Trevor Hogg deep dives into the vis­ual ef­fects of The Meg with in­sights from Adrian de Wet, Scanline, DNEG and Sony Pic­tures Image­works

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We go be­hind the scenes of mon­ster thriller The Meg to find out more about its breath­tak­ing VFX and the cre­ation of a 75-foot shark

By dig­i­tally recre­at­ing a 75-foot long pre­his­toric Me­ga­lodon, film­maker Jon Turteltaub (Na­tional Trea­sure) has sought to craft a shark-ver­sus-man thriller that can stand apart from the genre-defin­ing Jaws re­leased in 1975. The Meg stars Ja­son Statham as res­cue diver Jonas Tay­lor as well as cast mem­bers Li Bing­bing, Rainn Wil­son, Ruby Rose, Win­ston Chao, Cliff Cur­tis and Jes­sica Mcnamee; they have to work to­gether in or­der to save the world from a mas­sive preda­tor that has been in­ad­ver­tently un­leashed from the oceanic depths of a deep ocean trench.

“Jon is al­ways driven to make some­thing that’s en­ter­tain­ing, com­pelling and has a broad ap­peal,” states The Meg vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Adrian de Wet who pre­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated with Turteltaub on The Sor­cerer’s

Ap­pren­tice (2010). “He likes to shoot from the hip.” The movie was split into three sec­tions. DNEG looked af­ter the ocean trench and Mana One Oceanic Re­search Sta­tion. The open­ing se­quence, un­der­wa­ter shark cage chase, the wa­ter sur­face at­tacks of the Meg, the night se­quence with the death of Jack Morris (Rainn Wil­son), and the Meg at­tack on Sanya Bay were the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Scanline. The cli­matic show­down at Sanya Bay that in­volves the glider chase was over­seen by Sony Pic­tures Image­works. Fur­ther ad­di­tional sup­port for the 2,000 vis­ual ef­fects shots came from Im­age En­gine, Soho VFX, Ume­dia, In­stinc­tual VFX, HALON En­ter­tain­ment and Unit Eleven Dig­i­tal Pro­duc­tion Ser­vices.

“The Meg had To look like some­thing That peo­ple would have never Imag­ined” Adrian de Wet, vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor, The Meg

Me­ga­lodon Res­ur­rected

Since sharks have skele­tal struc­tures made out of car­ti­lage, the only re­main­ing fos­sils of the Me­ga­lodon are its teeth. “When read­ing the Meg books by Steve Al­ten, I imag­ined it to be a mas­sive al­bino Great White that’s 70 feet long,” notes de Wet. “Jon didn’t want that at all. The Meg had to look like some­thing that peo­ple would have never imag­ined.” A key ref­er­ence was the Green­land shark which has brown mot­tled skin, and an ef­fort was made to make the aquatic an­tag­o­nist bulkier and wider than the long and sleek Great White. “We changed the face to make it look meaner and an­grier than a Great White, the dor­sal fin is big­ger than it should be, and an ex­tra gill was added. We placed scars and lac­er­a­tions all over its head and body that could be from hav­ing a bat­tle with a gi­ant squid. That was a ba­sic de­sign. Then we got onto the bio­dy­nam­ics such as how it moves and the mus­cle sys­tems. We got the jig­gle to be just right as it swims around. We had lots of dif­fer­ent swim cy­cles.”

Sharks have a very flex­i­ble anatomy. “Dur­ing the R&D process, we re­fer to them as liv­ing, breath­ing soft bal­loons!” re­veals Scanline VFX su­per­vi­sor Mohsen Mousavi. “On ev­ery bite or fast turn, there was a great amount of wave prop­a­ga­tion through the gills and the body. Scanline is known for their state-of-the-art fluid dy­namic frame­work Flow­line, so we are com­fort­able with the con­cept of sim­u­la­tion. We wanted to stay away from man­u­ally hand craft­ing the de­for­ma­tion of the shark and came across a so­lu­tion called Ziva which was in its early stage. We got in touch with Ziva Dy­nam­ics and started a col­lab­o­ra­tion on push­ing their so­lu­tion to the next level on the Meg. We built the anatomy of the Meg based on the Great White shark. It needed to be func­tional biome­chan­i­cally. The bones trig­ger mus­cle con­trac­tion which drives fat and tis­sue, and ul­ti­mately the skin.” Scanline was not the only ven­dor us­ing Ziva. “The idea be­hind it is if you build a skele­tal

struc­ture anatom­i­cally cor­rectly and you at­tach the mus­cles in a cer­tain way, then you will get these de­for­ma­tions for free,” ex­plains Sony Pic­tures Image­works VFX su­per­vi­sor Sue Rowe. “That means your an­i­ma­tors are not spend­ing time do­ing mus­cle rip­pling or con­tor­tions or warp­ing.”

oceanic Re­search sta­tion

The cat­walks for the glider and sub launch­ing bays as well as a sec­tion of the ob­ser­va­tion deck were prac­ti­cally built for the Mana One Oceanic Re­search Sta­tion. “We had to go off of their schemat­ics and fill in ev­ery­thing else, as well as cre­ate the above wa­ter por­tion which is like an aban­doned re­pur­posed oil drilling plat­form,” ex­plains DNEG VFX su­per­vi­sor Ray­mond Chen. “The set that they built wasn’t quite the same size as to what was imag­ined in some of the art­work. We had to build two ver­sions of the O-ring with one match­ing the phys­i­cal set and the other for the CG shots where you can see the whole un­der­wa­ter sec­tion.” The Meg at­tempts to bite the young girl por­trayed by Shuya Sophia Cai but is thwarted by the glass. “That was an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult shot. We needed to fig­ure out how to get the teeth to look like they’re pen­e­trat­ing into the glass. We had to map out where the teeth were con­tact­ing and made a chip pat­tern for where they were.”

A par­tic­u­lar sea mam­mal was not so for­tu­nate. “In the open­ing se­quences au­di­ence mem­bers are in­tro­duced to the O-level and the won­der­ful sea life,” states Chen. “There are schools of sar­dines, manta rays, jel­ly­fish and a cou­ple of hump­back whales. Late in the process the di­rec­tor de­cided to put in a short se­quence of the baby hump­back whale com­ing up to the glass as the peo­ple in the in­side are watch­ing, and the Meg comes up, rips it in half and swims away. We had a to­tal of two or three weeks to com­plete this from be­gin­ning to end. It was quite a good thing that we had built the baby whale to a high res­o­lu­tion so that it could hold up closer to cam­era. We had to

“The aver­age Movie has 2,500 To 3,000 shots, and we had 2,000 vis­ual ef­fects shots” Adrian de Wet, vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor, The Meg

do a lot of ad­di­tional mod­el­ling to re­veal the in­sides, blub­ber and bones. We cre­ated some ef­fects passes not just for the blood and par­tic­u­late, but also for the slap­ping or mov­ing strips of flesh that would be left be­hind.”

Wa­ter is­sues

Shoot­ing the footage was not easy. “It was an in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge for Tom Stern, the di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy,” re­marks de Wet. “Tom kept hav­ing to re­mind him­self that he’s com­pos­ing for some­thing that isn’t in the frame.” There are no live-ac­tion sharks in the movie. “We were shoot­ing in the Hau­raki Gulf in New Zealand which is a nat­u­ral har­bour and the wa­ter is al­ways calm there. Then we would shoot sim­i­lar scenes in the ocean sur­face tank that we built at Kumeu Film Stu­dios in Auck­land that was the size of a park­ing lot [and could hold 2.5 mil­lion litres of wa­ter]. It was tricky to match that wa­ter be­cause not only was the colour dif­fer­ent but also the way it moved.” A 15-foot deep Dive Tank was also utilised. “It was smaller but a much deeper cylin­dri­cal pool covered with a sky top; that was where we shot stuff that was ac­tu­ally un­der­wa­ter.”

The spe­cial ef­fects team led by Steve In­gram cre­ated a com­plex hy­draulics sys­tem that cap­sizes the stern of Char­lotte in var­i­ous stages. “This was the most chal­leng­ing se­quence we had across the 482 shots done by Scanline,” notes Mousavi. “We ended up re­plac­ing the en­tire boat and tried to use as much as pos­si­ble from the ac­tors. In some shots we re­placed the ac­tors with dig­i­tal dou­bles. We did a lot of an­i­ma­tion it­er­a­tion to get

the right tim­ing of the Meg across the cut. The chal­lenge was to get the right bal­ance with­out cre­at­ing a mas­sive splash that would cover ev­ery­thing, but at the same time keep­ing the wa­ter dy­nam­ics as real as pos­si­ble. No wa­ter el­e­ments were used! Ev­ery droplet, splash and foam was CG and sim­u­lated!”

deep-sea div­ing ve­hi­cles

Hy­draulic gim­bal ver­sions of the un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cles were cre­ated and later aug­mented dig­i­tally. “For the Ori­gin, which is the sub­mersible in which Lori [Jes­sica Mcnamee] and her crew de­scend to the bot­tom of the trench in reel 1, we lined the front end with blue-screen sec­tions which were back­lit and covered with Per­spex,” ex­plains de Wet. “They were back­lit to pro­vide a nice evenly bright key­ing sur­face, and covered in Per­spex so that we had cor­rect re­flec­tions of the in­te­rior in­stru­ments and the ac­tors. The Ori­gin was a cramped in­te­rior set. The blue-screen sec­tions were like the in­te­rior of a soc­cer ball – oc­tagons and squares tes­sel­lated to make up a spher­i­cal struc­ture. The blue-screen sec­tions rep­re­sented video screens which were to dis­play im­ages of what was out­side, which was mostly dark ocean with par­tic­u­late mov­ing past – un­til we see life, which con­sisted of coral, tube worms, fish and plank­ton.” The other sub­mersible built was the one-man glid­ers. “In the story the dome is made of My­lar. It has to be that thick to be able to with­stand the pres­sures of go­ing un­der­wa­ter; that was all vis­ual ef­fects.”

Wel­come to sanya Bay

For the fi­nale that takes place in Sanya Bay, 15 pieces of con­cept art cre­ated by the pro­duc­tion art depart­ment headed by pro­duc­tion de­signer Grant Ma­jor served as vis­ual touch­stones. “Although I was hop­ing for Sanya Bay ref­er­ence footage in the be­gin­ning it would not have been what we ended up do­ing,” states Rowe. “We had our iconic im­ages that we used. Then thank good­ness for Google Im­ages. Sanya Bay is a hol­i­day re­sort in China and I found lots of ref­er­ence of peo­ple scuba div­ing. I was able to read up about what types of kelp and coral grew there.” De­spite there be­ing 500 to 600 ex­tras and stunt per­form­ers, dig­i­tal aug­men­ta­tion was needed for the swim­mers be­ing at­tacked by the Meg. “It was lo­gis­ti­cally not pos­si­ble to make sure that ev­ery point in ev­ery shot you’re us­ing all of your ex­tras,” re­veals Mousavi. “We got to the point where 70 per cent of the shot they didn’t have enough crowds. By scan­ning through all of the ma­te­rial shot we found enough footage that could be keyed, ex­tracted and put in our CG wa­ter for the close-ups. Any­thing in the midground and back­ground be­came crowd sim­u­la­tions.”

The amount of VFX work that went into The Meg was huge. “The aver­age movie has 2,500 to 3,000 shots, and we had 2,000 vis­ual ef­fects shots,” notes de Wet. “There weren’t any easy VFX shots such as wire or track­ing marker re­movals. All of the shots had an el­e­ment of that. Ev­ery shot had some sort of back­ground re­place­ment el­e­ment to it, whether un­der­wa­ter at the bot­tom of the ocean or on a tank where we had to get rid of all of the tank wa­ter and re­place it with CG wa­ter and see onto the hori­zon. There’s a shot to­wards the end that had a 75-foot Me­ga­lodon, 200 to 300 Mako sharks, a 100 Great Whites, and 75 Ham­mer­heads swim­ming to­wards Jonas!”

top right: the in­te­rior of the ori­gin sur­rounded by blue screen

top left: con­cept art by dneg show­ing the oceanic abyss based on the Mar­i­ana trench

green screen sur­rounds the prac­ti­cal por­tion set of the o-level found in the Mana one oceanic Re­search sta­tion. an ar­ray of cg-cre­ated sea life re­places the green­screen el­e­ment

top right: the dig­i­tal dou­ble of Jonas tay­lor and the wound in­flicted on the Me­ga­lodon are fur­thered de­vel­oped in the an­i­ma­tion pass

Mid­dle right: the fi­nal com­pos­ite fea­tur­ing the dou­ble and the wounded Meg

Mid­dle left: Wa­ter sim­u­la­tions and light­ing are added as the Me­ga­lodon leaps from the wa­ter

top left: a mus­cle sim­u­la­tion is cre­ated for the Me­ga­lodon

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