The Meg's effects skipper talks CG sharks and jawsome film spectacle

"In a movie like this, dial it back is not really on the agenda..."

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
6 min read
Warner Bros

The Meg is a watery battle royale between action star Jason Statham and a monster prehistoric shark. Believe it or not, one of those two isn't actually real, which means computer generated (CG) visual effects had a big part to play in creating the oceanic showdown.

This digital wizardry was overseen by Adrian De Wet, visual effects supervisor on The Meg. But even before he spent a year overseeing the creation and refinement of the digital imagery, he was in New Zealand for a year preparing for production and shooting the movie.

CNET: A year in New Zealand seems like a long time. How much of the movie was done for real?
Adrian De Wet: You can only shoot what you can shoot. We shot in the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, which is an enormous natural harbor where the sea's always very calm, but the weather's unpredictable in New Zealand. So it was good for some wide shots of the boat, for instance, but for the main shooting we built some enormous tanks outside of West Auckland.

One of them was what we called the ocean surface tank, which was a huge, fairly shallow tank, about 300 foot wide with a massive green screen, six containers high, down at one end. That's where we shot a lot of the ocean stuff that was action-dependent, such as the boat being capsized and some shark attack stuff.

When every shot you shoot for real is in a fake tank surrounded by green screen, you have to digitally replace the background even in the close-up coverage [of the actors]. The bulk of the work in something like that is creating the digital ocean, extending it to the horizon and adding sky. And extending the boat, because the actual piece of set in the tank was only half a boat long. 

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How much of this shot is real and how much is CGI? Those forearms clearly aren't real, for a start.

Daniel Smith

You built half a boat?
Right. We had to extend the pictures of it to match the real boat out in the ocean. Because of all that, that put our shot count up to over 2,000 [visual effects shots]. Everything has some component of digital visual effects, ranging from a simple CG ocean in the background right up to the massive shark leaping out of the water and attacking people. I would say about 80 percent of the movie is digital visual effects. 

That's fascinating -- you have big visual effects that everyone knows is a CG effect, but you also have loads of effects that are invisible to the audience.
That's a pretty good summation of the industry at the moment. Almost every film, particularly big Hollywood studio films, if you look at the credits there's a visual effects department. And often, you'll be looking at that thinking, "But I didn't see any visual effects". That's the best thing people like me can hear. That means we've done our job right. 

I just did an interview with the visual effects guys who worked on Sicario 2, which looks completely real but is full of digital additions.
There you go. There's tons of effects in there. It's an amazing piece of work those guys did, it's so seamless you don't feel it. And that's the whole point -- you look at this gorgeous sumptuous movie, not knowing that what they shot was really nothing like what you're seeing. To call it visual effects is really a little bit of a misnomer. It's just all production, a way of utilizing modern-day technology in such a way that allows you to make a film that you wouldn't be able to make if you didn't have that technology. 

On the other end of the scale is a movie like ours where you've got a massive sea creature leaping out of the water, and that's clearly a visual effect. Audiences are incredibly switched on, they know what's real and what's not real most of the time. With movies that contain spectacle like this, they know that you couldn't have shot something like a camera move that's obviously an impossible fly-over camera move. That's when we're embracing these effects and spectacle. 

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CGI sea, swimmers and super-shark.

Warner Bros

That reminds me of the famous story that Steven Spielberg kept the shark hidden for most of Jaws partly because the shark model didn't work, which had the effect of heightening the tension. In the age when you can do anything with digital effects, have filmmakers forgotten that lesson? 
No, I think that's just artistry really. I think that story is partly apocryphal. I'm not saying it's not true, but people have really picked up on that because it's a nice story about art. The filmmaking and the way Spielberg creates tension in Jaws is utterly masterful, where he has those long lingering shots out on the ocean. I think he knew what he was doing.

So when you're working on a shot and you know you can fill the screen with something huge and spectacular, do you ever think about dialing it back? How do you make that call? 
Yeah, I think in a movie like this, dial it back is not really on the agenda [laugh]. We're constantly saying let's turn it up to 11. We can dial it back later if it's too much. The thing about visual effects -- in fact, a lot of creative industries -- what you wanna do when your client or your director says to try doing such and such, you do such and such massively. You turn it way up, primarily so they see you've done it, and then they can say that's too much, dial it down.

Never really happened on The Meg. We turned it way up and it was like, yeah, bring it on! Make it more! Particularly with a producer like Lorenzo Di Bonaventura who constantly says make it louder, make it bigger, make it heavier. There was a bit of creative back and forth with the director, Jon Turteltaub, who in the beginning felt very much we shouldn't see the shark so much. Lorenzo was like, we should see the shark all the time.

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The toughest beast in the ocean, and a shark.

Warner Bros

Visual effects traditionally refers to elements added after shooting, but you're on set and involved in the whole production process. What kind of things do you do on set? 
Shooting for visual effects is very much a discipline in its own right. You have to make sure when you shoot you get all the data and you get everything you need to effect that photography later. As well as that, you've got a lot of visual effects shooting that's what we call multi-pass where you shoot many different elements for one shot. You've gotta make sure that everything is going to work [when combined together]. That can be quite stressful, making sure you're getting the camera angle right, you're matching the Camera angle and the lens from a different element. And you've got to get lighting reference which means photographing a chrome ball and a silver ball [to record lighting conditions].

In this era where you can just digitally add or change anything you want, how important are special effects -- the practical stuff that's done for real on the set?
Totally important. Totally important. You wouldn't really have a movie if you didn't have special effects guys,  who are the people who run the physical rigs like the back end of the boat that capsizes. I always like to have some level of atmosphere, some smoke on the set. If it's going to be smokey in the final shot then, you should smoke it up at the time you shoot, rather than just adding it in later, because people will act differently if it's all smoky. You get loads of things you didn't know you were going to get when things are physically correct with actors. There's definitely a very relevant physical component to moviemaking and a human component with real actors, actual people, and there always will be. 

The Meg splashes into theatres in the UK and US on 10 August.

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