As Captain Ahab and Hollywood animal handlers well know, it’s just about impossible to wrangle a sperm whale. So for the upcoming In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfictional account of the harrowing real-life events that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, director Ron Howard and his team had to digitally build their own beast. Howard and visual-effects supervisor Jody Johnson talked through the creation of a key shot — the white whale’s tail rising ominously above the doomed sailors.
“We needed the actors in a tank so we could get the water hitting their bodies,” says Johnson. “Then to create the sea going to the horizon, we used computer-generated water combined with live-action footage of water filmed off the coast of Morocco. The clouds are photography and digital painting — so is the lighting, to help get the dramatic hero shot of the tail.”
“It took 100 days to build this shot,” says Johnson. “Somebody’s got to build the whale. Somebody’s got to animate it. Somebody’s got to light the water. Somebody’s got to digitally paint the background. We haven’t even talked about the logistical coordination of all those people.”
“A lot of what Melville captures in his writing is the feeling that nature had turned on these men,” says Howard. “And we thought of the whale as an existential character, almost like Clint Eastwood in High Plans Drifter. In this scene, the sailors first realize the scale of the whale. So we wanted to make the tail as luminous and powerful and mythic as possible.”
The whale is a digital creation. This is it in its wire-frame stage. “That’s an outline,” says Johnson. “It’s a way of describing the shape of the whale, and then it’s filled in later.” That shape was tough to nail. “We wanted to be expressive, so there’s a sense of asymmetry, and we wanted it to taper, so there’s a sense of flourish.”
Chris Hemsworth and the rest of the cast were floating in a tank at a studio in London, so they needed a little help. “We’d show [the actors] rough animations to give the tempo of the scene,” Howard says. “Then it’s up to them to act. For Chris, it was easy. He has this trick down after doing the Marvel movies.”
“I wanted you to feel the awe and terror these men felt,” says Howard. “I would connect the characters to the whale by shooting down in the water over their shoulder. I was always trying to build that relationship between the audience and the characters.”
In the Heart of the Sea is in theaters December 11.
*This article appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.