How ‘Greyhound’ VFX Team Built a CGI Ocean and 1,500 Digital Shots From Scratch in 4 Months (Video)

“We were military driven, we were very precise in what we were trying to achieve,” VFX supervisor Nathan McGuinness says of the Tom Hanks war film

There are no superheroes in “Greyhound,” no CGI aliens or monsters that are commonplace in your typical effects-heavy spectacle. But in creating the Tom Hanks World War II epic, the visual effects team had to create a living and breathing computer-generated ocean, aerial overhead views that map out precisely where the action is at all times and 1,500 full CG shots built from scratch. There’s nothing ordinary about it.

That’s because “Greyhound” is effectively two movies: one shot with the human actors aboard a ship in a museum, and the other that exists entirely within a virtual space that surrounds the Greyhound destroyer. In that movie, the ocean, the convoy of boats and the entire world and sky that’s visible every time Hanks lifts up his binoculars, are their own characters.

The designers at VFX firm DNEG had no prior assets to work with and a mountain of historical research and reference points to adhere to. And in the process of ensuring the visuals matched up with the action, the team unexpectedly designed bird’s-eye-view perspectives to map out where every ship and enemy submarine would be in real time on the coordinates of their digital sea.

Oh, and they had to build it all within four months.

“We were military driven, we were very precise in what we were trying to achieve. Four months, and we had to be very, very clever about how we did things, because there was no going back. We were always progressing as fast as we could, and that means what the camera saw is what we focused on,” Nathan McGuinness, the visual effects supervisor on “Greyhound” told TheWrap. “We really had to take it on as filmmakers and not just visual effects guys, but we had to make this our world, because Tom did such a brilliant job portraying what’s in his mind. We had to portray what he’s seeing.”

The reality is that if you wanted to, you could watch “Greyhound” nearly entirely from overhead, looking at aerials that would show where ships would be on the map of the North Atlantic from beginning to end. To maintain continuity with the live action sequences, the designers always had to know where ships would be and how the heat of battles would complicate the movement and action.

That’s because the bulk of “Greyhound’s” 90 minutes is one long nautical chase, battle sequence and game of Marco Polo, with Hanks barking commands at crew members who immediately repeat those orders and direct the ship where it needs to go. Hanks’ script in fact includes those nautical directions that made sense of the movement and where boats would be at a given time in the action. It was then up to the designers to accurately visualize those instructions, meaning they had to be able to dial up any minute or moment within the script and match the visuals appropriately.

“You could basically run the entire thing like Battleship through the bird’s eye camera, for the entire scene, the entire film. And that basically allowed us to say, at this point, Tom is looking over here, Northeast, and he’d be looking at this convoy ship, and X amount of the escort ships would be here and there. And they would be this distance away,” Pete Bebb, visual effects supervisor at DNEG, said. “We basically had a running layout. And that’s almost kind of our master recipe for the entire film. We needed that to lean on, because everything is running in parallel. And that’s why this film differs from a typical feature.”

The ever-changing ocean is also very much a character in “Greyhound.” The designers had to be meticulous about not just how it would constantly move and undulate but how it would look from different sides (known as Beauforts in nautical terms) from the ship. The team used 10 HDR cameras to get a wide swath of the “pretty grim, pretty gray” sky that looms over the whole film, and they approached the visuals as though they were cinematographers actually out on the ocean.

“We had to firstly have the essence of being there at that time, and then thinking like a film crew, thinking like we’re heading out to the ocean and shooting boat to boat sequences, always thinking like we were there,” McGuinness said.

“We knew and we reassured ourselves that we were covered in all these positions. And there’s no point in the film that we couldn’t just say, give you a date and a time, this is what you’d look at, this is what you’d see, and this is what it would be like,” Bebb added. “It couldn’t have been done any other way.”

That attention to detail made it near impossible to introduce any level of human influence into the regimented road map. Though that didn’t stop Hanks from trying.

“All of a sudden Tom said, ‘I want to see more U-boats,’” McGuinness said. “The undertaking we thought we had in four months even got bigger.”

And just as director Aaron Schneider had to become an expert in military jargon, procedure and language to accurately direct the action, the VFX team also said they became WWII Naval experts by the time they were done. The production didn’t have specific assets to work with, but they did have to do diligent period research in terms of catalogues of every ship, modification, paint work and gun turret that might appear in the film.

“We had to maintain some sort of historical reference, and that applied to every moving piece in the movie,” Bebb said.

“We always had a reference, we were always historically backing ourselves up with what they were doing. We were never guessing,” McGuinness added.

“Greyhound” was affected by the pandemic in that instead of a theatrical release from Sony, it was acquired by Apple and released on Apple TV+ over the summer, denying it a big-screen viewing that much of the film’s digital attention to detail deserves.

But Bebb and McGuinness say that the work they did on “Greyhound” has opened the door for them to do other films set at sea, now having the framework and digital landscape to map out so many moving parts.

“We did that in four months, and I’m not shying away from what we’ve done because I know we can go so much further now, on a visual standpoint, and our old school vs. new school style of thinking,” McGuinness said.

“The crew got very very excited about this, which is why you got 1,500 shots in four months, because the crew were incredibly involved in it,” Bebb added. “It was a big experience for them from an emotional point of view.”


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