On Greyhound, visual effects supervisors Nathan McGuinness and Pete Bebb were tasked with bringing a dramatic passage of the Battle of the Atlantic to life, in very little time.
Directed by Aaron Schneider, from a script by Tom Hanks, the World War II drama follows Navy commander Captain Krause (Hanks) as he leads a destroyer across the ocean, protecting merchant ships from the attacks of German U-boats. For McGuinness and Bebb, creating the fictional Greyhound from scratch was just one of countless challenges, on the path to immersing viewers in the authentic details of war.
Production took place aboard the retired destroyer USS Kidd and on stages, surrounded by white screen—and without an actual drop of water present throughout the entire shoot, the pair would have to recreate changing oceanic conditions, along with a range of skies. Also building a host of other period warplanes and boats, McGuinness and Bebb would then stage tactical events at sea, working within the digital realm on ship-to-ship photography, based in real physics.
Below, the collaborators break down the challenges of bringing the Apple TV+ drama to life on a tight schedule, also explaining what they learned in the process.
DEADLINE: Where did your work on Greyhound begin?
NATHAN MCGUINNESS: I think that we came in with a movie that was shot very well, covering Tom’s dialogue, and really hitting all the right notes for what Tom was trying to [create]. But it needed to have more than just Tom’s very technical and emotional dialogue. We needed to supplement that with visuals for the audience that I don’t think really were planned at first, but really ended up needing to be a part of the movie.
When we came in, there was previz, but we kind of developed as we went. We dissected the film and the dialogue, and filled in the areas needed to tell the story, to see what was going on. So, it was a case of building a very agile kind of previz, scenes that were fast on their feet, to help put the story beats together that fit the dialogue from Tom.
That was a very fast-moving machine. So, it was a huge undertaking for Pete and myself—a), to get the story straight, and b), for Pete to come through with the visuals as fast as possible, trying to not use just a push-button effect. It was really trying to feel like we were at sea, and that was a hard task.
PETE BEBB: We had a very stringent pipeline and we knew that we had huge time constraints. It was working with Nathan and [VFX producer] Mike [Chambers] to say, “Look, we’re only going to have one go at this.” So, the way that we structured the show was, we really dissected it down into the very scenes, into the environments. We then shot specific stuff to allow us to do that. Then, amongst those different scenes, we isolated shots, which were key shots or similar shots.
Now, you can imagine that with the escort ships and the convoy, there’s a lot of similar angles, which you’re seeing all the time. For example, we have the bridge at the bow of the ship. I mean, there were scores of those shots. So, we’d be sure that we would take one of those shots and push it forward to final, to create the look that Nathan could show the filmmakers and then say, “Well, all the others will be of that standard.”
That kind of process was scattered throughout the film. We knew exactly what we were doing, and what we were aiming for, so that there were no surprises, and it also prevented any type of tunnel vision that sometimes happens. It allowed us to bring all the film up in one go—and whilst we were doing that, of course, everything was running in parallel, due to the time constraints. Because we were trying to get assets from the previous vendor, which was complex, we had to rely on building assets from scratch. We had to basically treat it like a film, from the start, from scratch. That’s the only way we could really approach it, to get it done.
DEADLINE: Structurally, the film is broken down into “watches,” periods in which the crew surrounding Hanks’ character changes over. Did this element built into the narrative help you to develop visual contrasts, in terms of oceanic and weather conditions, and the skies that we see?
MCGUINNESS: We had a timeline built, and the timeline also consisted of the weather patterns. Pete really came to the party with this lighting setup that helped [me] cherry-pick.
BEBB: Nathan structured the show, so it was almost like a beat sheet. It split into these scenes, and we figured out what we needed per scene, and the weather conditions. And that was entirely right. It’s the character of the ocean, and obviously, that’s dictated to a great degree by the weather, so we knew that was going to be key.
We knew that with regard to the ships, a lot of these shots were going to be full CG, so getting good HDR lighting setups was absolutely critical. But we wanted to go one step further with that, so we used a system, which is basically 10 SLR cameras set up in a hemisphere. Then, we went around the various coastal points of the UK to shoot a high dynamic range time-lapse, which gave us a huge gamut, and an entire 12 hours. It being a minute-by-minute take on Tom’s character all the way through, we could have this high dynamic range sky that we could then light the entire environment with—and of course, we took it to the coast, so we got that perfectly clean horizon line, which was critical. So, we shot scores of these skies with different weather conditions. And thankfully, it was around October, November in the UK, which is perfect for the weather for the North Atlantic.
So, we were very lucky with that. We got some great, very dramatic skies, and then we basically assigned those to the various scenes. Nathan signed off on those, and then we rendered the ocean under that, at different levels, obviously referring to the hero reference. It was just a few very key bits of referenced that Nathan sourced, which was brilliant for us because having just one piece of hero reference is absolutely critical. It just focuses the team, and then that’s what you’ll match to. It was absolutely critical to try to get that kind of feel that you have, in some of that passé, black-and-white footage of these ships in those oceans, which is pretty dramatic. So, that’s what we did for that, and that was an ongoing process, along with doing the assets and the layouts at the same time.
DEADLINE: While sourcing that material for the film’s exteriors, I know you grounded every other element of the film in reference footage and photography, including the ships. What kinds of resources did you turn to?
MCGUINNESS: Whilst the process was in play, what I did was, I combed and catalogued every piece of footage that I could get my hands on, with the visual effects editing team, and built this massive file system that referenced as much as possible, so that it wasn’t a guessing game for Pete and the team at DNEG. Because we had visual references on the five-inch guns. We had visual references on the torpedo. That was the most helpful for me, to feel like it was part of that era. I don’t think there was a piece of footage anywhere that we didn’t have as reference, that we felt was right.
So, knowing that time was [limited], we were trying to keep it as authentic as possible. But I’m also listening to a lot of reporters who crossed the North Atlantic, on the convoy ships or the escorts. There was a lot of dialogue that I got to listen to, and that was my prep. That was the only thing I had, plus the script, to help when I engaged with Pete.
So, both of us were on the same page, visually, and then the boated scale of all things wind, waves, swell, currents, we isolated a couple of clips, and used them as, “This is what we’re looking for, guys.” Obviously, [it was] daunting. We weren’t just trying to turn over a film that told the story of convoys, wolf packs and ships. The ocean itself was its own character, and it was a beast of a character to work with, because—besides one moment in time, where we’re at the funeral—we were working in a visual effects world, where the ocean’s one of the hardest [environments] that you could ever produce.
DEADLINE: How did you bring the ocean to life for the film?
BEBB: We took the previz and the radar beat maps from [our] naval advisor, and that was then put into a master layout. Because we knew we had to streamline this and procedurally generate stuff as fast as we could, we basically created one master scene from a bird’s eye view that you could almost run the entire film from, seeing all the ships do what they needed to do.
In amongst that, we had the different levels of [wind] and the boat-to-boat stuff, [which] you could place in there, and it would give you an approximate version of what it was.
Then, it would go into Houdini, along with another program called Clarisse, and that’s how we generated the oceans. That’s how we generated the interaction, because we knew with this that we’d have to have a multifaceted approach, that allowed us to see big aerial oceans, without repeating patterns, that had some means by which you could have tidal currents and stuff like that, so it’s obvious that it’s a real ocean. Then, we knew we’d have to get to the point where we get as close as we are, from just a grazing level point, next to the bow of the ship. So, we had a multitude of means by which we approached actually generating the ocean, because we knew that we’d have to.
MCGUINNESS: [The] bird’s eye view of the convoy…was lined up with the cut the whole time, so that at any given time, I could go and look at the aerial view. Whenever I was lost at sea, I would go straight to the aerial view of the convoy, so I could understand where I was, nautically, because they were always maneuvering across the North Atlantic—zigzagging, basically.
The aerials ended up coming [into the film] because it was a good way to let the audience see where we are, and what the relationship is to everyone. So, the visual guide that we had ended up in the film because I think they helped everybody get a feel for, “Oh, that’s what we’re doing. That’s where we are. That’s the number of ships.”
DEADLINE: What steps did you go through to create realistic recreations of WWII ships?
BEBB: The first thing I did is, I took the team down to the HMS Belfast at London Bridge, which is a period destroyer, purely to get their mindset into the amount of detail—the finishing, the textures, just the level of detail that you have on a ship like that.
So then, we just built [the Greyhound] from scratch, and that asset essentially took the entire period of the film to build. Every time we were updating a shot and showing Nathan and Mike and the filmmakers, it was an updated render of the ship, and that just kept on going, all the way through. We knew that Nathan wanted that kind of visceral feel, that boat-to-boat feel, from his previous work on Master and Commander and stuff. So, all the time, we were doing stuff with regards to that.
Then, the wealth of research and information from Nathan and Aaron’s database, and Gordon [Laco], the advisor, that was pretty much the same for all the other escort and convoy vessels. Basically, I would classify it as a very old-school way of building, prior to getting lidar scans, and all of the photography, and the rest of it. You know, it’s quite similar to how we used to do, way back in the day. You research this stuff. You try to locate blueprints; you try to get displacement charts for the weight, and how they sit in the water. It was actually very exciting, on that side of things.
MCGUINNESS: With the U-boats, we only really started with one, and it then developed into a pack that we would see. So, we just really studied the historical footage and stills of these U-boats, and what they did to those U-boats—the modifications, the paintwork, the camouflage. So, we had to do this massive deep dive into historical photography, and that photography was the guide on the amount of rust, the amount of texture, how long these U-boats would be out at sea, and what type of weathering they would have. It was fascinating to dive into what it must have felt like, and what these guys were doing to the ships. They were all slightly different in their own ways.
DEADLINE: What were the highlights of your experience with Greyhound? What did you take away from it?
BEBB: For me, it was the creative and logistical challenge, for sure. I also thoroughly enjoy working with Mike and Nathan on war films. I think it’s brilliant, so the opportunity to do that was great. And I think anything that is reliant on absolute authenticity and photorealism is absolutely what I thrive for. It was that challenge about just creating something so real that it felt like we were doing it justice. I think that’s the most important thing for me.
MCGUINNESS: Movies at sea are scary in all worlds, in visual effects, but I see that we’ve kind of opened up the potential to do movies like this type of style, today, in this era of visual effects. And I feel that Pete and I know that if we had the normal time, we could have taken it so much further. That’s what I think the takeaway, for me is, and that is that I’m not afraid now to take on potentially [challenging projects of this sort]. It doesn’t matter what era; I know now that it’s achievable, and I know that there’s a future in trying to do filmmaking at sea now, and we can do it really well.
I think that we’ve proven that this can be done, and I know we can do more. I’m not afraid of this style of filmmaking anymore, and I know we can make it better. And I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying, I know we can make it better.
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