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Waterworld | "It was crazy but it worked"

CGI Fridays Waterworld Featured Image

It’s a Hollywood story everyone’s familiar with by now: Waterworld, the famous box-office bomb. Beset by a ballooning budget, a hurricane, some near-deaths, the departure of the director and a seriously complicated sea shoot, it’s no surprise Waterworld has developed a bit of a reputation as a disaster. But visual effects supervisor Chris Watts has a different view of the film. Have the rumours of Waterworld’s box office death been greatly exaggerated?

Watts joined Waterworld fairly late in the day, coming on as a Post Production Effects Coordinator just as the film’s gargantuan 166-day shoot drew to a close. He says that he “wasn’t the most experienced guy in the world” when he worked on Waterworld, but he’s underselling himself. He’d already worked on effects for Demolition Man (1993), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) by the time he joined Waterworld, and went on to work on films including Gattaca (1997), Pleasantville (1998), 300 (2014), Corpse Bride (2005) and Gravity (2013). 

His VFX innovations over the years included developing a new way of shooting stop-motion and inventing the digital intermediate color grading technique used in Pleasantville, both of which are still in common use today. But any amount of experience couldn’t prepare someone for a film as challenging as Waterworld is reported to have been – although Watts thinks that those reports have been somewhat overstated. “I can tell if a production’s in trouble when I see it, it’s not hard,” he tells me when we catch up over Zoom. “They weren’t in trouble so much as there were perhaps a few mismanaged expectations between the production and the studio.”

Production Problems

The film began life as a mid-budget self-confessed Mad Max (1979) rip-off, originally written by Peter Rader. Star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, who had worked together on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), joined the film and brought on David Twohy – and later Joss Whedon, who famously called his time on the film “seven weeks of hell” – for rewrites, in the process turning it into a big-budget epic. No-one was prepared, though, for just how big the budget would get. Production costs alone ran to $175m (ballooning from a planned budget of $135m), which, at the time, made it the most expensive film ever made. A lot of that was due to the scale and ambition of the film, some was due to the misfortune of the film’s expansive sea-based set being destroyed by a hurricane. Steven Spielberg had advised Reynolds to film in a water tank in a studio rather than in a sea enclosure, but Reynolds and Costner opted to take their chances with the sea. The results were undoubtedly visually impressive, but Costner may have regretted the choice during one scene when the boat he was tied to drifted into open waters and he nearly drowned. 

He wasn’t the only crew member to face life-or-death danger – Costner’s stunt double suffered an embolism from a deep-sea dive, and actresses Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino were trapped on a sinking boat. If such a film was made today, it’s doubtful that it would pass the necessary health and safety checks.

“I think Universal might have been a bit optimistic about how hard it would be to shoot a floating city on water in the middle of the ocean.”

Chris Watts

But aside from the risks of injury, the basic practicalities of working on open water are incredibly complicated. “If there’s something 20 feet away, on a stage you can walk over and pick it up,” Watts says, “but on water you have to radio the guy with the boat, he’s got to pick you up, he’s got to take you over there, bring you back. Every single thing you do on water – and I know this from other productions – is just a huge pain in the butt.” But Watts thinks that, in the case of Waterworld, “it works great, as far as photography goes. It’s pretty cool. They did a great job. They did some really difficult things, a lot of crazy stunts, and they got it done for only the most money that had ever been spent on a movie before,” he laughs. 

Sure, Waterworld cost a fortune but you can see every penny – just look these stunning action sequences! | Kevin Reynolds/Universal Pictures

Financial Problems

Waterworld was an expensive film to make. That much should have been clear from the get-go, given the conditions they were shooting in. In the end, they went 27 per cent over budget, but Watts doesn’t think that was much of a problem. “It wasn’t like they were filming a romantic drama that had cost that much money, this is action. All that money that they spent, apart from the natural amount of waste that goes into making a film under difficult conditions, it’s up there on the screen, you can see it. So I don’t think that it was as troubled as people make out.” 

Waterworld made $264m at the global box office, covering costs including marketing spend and making a small profit, which grew into a much healthier profit thanks to its home entertainment release. It also spawned a Universal Studios live-action show that runs to this day, so it’s done alright for itself, despite the overspend. Other films have been less lucky. Compare Waterworld to The Lone Ranger (2013), for instance. Its production budget rose to around $250m, with Disney’s CFO admitting that the company had lost $190m on the movie, only a year after they lost $200m on John Carter (2012). Then there’s Evan Almighty (2007), the most expensive comedy ever made, finishing up at a production cost of $175m, which was 25 per cent over budget for a film that didn’t make a profit. 

And the film business isn’t the only industry that struggles to keep projects on time and on budget. According to McKinsey, one of the world’s leading management consultancy firms, in collaboration with Oxford University suggests that half of all large IT projects ($15 million+) on average run 45 per cent over budget while delivering 56 per cent less value than predicted. And you only need to look at London’s Crossrail to see how often infrastructure projects come in over-budget and late (it’s four years late – and counting – and estimated to be £4billion over budget by the time it’s finished). Waterworld’s budget problems are suddenly looking pretty minor.

VFX Challenges

Watts admits that he was sheltered from many of the film’s troubles, as he spent most of his time on the film on dry land. “My experience of ships and water is vast and deep, but it doesn’t actually include any ships or water,” he laughs. Some of the film’s famous set-pieces, such as the journey to the submerged city, and the final fight on the Deez, Deacon (Dennis Hopper)’s massive oil tanker, were shot using large ‘miniatures’. “We had a giant model of the Deez, the ship that they were on, that had a tiny ribbon of blue tarp around the outside of it and it was all CG water on the outside of that,” Watts explains. “Expansive ocean-type CG water. Cinisite had some development that they’d made that convinced us that they could do it [with CG]… It wasn’t terribly consistent; it wasn’t really very controllable. We ended up getting good results out of it, but we did end up going back to Hawaii again and shooting more water plates, which turned out to be pretty versatile and useful.”

Beautiful aerial shots create a dazzling sense of scale for the flooded world…but getting there was a process of discovery. | Kevin Reynolds/Universal Pictures

Watts’ team spent two days shooting the undersea city miniatures for the sequence where Cosner’s Mariner takes Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Helen for a tour of the former ‘dryland’. According to Watts the finished result “came out pretty well,” but “the color space that most people were using back then was 8-bit linear color space, which doesn’t do really well in terms of real dark subject matter. Things tend to get muddy real quick, that was definitely something we struggled with on that sequence,” Watts says, being characteristically hard on himself.

He’s similarly tough on himself when it comes to the brief sequence where the Mariner tussles with a mutated sea creature. His assessment of it is simply: “Eh, it was alright.” 

It was, however, the means by which he learned a valuable lesson that he has carried with him through the rest of his career. He tells me that they had received an early, unfinished version of the sequence on a half-res background (“You did that back then because computers were slow.”) and some people from the studio wanted to see it. “Mike [McAlister] the Visual Effects Supervisor got up and gave the standard disclaimer: ‘this is half-res, it’s not the finished model, there’s nothing in [the monster’s] mouth because we haven’t done a mouth yet, we haven’t had time…’ So we show the film and there’s this huge silence and one of the producers gets up and says ‘what the hell’s wrong with his mouth? Can’t there be some slime in his mouth? Show me something when you’ve got something to show me. Shit!’ and walked out. The takeaway for me at that point in my career was you have to have something nice on the screen no matter what they’ve asked you to show, you’ve got to show something nice because they’re not going to listen to anything before or after you show them the footage… That was a valuable lesson learned that day, which has served me well over the years.”

Even joining the film at a relatively late stage, as Watts did, Waterworld was a tough proposition. “It was pretty crazy. I did many long hours. I did the line-up for all the shots too, we ended up having to add a lot of digital smoke and fire and explosions in a lot of these chase scenes across the Deez, things like that. That was all my job to do that and wow – that was a lot of work.” As with most visual effects work, Watts and his team had to think on their feet and get the work done any way they could, which sometimes included cutting some corners. “We were doing a lot of these shots not using a computer, or Henry, or Harry or any of those Quantel Boxes, but we were doing it in a tape bed! And we actually got really good results in the tape bed, this guy was just so good at it that we were able to get really good work, but that was the only time I did something like that and had it work. It was using old video technology to get a film effect with a film resolution. It was crazy, but it worked.”

Bringing the project home

Much of Watts’ work on the film was pretty insulated from any problems that were happening on set. Even when director Kevin Reynolds left the project, things continued pretty much as normal for the visual effects team. “The movie was pretty much cast in stone at that point, it was not very far from the end of the film that Kevin Reynolds left, and between the editor and Kevin Costner and the studio, who had already taken pretty firm control of the thing at that point, from where I was sitting it didn’t look that different. I’m sure there were other people who were affected by it. Kevin Costner came to dailies instead of Kevin Reynolds, that was interesting. But other than that it wasn’t like there were any gigantic changes in the work.” There were certainly tensions towards the end of production, but nothing that Watts viewed as particularly out of the ordinary:

“At the end of any movie people are sick of spending money, and at the end of Waterworld people were sick of spending money [and] people were sick of each other.”

Chris Watts

But perhaps that was simply par for the course on a big-budget film with an especially complicated shoot. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate Waterworld’s reputation as a flop – it made a profit, after all – and whatever the film’s faults, the visuals and the scale of the thing are not among them.

Most Expensive Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

The night before this article was sent to press, the team ended up in what for legal reasons we’re required to call a “spirited discussion” about the spiralling costs of Waterworld. Things were said that can’t be unsaid, punches were thrown,  and we’re all very ashamed. Whilst this was all kicking off, Tommy got so giddy on undiluted data that he crafted this gorgeous animation showing rising movie costs adjusted for inflation:

ShoutoutsA huge thanks to Murray Lynes, Tina Good, and Heather Johnson, three of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!

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Abigail is a journalist and writer currently living in Oxford. She can still quote late-90s films and TV shows at length but has forgotten everything she once knew about maths.

Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Chandler

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