Krakatoa east of Java 1969

Nominated Oscar Special Effects (1970)

Batavia Queen in the tank with the model Krakatoa.

Eugene Lourie, famous for directing a number of classic B-movie monster movies in the fifties, was also an accomplished art director and special effects director. He art directed and directed the special effects miniature work on Crack in the world (1965) and then was asked to do the same tasks for this film for the same producers. The odd part about this movie was that he shot the special effect sequences first, before there was even a finished script. The script was then completed and the movie structured to incorporate the many excellent miniature sequences that were already in the can.

In his fascinating autobiography, “My work in Films” – Eugene Lourie ( Harcourt Brace Jovanovich – 1985)  he talks about finding the ship for the movie and constructing a scale model;

“Practically, one of the most urgent tasks was to find a suitable steamship that we could alter into a combination steam and sailing ship, now required by the current version of the script. No shipping companies in Madrid had anything that approached our requirements. I would have to investigate seaports around Spain for a ship. So one of my assistants and our production manager left with me, driving first to Bilbao in northern Spain and then south to explore some ports along the Atlantic coast. We reached Bilbao in misty rain. The busy port stretched for miles on both sides of the river. We followed the wharf and the succession of loading and unloading ships. Almost at the end of the line, we saw a steamer unloading coal on the rainy wharf. It had the shape of a former passenger ship and seemed of the right vintage and size for our picture. We learned from the friendly skipper that she had been built in England around 1880 and was formerly a mixed passenger and cargo ship. Now she was a tramp steamer carrying occasional loads of potatoes or coal between Spain and Morocco. We visited some other ships but none was as suitable as the first. I don’t remember the name of this ship, but for us she was to become the Batavia Queen.
In Malaga we also lined up the shipyard where we would later remodel our ship. By this time the ship was contracted and thoroughly photographed and measured by Fernando Gonzales my assistant. I decided on the scale of the miniature replica of the ship. As a rule, the larger scale of a miniature ship, the more natural her movements will appear on the water in relationship to the sizes of the waves we can create in a studio tank. However, the very large miniature ships are difficult to maneuver and more expensive to build. I decided that the Batavia Queen would be built in a one-to-ten ratio, the scale that I had used most often for miniatures in my previous films. Since I needed some very long shots of the ship when she approached the island of Krakatoa, I also built one miniature ship in a one-to-twenty scale. But after I shot a test with this very small miniature ship, I decided not to use it. The small Batavia Queen looked like a toy duck in a bathtub, her movements too jerky. Designing proceeded quickly for the remodeling of the actual freighter and the eighteen-foot miniature ship. For the real ship we had to build a new bowsprit and a wood­carved figurehead, make the smokestack higher, and provide taller masts with new yards and a set of practical sails. All these alterations would have to pass strict maritime inspection, a complicated and laborious procedure.
…in Madrid we started to build the miniature replica of the Queen. The construction of a miniature ship is a complex affair and has to be done as exactly as the building of a real ship, from keel up, the profiles of each rib calculated perfectly.”

The Batavia Queen in the tank at Cinecitta Rome.

He then goes on to discuss the tank and equipment required for filming and the shooting of the ship sequences;

“The question of the water tank was not yet resolved. Our next scouting trip was to Malta and Rome. Malta was oppressively hot and the tank there impressively large. The horizon line of the tank blended well with the horizon line of the open sea. Powerful pumps filled the tank with unusual speed. Later on I learned that they also pumped in the contents of the Maltese sewers. As our picture required a continual smoke-filled horizon, I was dubious that we would be able to cover the vast expanse of the sea and sky with smoke. The tests conducted with the English navy’s camouflage smokes could not achieve it, and the wind blew the smoke away. Other doubts concerning the Maltese tank were the necessity of importing lights and technicians from England or Italy and building new dump tanks and wave machines. I am speaking of conditions as they were in 1965. I heard all this was changed for the shooting of Raise the Titanic.
I had used the tanks at Cinecitta in Rome for Flight from Ashiya and planned to use them again for this project. I stopped there to ascertain the state of the sky backing, the tank facilities and the studio availability.
The big tank at Cinecitta was roughly 300 by 400 feet. The sky backing was seventy feet high.

Since we were shooting miniatures, we were cranking the cameras at higher speeds to reduce the jerkiness so harmful in many miniature shots. But we were shooting with three Panavision 70mm Cameras, not the usual production cameras on which rapid acceleration of shooting speed is mechanically possible. Owing to the width of the film, we could not crank faster than three times the normal speed (72 frames per second), and long-lasting takes were impossible because the cameras became too hot to handle. Nightly one or two of our cameras had to be repaired.
For me, there is a strange fascination in shooting at night on location. The strong lights were reflected a thousandfold in the turbulent waters of the tank. Grotesquely lit, special effects men moved on their platforms, readying the rocks that would be thrown. Each puff of smoke was etched against the black sky. We shot the sequence where the Batavia Queen carefully threads her way through the dangerous narrow passage, pelted by flaming rocks. As our miniature ship visibly lacked any live crew, I tried to envelop her in gusts of smoke to camouflage this absence. Smoke and fire. And so the night passed.
The only important sequence left was the final storm. All our dump tanks were in place. A sturdy platform for the cameras was ready, cantilevered above the water. Seeing how our miniature ship would withstand the battering of the powerful dump tanks( 2,600 gallon capacity 35 feet high) would be a severe test.
To achieve the proper buoyancy we loaded her with additional ballast. In earlier sequences we had pulled her with a submerged rope, but now it was impossible to move her against the strong waves. We improvised a crew of strong, dedicated frogmen to guide the ship. They were hidden from the camera on the other side of the ship. For each take we unleashed all our dump tanks. The power of the water was unbelievable, and after each take we anxiously checked to make sure that none of the frogmen had drowned. Wave machines, wind machines, dump tanks, powerful fire hoses, shooting from the shaky camera platform, we withstood this onslaught for three days of shooting.”

Two sturdy technicians to move the model.

As a kid I discovered this film late at night on TV and was amazed at the quality and quantity of miniature effects. There are miniature ship effects, tidal waves, volcano eruptions, balloon flights, for the most part effectively done and excitingly shot. It remains one of my all time favourite miniature effects films. Incidentally I believe it is one of the movies that has slipped into the public domain. Consequently there are shoddy transfers onto DVD from budget names, and there are reasonable releases available from more reputable distributors.

Oh and as anybody who knows their geography will note, that in fact Krakatoa was west of Java.

Alex Weldon’s incredible pyrotechnics make this one of the best miniature volcano eruptions in any movie ever.

Miniature village background, travelling matte foreground.

Krakatoa starting to get angry.

Native boat miniature about to go up…

Krakatoa about to go off with a bang… real ocean, miniature volcano split screened in with a flopped volcano miniature reflection added in the optical printer.

Eugene Lourie cameo as the light house keeper.

More miniature backgrounds and travelling matte foregrounds.

Krakatoa detonates…tidal wave to follow.


PinewoodStudios Tank 1969

Shipping themes in many forms have long been popular movie subjects, encompassing many genres including swashbuckling pirates, fantasy, historical epics and war. Nearly every major studio in Hollywood used to have its own tank facility to support this. Now most of them have long gone, converted to car parks or the land on which they stood sold off as housing developments . Shooting out in the ocean was an option, one that has been more in favor in recent years, but it well known in movie making that filming at sea is at least three times more difficult ( and 3 times more expensive) than shooting on land. In the golden years of the Hollywood studio system where there was a specialised department for every facet of production, it made economic sense to have a dedicated tank, the cost of which could be amortised over many productions. Fox studios had a tank named after its head of visual effects Fred Sersen which was demolished in 1960 when the land on which it stood was sold off.

A new and better tank also named Fred Sersen lake was built for Cleopatra in 1962 at the fox ranch at Malibu. The tank contained about 3 million gallons of water at 36 inches deep. It had sloping sides allowing vehicles to be driven into it and preventing wave echoes from bouncing back. In a straight sided tank, any waves produced would hit the side and bounce back. This can look odd when the two opposing waves meet, ruining a carefully generated wave pattern. The Sersen lake, like many tanks, was trapezoid in shape. The back wall was the longest at 370 feet and also shorter in height allowing a flow of water over its edge. The water that spills over the curved top is collected in a trough and pumped back into the tank so that there is a continuous flow maintaining a constant water edged horizon.The tank was 300 feet from front to back with the front wall, where the camera is usually placed, much shorter at 198 feet wide. At the back of the tank was a giant screen much like an old drive in theatre, angled back at 14 degrees to catch the sun. This screen was 366 feet wide by 85 feet high covered with plywood panels and a layer of canvas on which would be painted a sky scene. It had an electrically driven multi level platform for use by the scenic artists. Behind the screen was a reservoir which held 4 million gallons of water and giant pumps which could fill the tank in 100 minutes and drain it in 50.

There is a tank at Pinewood studios still in use known as the Paddock tank which is very similar to the one just described.

Pinewood’s Paddock Tank today note the deeper well in the middle.

In 1960, Toho Studios in Japan completed a tank known as the “Big Pool”. It measures 289 x 236 feet (88 x 72 mtres) and has a depth ranging from 2 1/2 to 5 feet (0.8-1.5 metres).

Cinecitta in Rome has a tank 236 x 477 feet (72x 145 metres) and 5 foot deep (1.6m). It has a 282 feet long, 59 feet high (86 x 18 m) backdrop screen. The tank holds 2,720,972 gallons (10,303 cubic metres) of water.

One of the most well known tanks for model ship effects is the one on the island of Malta. It has been used for many model ship movie visual effects most notably “Raise the Titanic” in 1980. There is in fact three tanks built at this facility two of which have the real sea and sky for a background. The shallow tank is 300 by 400 feet and 6 ft deep with a deeper pit in the centre and takes 8 to 10 hours to fill.. The Deep water tank is more of a rounder shape 354 by 162 ft wide and 36 feet deep, taking about 15 hours to fill. There is also a smaller insert tank 50 by 30 feet and 12 feet deep.

Malta Film Services Tanks.

Malta Film Services Tanks.


Deep tank Malta

Deep tank Malta

5454786_orig is an informative video showing the tanks in use and the equipment used to generate waves and spray.

About Mediterranean Film Studios from PCP –

Photos courtesy Malta Film Services: Dump Tanks, wave machines and various equipment for simulating storms at sea at the Malta tank. The blue cylinders are air cannons which are powered by a large volume of compressed air which can be released instantaneously blasting out a quantity of water into a fast moving spray. The two tall structures either side are the dump tank shutes down which fall a huge quantity of water which is then kicked up into a wave like crashing of water. The other blue structures between the shutes with long thin white pnuematic (or hydraulic) rams are the wave machines which cycle up and down pushing on a shaped displacement volume in the water to produce the rolling swell. The huge models in the photos have also been constructed at the Malta facility.

One of the most important factors in a realistic scene is the breaking up of the water surface. A real ocean is never still even on windless calm day. A small body of water at rest, such as that in a large tank, can be very mirror like in appearance and a dead giveaway of the smaller scale. To be convincing a tank needs waves and wind. The waves can be generated by a squad of effects personnel armed with nothing more than a plank of wood which is randomly pushed up and down in the water producing a general ocean swell. Slightly larger waves can be produced using 44 gallon drums or similar sized plastic drums manipulated in the same way. The finer rippling of the surface is done with large fans placed down one side of the tank. These fans are very tricky and time consuming to place so that there are no dead spots in evidence. The blast from one fan can affect another and the natural wind from the wrong direction can cancel the effect out altogether. If the budget allows a second row of fans can be placed on the other side of the tank so that if the wind shifts they are ready to go saving considerable time in moving and adjusting the fans to the other side of the tank. Sometimes these fans have been made from recycled aircraft with their wings cut off. They produce a powerful blast but are typically incredibly noisy and hard to control. Even old jet engines have been pressed into service, an example being  for Ridley Scott’s “White Squall”, where the storm was whipped into a frenzy of wind and spray by the jet’s blast. Motorised and hydraulically powered wave machines have also been developed to generate the base level of wave action. For storm sequences  and tidal waves more elaborate equipment is required to produce the larger waves and spray required. The most common piece of equipment for producing a really big wave is the dump tank. This consists of a water tank mounted high up on a tower, able to release all its contents in an instant and a shute down which the released water slides. When the large volume of water drops into the tank it produces a large wave which can travel a short distance before it is dispersed. The model being filmed is placed as close to the chute as possible so that the wave is at its tallest and most powerful when it hits and swamps the miniature. Sometimes the end of the chute is fitted with a kicked up end which rather than dumping the water into the tank, sends it up into the air and looks like a breaking wave. Dump tanks can be adjusted in the amount of water dropped or used in multiples depending on the ferocity of the effect. Rain and spray is achieved with fire hoses and these days the high pressure sprayer or cleaner can be used to produce very fine water drops which look to scale. There has been many attempts to reduce the size of the resulting water drops from all this mayhem which as has already been noted is a major complaint against miniature photography. The size of a water drop is mostly a product of water tension and sometimes detergent is added to the water to reduce this. Only a very small amount should be used as too much starts producing obvious foam. There is foam on sea water but unlike dishwashing foam, salt water foam breaks down very quickly. Floating alcohol, which has a very small surface tension and consequently small droplet, has been tried but proved too problematic, including the fact that it is flammable. The most successful method is in the use of compressed air particularly in a storm sequence. Wherever large droplets are regularly thrown into the air, usually from the bow crashing into oncoming waves, carefully aimed compressed air nozzles can be made to blast the droplets thrown up into a finer spray. Generally the air from the fans will contribute to this destruction of the droplets as well. One other ingredient is usually added to the water and that is a blue dye. This dye does nothing to colour the water’s surface but reduces the opacity of the water to help hide the many hoses, cables, ropes, tracks and other equipment used to control the models and generate various effects. It is impossible to light the water as it is transparent, the bottom of the tank receives all the light and is therefore best made a dark colour or black so as not to be visible in the shallow depths. It is the reflective nature of the water’s surface that imparts the colour that is photographed and that is contributed by the painted sky backing or at some facilities the real sky. The camera angles are usually low enough that the reflected sky is all that is seen. Higher camera angles such as a point of view (POV) from an aircraft or helicopter present difficulties in that the bottom of the tank may be seen. In this case more than a dye may have to be employed to make the water more opaque. One solution is to add diatomasceous earth, a white powder used in pool filters, which is actually tiny plankton skeletons. This when added to the tank makes for a very realistic micro-particle-filled sea water, helping to cloud it without looking milky. It will gradually sink to the bottom and needs to be kept agitated with a blast from a hose or fanned underwater to keep it swirling in suspension. It is also good for underwater shots again contributing that swirling particulate found in sea water. It does contain a silicate which in its dry powdered form is an inhalation health hazard. Once in the water it presents no known hazard unless you intend to breath the water and then it will be drowning that will kill you, it is easily filtered out by most pool filters which contain it anyway.

Sources – The technique of special effects cinematography by Raymond Fielding – Focal Press, Special effects Wire Tape and Rubber Band by LB Abbott – ASC press.