Visual Effects Supervisors Eric Durst and Matt Whelan had the daunting task of recreating one of the greatest disasters of modern times–Hurricane Katrina–for Apple TV’s tremendous limited series Five Days at Memorial. In our conversation, we discuss the technical challenges and emotional impact of their work, and the disappointment of the show not getting more recognition from Emmy voters.
But we all came to the same conclusion: great work lives on, and Five Days at Memorial is great work that will stand the test of time, long after other, perhaps more nominated, shows will. It’s an extraordinary historical, political, and moral document that begs to be seen and understood. If for no other reason than so something like this never happens again.
Awards Daily: The image in particular that I’m guessing made this episode desirable to present for nomination is that shot of the water coming in and sweeping away the cars and the trees and the homes. For a second it’s like watching a monster movie.
Eric Durst: It actually is pretty long for a visual effects shot. Something like a little over thirty seconds. There’s a lot of history that went on with this. One of the things about the show is that there’s a lot of archival footage, network footage, handheld footage, iPhone footage before and after the event, but very little, and in many cases no footage at all, of what happened. This was a case where we had these iconic moments, one of them being the Superdome roof being swept off because you could just look at the Superdome and when the roof is gone, everyone knows where we were and what that’s about. Same thing with the Lower Ninth Ward.
It was very much a forensics kind of exploration. We had to go back and figure out what had happened. One of the things that was a wonderful find is that in Google Earth, they have a time machine, so you can go and get the satellite views of any area you want and see before and after. Conveniently Google Earth had satellite views ten days before the levees broke and the day after, and then actually a day after that one. So we had some very good imagery of the exact area we wanted to look at and what had happened and the result of that. We used that as a template.
Matt Whelan: It was a nine month shot. Thirty seconds is a long CG shot when you’re dealing with those kind of sims. That was the big thing. Eric introduced me to the time machine option on Google Earth, and it was forensic as he said. We just walked backwards through time and looked at the damage after and the damage before. I don’t think we had to exaggerate. It was such a crazy event. When those walls flopped over, huge amounts of water came pouring out and people reported hearing a huge cracking sound that I guess was the concrete actually hitting the ground. And a lot of people, unfortunately, lost their homes.
Eric Durst: When we first came upon this shot, I thought it was like the wall just sort of cracked and broke, almost like an explosion. But actually (show co-creator) Carlton Cuse had given us some reference footage that really turned us on to the mechanics of how it went. So if you can imagine, the wall—the levee actually itself, is built by these panels, and they’re anywhere from eight to twelve feet long and there are multiple panels. What happens is that the water, when it gets up to the peak, starts to go over the other side of the wall itself, and it compromises the structure that’s underneath.
Then what happens if it gets to a tipping point is that it just flops down. Immediately the water is released, so it became a tidal wave in essence. We heard reports anywhere from eight to eighteen feet—I imagine it was probably ten feet or so—but a huge amount of water that came and just wiped out the area. If you look at the Google Earth imagery, and that’s why it was so powerful, you saw houses actually shifted and moved and some were gone. It was like a bomb hit. That was insightful. So we used that in our demonstration. If you look at the before and after, you can see these walls flopping down. Then the water is pushing it. It was fascinating to learn that kind of stuff.
Awards Daily: Speaking to the forensics aspects, you have to create effects, but there’s also a lot of news footage that is used. So you have to be able to blend what you’re doing in terms of effects with what is actually being shown on the screen without being competitive if you don’t have a good match. How difficult was it to make this look like the thing that really happened?
Matt Whelan: When we looked at those shots, I was really intimidated first off just with the amount of things that you could see. When you destroy a home with a bomb, you get a big flash of light and the smoke covers everything. But what we were looking at was the aftermath of tons of homes that had been destroyed and people’s lives that had been taken apart. We needed to show evidence of all those things in the water. We had a lot of pearlescent effects in those big flyovers. Just tons of detritus and garbage that we had to populate. John MacGillivray did a great job on the tank so we had a huge tank that we filled with a lot of that stuff so that we could extend into the distance. But in those big wide shots, we had to do all that with CG.
Eric Durst: John MacGillivray, who is with Acme FX in Toronto. They built the tank. It was a 1 million gallon tank or 4 million liters. Matt and I were figuring out if liters or gallons is more impressive. But anyway, a lot of water. They built a tank that was 280 by 130 feet. We built it in Hamilton, which is outside Toronto. When they filled it up, the water pressure in the houses around would go down. It was quite an ordeal. But we had some good reference of what the real water looks like and, as Matt is saying, you got the detritus and oil and just everything in there. The trick with water is not necessarily water itself. Like you look at a lake or you look at an ocean that’s just the water itself. That’s one level of work, but the difficult part is what the water does and what it interacts with. In this case, we had houses in New Orleans, which are a very unique sort of architecture.
You’ve got these very long narrow shotgun houses. We went around and identified 25 or 27 houses which we wanted to populate the whole area with, and we had a crew down there from Crafty Apes in Baton Rouge, and they went and did LIDAR scans and photogrammetry, which is where you get multiple positions of an object and you can make a 3D object from that. So we had sampling in the assets of these multiple houses that we could use and reuse, paint and put in different colors and things like that. We used that extensively in this shot, and they had to be dynamic assets, meaning that they had to break apart. It wasn’t like here’s a box and that’s it. The box had to break, in this case, in many places because the house did. So it becomes quite complex very quickly. It’s one thing to break an object, but it’s another thing to have water interacting with it and causing the object to break and look realistic. We’re all very happy with it. We’re really proud of the work. And I think it does set up the intensity of the moment.
Matt Whelan: Just to mention that was the group at Stormborn who did that, and they did a really great job.
Awards Daily: Speaking of the complexity of the effects in general, most viewers can tell when something huge is an effect, but when you’re talking about mixing effects with stunt work or the detritus part of it, that is obviously an effect too, but you’ve got to make it not look like one so that anybody who’s watching it is buying in that it is a real thing in front of them. Because of the nature of this story and how very human and tragic it is, were you keenly aware that if our effects look too effects-y that we would be distracting?
Eric Durst: Very much. Especially in spectacular shots like the levee break. That’s one where you’re all of a sudden going to this major effect. It becomes an effects show and not something to support the experience of the people. This was used really as an accent because most of our work is in the hospital and it’s very intimate. It’s very much about feeling what it’s like to be in the hospital without necessarily knowing what’s going on around you. They know things are coming, but really they have no perspective of what that is. When you pull out from that, you see the result. In many ways, that needs to be spectacular because it needs to be so powerful. If you had too many of those, like if the hospital had broken apart, it would become too spectacular and would have stepped on the story.
Matt Whelan: Even in that shot, Eric, do you want to describe the objectives beginning into a subjective?
Eric Durst: Yeah. This was Carlton’s idea, which I thought was brilliant. Usually you see things happening from an aerial point of view, a helicopter going over it, and it’s very objective. You’re watching it down there. We wanted to do an objective to subjective shot. So as the helicopter goes over the levees and they’re about to break and then start to break, instead of just looking at them and sort of flying around, it was like the helicopter got too close and as it got too close, it became swept in. Now it is like we are on a boat at this point being washed away and have no sense of ability to control things. We are now in the physics of the water. Rather than just looking at it, we really wanted to get across the sense of what it was like to be in that force.
Awards Daily: Isn’t that a metaphor for the show in a large part? You have a city that’s built in a soup bowl. You have all this concrete and steel in the levees that are supposed to make you feel safe. And there are those moments after the hurricane subsides and the storm effectively isn’t as bad as people thought it was going to be. But, It was the second wave. It was the second disaster, which you could say would be the man-made disaster, that was the most impactful. Anytime I talk to anybody who’s not in front of the camera or is not necessarily a screenwriter, they always talk about how they want to tell the story, how we’re storytellers too. I imagine you were keenly aware that your effects are a big part of making people understand the loss, not only of life and property, but also the deficit of organizational skills and preparedness.
Matt Whelan: I think that’s an astute observation. (Five Days at Memorial author) Sheri Fink did such a good job researching and writing the book. And then Carlton and (Co-creator) John Ridley obviously are incredible writers. We were just trying to make sure we served those muses well. They did such amazing work and we just wanted to show up and play at that level. The biggest thing was to try to bring all of our powers that we could to support the story because it deserved it and it was an important historical event. More than 1,300 people lost their lives in Katrina. We were just showing up with a lot of reverence more than anything.
Eric Durst: When we were figuring out what this was, the first image you have is a daunting one. It’s like, okay, we have a city underwater. How do we do it? Everyone’s trying to wrap their head around it. One thing that really helped us beyond measure was that Matt is really brilliant at visualizing things. You can have a conversation about planning something and then Matt says “like this?” and he shows you an image that sort of coalesces everything we talked about. He’s very good at that. One of the reasons I think we all worked together, Matt and I and Danny McNair—who is just a fabulous VFX producer, is that we all have different skill sets that we could bring to the party. It was a really great team in that manner.
Matt set up these environments and did it in Unreal Game Engine where you could very quickly move the camera and get a sense of what things look like. By planning this it was not necessarily pre-visualization, like here are the things we need to create and people go away and then computer animators animate it and then you present it, it was interactive. We would have these sessions where it would be Carlton and John and Matt and myself and Danny and Ramsey Nickell, the DP, looking at the environment and then it was almost like virtually going in there in the future and looking around the set. So in some of the largest sequences, like the hospital and the ER ramp where these boats would come and evacuate people, when we got there and saw the set, it was like we’d already been there. In a way, the most difficult photography was certainly much easier than we would’ve anticipated because of that.
Matt Whelan: Ramsey was really open to that kind of way of working and John and Carlton as well. Eric and I and that group would spend a lot of time looking around the set and discussing how things should work. John and Carlton are very austere filmmakers, so that made it easy for us. They knew what they wanted. It was just a matter of early on working out the shots to tell their stories and then executing on the day.
I’ve never had so much pre-visualization work. I’ve never had directors who so stuck to the plan as it were. And that made it very good for us. It also was a little bit of a necessity because we were shooting this during Covid and we also had supply chain issues at that point. So Matthew Davies, our brilliant production designer, couldn’t get wood to build the sets. Everything was delayed. Our schedule needed to be very live and executable on the day, very quickly. And I like to think, Eric, we didn’t hold them up too much for visual effects.
Eric Durst: I don’t think so. I think one thing that really helped in John and Carlton sticking to the plan, not that they wouldn’t have otherwise, was the fact that it was so participatory that they felt like they were contributing and they had put their fingerprints on it and everything evolved. We had sussed it out. It wasn’t like, this is a general idea and when you get there you get to change it. It wasn’t forced that they followed the plan. It was because they had been part of the plan and it was so collaborative. I think that helped.
Then with this giant tank, because it was shot in daylight and the shadows made a big difference between shots integrating with themselves, we had to figure out the exact angle of where this giant monster construction had to be so that you couldn’t fudge it. Having the ability to put the sun in the pre-vis and capturing where the shadows are going to be and what it’s going to look like at that place in time, at that location, and that period of time, gave us a template to know exactly where to put everything because we started three, three and a half, four months in advance.
Awards Daily: Matt, earlier you had used the word reverence. Obviously both of you are professionals, any job that you’re working on, any production that you’re working on, you’re going to do it to the best of your ability. I can imagine though, on a project like this, you could feel an extra layer of responsibility to represent what happened and how it affected so many lives.
Matt Whelan: The example that I think was most prescient was the one of the Coast Guard. We had the Coast Guard helicopters come into Canada to shoot a portion of the show. Eric, you want to tell this one? It was the son of somebody who had actually been in NOLA.
Eric Durst: Yeah. The experiences of people who went through that are so powerful. It meant a lot to him because his dad had gone and would recover the bodies and it was just so overpowering for them. When we went down to New Orleans to shoot for a couple of weeks at the end of the schedule, there were a lot of people in the crew who couldn’t even continue on sometimes because we were shooting things that triggered them so much that they couldn’t handle it. It was just too much because the experiences that they had were so powerful. It really helped us to understand, by speaking with them, the emotional content of this experience. And we tried to be very respectful of that because it meant so much. We tried to be as specific and realistic as possible and also have the emotional feeling of it so everyone got a sense of what it was like to be there in New Orleans during those days.
Matt Whelan: I think a lot of the shows that you end up doing as a visual effects supervisor and as an artist as well are fun, they’re good entertainment, but this also had an educational and historical component that just elevated everything for all of us and we were definitely aware of it.
Awards Daily: When you’re talking about that scarring that people have who experienced it themselves, it brought to mind something I saw on a documentary about New Orleans and Katrina. One of the Neville brothers was talking about how he had nightmares about things that people told him that had happened to them, not to him. He had other people’s nightmares, which I thought was just an astounding next level of the horror that was experienced.
Matt Whelan: That’s what the medium can do. That’s why we’re telling stories, so that hopefully other people can learn from others’ experiences and emote with them and empathize with them. This was one of them that I think just stood out to both of us.
Awards Daily: The two of you clearly should be very proud of the work that you did on the show. It’s one of the more astounding pieces of television that I’ve seen. As well earned as your nominations are, does it bother you at all that the show didn’t get the notice that you might’ve expected in terms of Emmy nominations?
Eric Durst: Absolutely. I was very surprised by that. I’m not sure what caused that or how that happened. Some people just missed it, I think. I’ve talked to a lot of people about the show and they hadn’t even seen it before, and then they look at it and they’re just riveted. It’s about getting them to tune in and find it. I think we’re all disappointed that it didn’t have more nominations and wasn’t more in the running.
Matt Whelan: I thought it would be all over the Emmys to be a hundred percent honest–the performances, the writing. I think potentially we suffered from a post-COVID situation. We had been through a tragedy of medical circumstances that was very similar to what was happening and unfortunately instead of that making it more relevant, I think people may have shied away from sadness at that point in time. What’s great about these things is that they continue to exist and although we may have missed the window for nominations for these people, as long as you’re doing good work, you’ve done your job. It’s a beautiful show. It’s heart wrenching and people will find it.
Eric Durst: It’ll be on AppleTV, hopefully for many years. And it will be like a masterpiece kind of book that people very quietly find and then all of a sudden everybody knows about it and it may take longer. The time frame is different.
Matt Whelan: The Princess Bride, The Iron Giant, Stand By Me. A lot of shows didn’t do well in theaters that have gone on to really be loved.
Awards Daily: I like to remind people that Heat starring Burt Reynolds got the same number of Oscar nominations that Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro got, which is to say zero. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. (Laughs)
Eric Durst: Whenever you’re on a project, like Matt was saying, sometimes it’s fun entertainment and sometimes it just becomes mechanical. You have 400 shots and they’re all sort of the same shot and you are just laboriously putting them together. It’s great to work in visual effects, so happy I’m doing that, but it’s always a bonus and always what we aspire to is to learn things. That’s why I love historical kinds of pieces. I did a show called Genius about the story of Einstein. It was that kind of thing as well where you learn things that you thought you knew but you didn’t know anything about. So it’s always a big bonus when you get to work on shows like this.