. The first attempt failed when the squibs got wet and only partially exploded ruining the model, so a second model was rigged with waterproofed squibs and imploded successfully.


1/4 scale Coffey figure

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The Skotak brothers also supervised a shot of Cab 3 launching through the Benthic Explorer’s well deck using a varaiation of the “hanging” miniature technique. Pat McClung converted the Conti 1/4 scale Cab 1 to Cab 3 while his brother Jerry constructed a section of the well deck on top of the tank at the San pedro Harbour Star facility.  On the floor of the building was painted a full size representation of the deck. 7 actors pretended to look down through the well which was in fact above them at 1/4 fullsize. As a high camera speed was required for the model splashdown  but a normal 24 frames per second for the actors the two parts were filmed consecutively with the miniature first. The floor area where the live action took place was blacked out while the miniature was shot, then the film was rewound to the start with the model area blacked out and the actors shot. The timing was figured out so that the actions of each would coincide accurately. No optical post production was needed to combine the parts, it was all done in the camera. With the aperture of the lens stopped down with adequate lighting, the depth of field was at its greatest and the foreground model much closer to the camera was as sharp as the more distant actors thus maintaining the illusion. Even though both parts were shot separately, the focus must be locked off for both parts, as the image can change in size as the focus is racked and the matte and counter matte would not fit correctly.


First pass, the model shot high speed, floor blacked out.


Second pass, live action at normal speed, model area blacked out.

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NTI Ark Spires

Two large scale fiberglass sections of the NTI Ark’s spires and an arc surface section were constructed by Design Setters. One part was just the very top of the spire to get a shot of it breaking the surface. This model was 10 feet (3m) wide and 7 feet (2.1m) high, the other was a full length spire at a smaller scale, 20 feet (6m) tall used to show the tower rising up. The Ark rising sequence was shot at the Salton Sea, a once very large saline lake in the Californian desert. Currently the lake is in danger ecologically and has diminished quite markedly from that in 1989. There is an ongoing campaign to try and save it from further degradation.

The sequence using the spires and the large scale section with the Albany and Benthic Explorer (see part 1) was supervised by Gene Warren’s Fantasy II Film Effects. The spires were mounted on a lift mechanism that sat on the floor of the lake. The lake is quite shallow and very gently sloped so that they had to set up their equipment at about 500 feet (152m) from the shore to get the 12 feet (3.7m) of depth needed. The elevation system used cable and pulley system that ran back to an air air winch. Some difficulty was encountered with suction so sometimes a crane was used to assist with the lift. The spire top was shot at 128 frames per second with the rising full length tower at between 240 and 275 frames per second. Wind machines helped to blast the falling water and break it into spray.

A teardrop section of surface was constructed 20 feet by 30 feet, in 9 pieces at Fantasy II’s shop for transportation to the lake. The colour scheme was meant to suggest the colours of an abalone shell.


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NTI Arc complete smaller scale surface shots

In their carpark, Fantasy II built a shallow tank 35 feet (10.6) at the front increasing to 40 feet (12.2m) at the back and only 4 inches (100mm) deep except for a deeper well right in the center. Into this tank went a 17 foot (5.2m) diameter disk shaped arc complete with spires upon which sat small replicas of the Benthic Explorer, Albany,  Deepcore and other assorted warship models.

The arc was constructed by Dave Goldberg and crew by first sculpting one quarter of it in clay. A mold was made and four identical pieces cast and arranged to make the whole circular shape.


one quarter section maquette of the arc with mirrors to create a complete disk.


Colouring was added to the water and fans placed around the perimeter to produce the texture of ocean waves. There were over 200 tubes pumping out a mixture of vinegar and baking soda to produce miniature foam around the circumference of the arc. The arc disk was pushed up to the surface from its cavity by hydraulics in about a second. The camera shot at 300 frames per second which then had each frame effectively doubled on an optical printer to make it appear shot at 600 frames per second.

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NTI Arc underwater shots

A second 17 foot arc pulled from the same mold ( but only half as that was all that is visible) was cast from translucent resin to allow for backlighting. The glowing coloured lights were  fibre optics lit by lasers and designed by Gary Platek. This and  other larger scale spires and tunnel pieces  were shot motion control in a smoke filled environment at Dreamquest, supervised by Hoyt Yeatman.


Screaming Mad George sculpting a large close up spire for motion controlled photography.

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Part 4 will cover some other miscellaneous models used in the film.

Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.

The Abyss 1989 Part 2

This is part 2. Part 1 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.

Submersibles 1/8 scale

Models of Cab1, Cab 3 and Flatbed were constructed by Design Setters. They were shot dry in a motion controlled smoke filled environment at Dreamquest  and supervised by Hoyt Yeatman.

They had to have mini back projectors inside them to project the prefilmed 35mm crew footage seen in the bubble glass cockpits. The size of this equipment dictated the smallest possible size of the miniatures which then was determined to be 1/8 scale. They each hung on a 9 wire rig known as a Krzanowski rig named after its developer and engineer Tad Krzanowski. The nine wires connected to the models at three triangulated points, 3 wires to each point. The wires lead back up over pulleys at the end of 9 equi-spaced radial arms and hook to something similar to a helicopter swash plate which is motion controlled to produce all the yaw, roll and tilt motions required. Three such rigs were then slung from an overhead gantry that was in turn motion controlled to provide the major forward-back, left-right motion. The camera in turn is also motion controlled.


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The size of the models meant that the internal batteries would only last about 45 mins. The batteries had to power all the high intensity bulbs, each model having between 10 and 15 lights each, and the mini rear projector. To conserve power, the lights had to be turned on whilst the camera’s shutter was open and turned off while it was closed. This light switching task was also hooked up to the motion control system. It was found that the wires allowed the models to vibrate as they came to a stop. As long as the speed of each pass was the same the vibration was the same. It meant that if a speed of 5 frames per second was needed in order to expose correctly for the internal rear projection, all the other passes had to be shot at the same 5 frames per second. Generally there were two passes for the submersible lights, one to simulate the strong underwater attenuation filmed in heavy smoke and a pass filmed in a lighter application of smoke for the hot core. A very subtle fill pass was also deemed necessary to help show the difference between Cab 1 and Cab 3 which were white and orange respectively. The camera lens was gelled blue and submersibles in the background would be gelled bluer in another set of passes, each lighting pass built up on the same piece of film which was rewound each time. Then there was the rear projection pass which was recorded on a new piece of film to be added in later using an optical printer.


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The flat bed model carried miniature diver figures whose heads could be turned by motion control. Streams of bubbles had to be filmed against black and tracked in on a pin block in an animation stand later so they lined up correctly with the little figures.


Bubble pass being shot

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Deepcore 1/8 scale

For shots with closer interaction between Deepcore and the 1/8 scale wire hung motion control miniature submersibles, a 1/8 scale model Deepcore was constructed by Design setters. This model was also shot dry in a motion controlled smoke environment at Dreamquest  and supervised by Hoyt Yeatman.

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Montana 1/8 scale

To go with the 1/8 scale submersibles a 1/8 scale wrecked Ohio class submarine Montana set was built by Design Setters. To scale it should have been 70 feet (21.34m) long  but 10 feet were extracted out to help fit it in the studio making it 60 feet (18.29m) long.

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Montana 1/40 scale

For the opening shots of the Montana cruising through the deep and being menaced by an unknown craft a 14 foot (4.27m) 1/40 scale fiberglass model was constructed by Goldberg and Company and shot in smoke and motion controlled at Dreamquest.

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Montana approx 1/12 scale

An approximately forty foot (12m) long Montana was built by Wonderworks for underwater filming of the crash sequence. It was built in three sections to enable transport and had a central spindle to allow for a rolling action down the abyss.  A lot of the skin of the hull was made from thin sheet aluminium so that it would deform when hit. The front was constructed from a spun aluminium dome. Sections were of fiberglass with breakaway areas of thin sheet lead. The interior was loaded with miniature debris to spill out on collision.

The sequence was shot in A tank after the main unit had finished as it needed the extra depth. Pete Romano rode the sub holding the camera as it was pulled by block and tackle into the rock wall. Again as it was being shot high speed it needed to go at a pretty decent clip. Once it hit the wall a cable was rigged to make it roll over the edge. To enhance the shots of it falling, it was loaded with diatomaceous earth which streamed off like a trail of sand and silt.

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In Part 3 we look at the 1/4 scale submersibles and the NTI Arc miniatures.

Part 1 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.