Union VFX - Black Sea

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Union VFX Launches CG Submarine on Black Sea

Black Sea, the high-octane thriller from Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) was the second collaboration between Union VFX, Macdonald and production company Cowboy Films.  

One of the film’s visual-effects highlights is the entirely CG-generated submarine at the centre of the plot. The vessel, based on a real Cold War soviet sub called the Black Widow, was created in Maya and rendered in Arnold. The submarine, which was adapted to include the practical set pieces, was built to a very high resolution of 360 degrees, enabling it to be viewed from any angle. 

Tim Caplan, co-founder of Union VFX and lead VFX producer on the project, said: “Black Sea was a dream project for us. We were given the freedom to really flex our creative and technical muscles to produce a visually stunning film that punches far above its weight in terms of budget. We were on the project for roughly a year and, from day one, we worked closely with Kevin and his team to come up with the most effective and cost-efficient visual-effect solutions. I believe the result is a credit to all involved.”

Simon Hughes, VFX Supervisor at Union added: “From day one we were pretty much given a free reign to come up with ideas and suggestions, which enabled us to help the shooting process and overall approach and to develop a look very early on. There was a very rewarding level of collaboration between the vfx team, the production designer, art department, storyboard artist, camera team and ultimately with Kevin. It was this collaboration which made for a very smooth project, one that we are very proud of.”

Union VFX’s visual research, concept design and pre-visualisation resulted in turnkey packages of work embedded within the structure of the film, with some 200 shots completed over a period of approximately three months. Underwater and above-water ocean environments were created in Houdini, primarily for the scenes in which the submarine is sailing. To create an authentic undersea atmosphere, elements such as seaweed and ‘marine snow’ — showers of organic matter found in the deep ocean — were replicated. The murkiness and mystery of the underwater world was achieved by the use of lens distortion and chromatic aberrations; and internal and external explosions were effected by augmenting SFX explosions to a total creation of underwater exterior explosions seen coming out of the sub. 

The voyage to the bottom of the Black Sea to salvage lost Nazi gold was also one of the key sequences. The narrative called for divers to exit the sub, which was perilously balanced on a ridge on the ocean floor, and swim across the seabed to the sunken U-boat containing the treasure. Union VFX’s previs helped the production designer Nicholas Palmer and Kevin Macdonald to visualise and plan the shooting of this complex sequence, which in reality took place in a confined underwater tank using multiple set pieces. These were then extended with CG environments, the submarine and the U-boat. 

Other complete CG creations from the Union VFX team included a vast underwater canyon through which the submarine attempts to sail before crashing to the bed of the ocean. In the final moments of the film, the divers succeed in returning to the surface. For this challenging sequence, Union VFX augmented footage of divers swimming 15ft in a tank to make it appear as though they had fought their way to the surface from the depths of the ocean. 

Kevin Macdonald, Director of Black Sea added: It was a pleasure to collaborate with Union again. They gave Black Sea that extra scale and excitement, and their adaptability and creativity helped the process along from the prep stages right through to the final product.

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