Saturday 14 February 2015

The Abyss 1989 Part 1

This is part 1 Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.

In my view, one of the great model ship movies of the modern era. In fact I would go on to say one of the great visual effects movies ever made. Every permutation of miniature effects technique is in this movie. There are models shot wet for wet in water, on water, under water, dry for wet in smoke, motion controlled, radio controlled, on wires and on rigid mounts and it all works brilliantly in telling the story in a thoroughly convincing fashion. The overall visual effects supervisor was John Bruno.

Note that I refer in this 5 part series to the original theatrical length version.


There were two tanks used at the main filming location located on the site of an abandoned nuclear power facility, construction of which had never been completed, in Gaffney South Carolina. "A" tank was a large hemispherical shaped concrete containment structure principally used for the live action underwater shoot but some miniature shots were accomplished there as well. "B" tank was a more rectangular shaped pit where most of the underwater miniatures were filmed.

A third tank was specially constructed in an old WW2 seaplane hangar, called the Harbour Star San Pedro Facility after its location, for post production work and pickup shots. It consisted of a 20 foot wide by 40 foot long and 12 foot deep steel framed box with a 15 by 8 foot plexiglass panel 5 inches thick at one end.

The Salton Sea, a large lake in California was used for shots of the large scale NTI Ark spires rising up out of the sea as well as shots of the Benthic Explorer,  Deepcore and a destroyer sitting on large Ark surface pieces.

Some pick up shots for the submersible chase and the flatbed submersible implosion were filmed at the University of Southern California's swimming stadium.

A shallow tank was built in Fantasy II Film effects's carpark for shots of a small scale NTI Ark sitting on the surface of the ocean.

Gaffney site.

A Tank with full size set.

A tank.

B tank.

B tank.



This model was built by Wonderworks at 1/10th scale in about 7 weeks. The 42 foot (12.8m) twin hulled construction was supervised by John Palmer. A series of plywood ribs covered in a plywood cladding made up a buck for a single hull from which a fiberglass mold was made. Two identical fiberglass hulls were then produced from this mold to make up the catamaran form of the vessel. The fiberglass hulls were reinforced with 3/4 inch (18mm) plywood  bulkheads and welded box steel. Each hull was connected to each other with 4 inch (100mm) steel box section and had 5 separate compartments with sea-cocks and bilge pumps to adjust the amount of sea water ballast. Urethane foam was also laid in as floatation so it couldn't sink. The model weighed 7 tons when completed.

Plywood Ribs for Hull plug.

The weld seam detail on the hulls were achieved by squeezing construction adhesive in appropriate lines onto the surface.

Originally it was to be filmed in a surface tank under construction at the Gaffney site. When it was realised that this tank was was not going to be completed in time it was decided to film out in the open ocean. The model crew, during final assembly of all the components, decided to add extra steelwork and more fiberglass to further strengthen the hulls after learning that the model could encounter real 15 foot (4.6m) waves during filming. According to IMDB, as the model was being used at sea, it was large enough to require registering with the coast guard.

A region of the Washington coast was determined as a suitable place to film with a promised 250 days per year of overcast weather. Westport, a small fishing town was chosen as a base of operations which had a bay that faced southwest, good for backlighting (a desirable photographic style)  and a sandbar which allowed for a range of wave heights depending on the distance from it.

The model was controlled by a work boat towing an underwater cable from the bow and also a drag boat cabled to the rear. The cables were attached to a bridle that came from each bow  and stern of the twin hulls.The camera boat was an oil rig supply vessel, about 160 feet (48.8m) long with a large flat and stable work area at the back. The camera was mounted on a floating outrigger that sat low to the water and at the mercy of the waves. It was outfitted with a spinning glass disc port so that any spray would be flung off giving a consistently clear view. The camera crew also rode this outrigger except when the conditions became too dangerous and they resorted to remote operation from the more stable deck.

There were a series of axillary boats that carried smoke machines, rain and mist pumps, compressed air and wind machines. Most of the storm sequence was created by these artificial mechanical means with nature supplying the swell and the overcast skys. It was quite difficult to co-ordinate all these boats and there was a crew of 35 for the shoot. Initially there were problems with breaking cables, positioning of the models and getting them to go in the right direction as well as placing and maintaining the position of the camera boat. It took some time for the crew to get the choreography of the model and equipment boats down to a fine art.

The footage was shot with a custom made Vistavision camera capable of running at 200 frames per second, though on the mostly overcast days with low light conditions they could only achieve the correct exposure at 120 fps when the aperture was wide open. Generally the shots were made between the range of 80 to 200 fps.

The shots of the Benthic Explorer's crane umbilical compensator and its collapse, above water, were supervised by Robert and Dennis Skotak. the sequences were shot at the San Pedro facility with a partial model of the deck built on top of the tank. The crane and deck details were scavenged from the Benthic explorer miniature which was at 1/10 scale. Behind the model was a rear projection screen on which was cast the shadows of smoke blowing past from smoke machines to suggest a major  hurricane wracked sky. Wind and rain machines plus dump tanks completed the effect. Breakaway sections of the crane were made from lead sheet. All the action had to be very fast as it was shot at 120 frames per second with 4 cameras. The collapse was triggered by cables running through the model and pulleys with a 55 gallon drum full of water as a weight. An explosive squib holding a pin on a weak knee type release mechanism was fired dropping the drum and ripping the model down into the well with a great deal of force.

Albany Destroyer

Originally the production had commissioned Wonderworks to build a model destroyer to go along with the Benthic Explorer, however Pat McClung who supervised the production model shop at Gaffney had recently returned from a trip to Pinewood studios where he had seen a storage building filled with WW2 model ships gathered for the TV miniseries War and Rememberance. A suitable candidate was selected which belonged to Paramount studios and the 30 foot (9m) miniature after returning from England was transformed at Gaffney by Bernado Munoz into a more modern ship. The guns were removed and replaced by more up to date ones, more aerials and antennas  added , changed superstructure at the front, added missile launchers and a revised the bow shape. It was then repainted.


The Benthic Explorer and the Albany destroyer ship models were then transported to the Salton Sea, which at the time was a very large lake in California right on the San Andreas fault (now sadly drying up it's in a bit of an ecological crisis). The lake was used as an ocean substitute by Fantasy II Film Effects supervisor Gene Warren for the surfacing spires of the Alien ship. Large sections of the Alien Arc were built from fiberglass for close ups of the Benthic Explorer and the Albany destroyer sitting upon its surface as it supposedly rose under them. The Albany which was originally flat bottomed had to have a rounded bottom hull added and in one shot a reverse number was added to the bow where a shot had to be flopped owing to the arc spires only finished on one side. A smaller 16 foot (4.87m) warship model that belonged to Paramount Pictures was used in the background here as along with the 1/14 scale Deepcore model.

Ships number painted in mirror image so shot could be later flopped left to right.


The main underwater oil drilling platform in miniature form was built in three scales, 1/14, 1/8 and a tiny one for the long shot of the NTI Arc rising to the surface.

1/14 scale.

This model was built by Wonder works and was used wet for underwater shots in the B tank at the Gaffney site and later dry for motion control shots at Dreamquest. It was built in only about 5 weeks due to various delays in starting and pushing forward the deadline for delivery.
The cylindrical modules were mostly built from fiberglass and attached to a central spine. Other sections were made from thin walled steel tubing and welded aluminium. The outer pipe truss structure prominent in the design was made from plastic pipe components. The production model crew at Gaffney headed by Pat McClung completed the detailing and weathering to match the full size set in the A tank once the model was delivered, The special miniature underwater lighting was also added at Gaffney. The model when complete was about 10 feet across (3m) and weighed about 500 pounds (227kg).
Only the model's control room, having miniature crew figures and internal lighting and one habitation modules were sealed against water ingress, the rest of the model was free to flood. These sealed areas caused buoyancy problems and extra weight had to be added to get the model to sink. Worried that exposure to the effects of chlorine and other corrosive chemicals in the water over an extended period may damage the model, it was craned into and out of the tank every day. At the beginning of each shooting period it would take some minutes for the model to sink to the bottom of the tank and even after being submerged for quite some time, large bubbles would suddenly appear ruining the shot. This happened frequently enough to induce Pete Romano the underwater miniatures director of photography to eventually drill thousands of holes into it to help release the trapped air more readily.
The model took a lot of punishment during the course of underwater filming which took place at night to exclude any light from the surface. Damaged pieces which fell off during the abuse it underwent were fished out of the tank repaired and re-attached by the model crew during the day ready for the next night's shoot.
The miniature underwater sea bed, 24 feet (7.3m) wide by 50 feet (15.2m) long was also constructed by the production model crew. Jerry McClung welded a steel frame which was covered in 12 foot (3.75m) square fiberglass rock panels that were first sculpted in clay by Nick Seldon and Marghe McMahon assisted later by Dean Gates. The floor sloped down over its length by about 20 feet (6m) and was then covered in fine sand. B tank had all sorts of obstructions and lumps sticking out of it so the framework had to take that into account. For shots where the Deepcore settles on the bottom small water jets were fitted between the landing feet to kick up the sand. Clumps of fullers earth were also placed to produce the billowing clouds of fine silt. Fine bubbles were produced by small packets of Alka-Seltzer. To match the blue cast and the visibility fall-off of the live action photography, blue dye and homogenized milk was added to the water. A diver also had a sprayer filled with this mixture, an underwater fan and would fog up the underwater set before a take. The model being very heavy needed a great deal of force to move it at the speed required by the high speed photography at between 72 and 96 frames per second. To get the Deepcore model to move 3 to 4 times faster than you see on screen as it was dragged towards the edge of the abyss, it was attached to a 3 to 1 ratio block and tackle with 5 crew pulling for all they were worth and two divers pushing from behind out of shot.


Wonderworks also built the 5 foot (1.5m) tall miniature crane which crashes onto the sandy floor of B tank next to Deepcore. It was made from foamed PVC sheetwith breakaway pieces made, at Jim Cameron's suggestion, of wax. These materials caused a few problems during the shooting, the Foamed PVC box structure wanting to float as did the breakaway wax sections. Eventually it was rebuilt onto a steel telescoping box mechanism built by Larz Anderson who eventually had to add more than 300 pounds (136kg) of lead to the structure to allow it to fall through the water faster and collapse effectively when hitting the bottom. The wax parts were backed up by sheet lead to stop them floating away.
The Gaffney model crew also had to produce the snaking umbilical cable that precedes the crane crash. It consisted of around 200 feet (60m) underwater conduit with alternating stripes of coloured tape. Again bouyancy was a problem and it would not fall fast enough or kick up enough silt. Eventually this was solved by filling it with several hundred pounds of lead shot.

The Deepcore model was then dried out, refurbished and sent to Dreamquest for all the motion Control sequences shot in a smoke environment and supervised by Hoyt Yeatman. For one sequence it was hung on its side with the seabed also sideways on a set of tracks, Deepcore staying still while the ground moved past it. This sideways orientation was chosen for a couple of reasons, wires coming out sideways are less obvious than vertically where you would expect to see them and it also made for easier camera movement and lighting. The crane or what is left of it was hung similarly for some shots in the sequence where Bud descends down into the abyss.

Here's the same photo as before but rotated the way the camera will see it completing the illusion.

In Part 2 we continue with the 1/8 scale Deepcore and submersibles and the Montana Submarine miniatures.

Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.


  1. Joseph D. Herman7 April 2015 at 11:16

    I was wondering where you got the aerial images of the A-tank in the beginning of this article.Please let me know.

  2. I don't recall exactly but it was through a Google Image search. I collect pictures for modelships over a long period and by the time I get around to posting an entry I have no idea where they came from originally.

  3. I would love to see 1:3 scale animatronic scuba divers and submersibles in a public aquarium entitled " man and the sea". Do you think it would be possible? I know that is a tall order.


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