Union help uncover the true story behind the excavation of Sutton Hoo in The Dig
Directed by Simon Stone, The Dig is an adaptation of John Preston’s book of the same name and tells the story of the most famous archaeological dig in modern British history – the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo in 1939, known as 'Britain's Tutankhamun'.
Ralph Fiennes stars as self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown who is employed by Carey Mulligan’s Edith Pretty to investigate the burial mounds on her land.
Union’s involvement was mainly delivering invisible effects that help to tell the story.
The art department did a great job constructing the mounds, but they were very bright against the more muted, almost straw-coloured, fields, so we rotoscoped and graded nearly every mound in every shot to ensure they bedded seamlessly into the environment throughout the film.
During the excavation, one of the mounds collapses on Basil. The effects are gone in a flash, but create a real heart-stopping moment.
The team reconstructed the mounds in 3D, projecting the textures from the footage to capture all the detail. They then fractured the geometry into slabs of earth and simulated these as rigid bodies in Houdini. Millions of particles were then added to form the smaller debris and dirt as the earth crumbles and cascades over Basil. Some smaller grain simulations were also used as the ground collapse settles in the final shot.
The story starts just before the declaration of war in 1939. People were being conscripted and the military was mobilising. This is represented in numerous ways throughout the film including the increasing presence of military aircraft squadrons overhead.
In one scene an aircraft loses its engines and crashes near Sutton Hoo, skimming the nearby trees before hitting the river.
The production managed to get a real plane to fly low enough to look convincing. We then removed the propellers and added CG ones that were almost static - only moving slowly due to wind. We then extended the tree line slightly higher and added an FX pass of leaves and branches being thrown from the tree as the plane clips it.
For the wider shots we used our CG spitfire model which was based on the Hawker Hurricane which was active during the late 1930s/early 1940s as its distinctive black and white paint job on the underside of the plane made it easily identifiable as friendly aircraft from the ground.
We then animated a squadron of these planes flying overhead in several scenes.
VFX Supervisor James Etherington-Sparks explains: “One of the biggest challenges on the show was creating the surface bubbles where the plane had submerged.
“Mike Eley’s photography was so beautiful and natural it made it very daunting to stick CG water inches from the camera, but we began developing and testing solutions quite early on that gave us some very promising results. Ultimately, we were able to deliver photorealistic, dynamic water that fit the tone and style of the film perfectly.”
The team simulated and rendered bubbles in Houdini with turbulent forces to model the escaping air bubbling up to the surface. The lighting was set up to match the background plate and AOVs were added for areas of churn and vorticity to give extra control over the look of the whitewater in the comp.
Below the surface, we used particle systems and more fluid volumes to drive the behaviour of the bubbles as they swirled around the fuselage of the plane. These were meshed together, rendered in Houdini and combined with elements in comp.
Other work included employing split screens when young Archie Barnes nearly gets knocked off his bike by a van as he cycles to try to persuade Basil to return.
There was also period clean up and bluescreen work including the scene where Edith visit’s the doctor and we look in on her from the outside through a window and follow her as she comes downstairs and exits at ground level. We were unable to gain access to the interior of the location, so that was shot against a blue screen and the camera move tracked seamlessly.
James adds: “Working with Simon [Stone] was a great experience. He has a real passion and enthusiasm for what he does that is infectious. I absolutely love the finished film and am really proud to have been a small part of it.”