Jake Braver, the VFX supervisor of Netlfix’s NYAD, had a great deal of work to accomplish on a film that, on the surface, doesn’t appear to be a VFX-heavy film. At least, it doesn’t appear to require as many VFX as something like a Marvel film. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, NYAD tells the powerful story of Diana Nyad who, in her 60s, swam from Cuba to Florida. The primary focus of the film resides on its characters, particularly the bond between its two leads: Annette Bening (played Diana Nyad) and Jodie Foster (played coach Bonnie Stoll).
As Bening spends a great deal of time in the water, Braver and his VFX team needed to make it appear that she was actually swimming in the ocean. They needed to create storms, shark and jellyfish attacks, and the large-scale hallucinations that Nyad experienced due to exhaustion during her swim.
But, first and foremost, Braver and team enjoyed the primary challenge of the project. They wanted to ensure that their VFX work served the story without upstaging the award-winning actors giving their all in accomplished performances. Still, people are taking notice: Braver and his VFX recently made the Academy’s VFX short list for the 2024 Oscar season.
Awards Daily: You made 60,500 square feet of water seem like an ocean. How did you even begin that process?
Jake Braver: It would have been impossible to shoot this movie in the open ocean. Safety reasons for one, and two, famously boats are hard to shoot on. Any kind of dynamic storytelling on the ocean when you are moving a camera with cranes and drones is a big deal. If the plan had been to shoot the film in open water they would still be shooting the movie. It became about finding an environment that supported Annette Bening’s performance, and to allow her to be in the water and do all the incredible amount of swimming that she needed to do. That was also a way to make it feel like we could add an ocean later.
The tank water served as a really great reference, as a light source, as an environment. But it didn’t have a current, it didn’t feel like an ocean, and it was so important to the story that it felt like Diana was battling the ocean current or being carried by the current. I was about creating an ocean that matched Annette’s powerhouse performance. Annette was in there swimming her heart out and the tank was not. It was about creating a water that felt really really punishing, and making sure that Jimmy (Chin), Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and I could direct the current and be able to say, shot for shot, okay, it needs to be faster here, it needs to be slower here. For us it was all about the story. The visual effects in the movie are entirely driven by the needs of the story.
Award Daily: A special effect that was very different from the rest was the hallucinations that Diana sees. They did not need to look as realistic and had a more fanciful look to them. What was behind that creative choice?
Jake Braver: If you listen to Diana talk about her hallucination of the Taj Mahal you get a sense of how zonked she must have been from all that swimming. It was an out-of-body experience for her. So our goal there was to create a break from the reality of the movie. To create sequences that felt like they were in the language of the movie but entirely different visually. It was a lot of fun figuring out what Diana was seeing in the falling star sequence. She saw these things falling from the sky and it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. Then, before you know it, you are hard cut into horror movie mode when she is then stung by a jellyfish. It was about building a sequence that felt fantastical but could turn on a dime.
But for the stars themselves, Jimmy, Chai, and I looked at a lot of references. We looked at meteor showers, we looked at videos of the northern lights, and we ended up keying on this video a drone took flying through fireworks as they were exploding. We really liked the look of these bright colored blobs of organic matter that were ballooning in front of you in these great colors, and then having them fall into the ocean. We took that and did a whole lot of concept art, seeing what colors and sizes worked and ended up with what we see in the movie. These beautiful colored things that we are not certain what they are, but we worked hard to inject jellyfish animation into them subliminally. They do not look like jellyfish but they kinda move like jellyfish. So when you get to the end and there is that transition and you realize that Diana is around jellyfish, it’s something you feel coming a little bit while looking at these beautiful hallucinations.
Awards Daily: Talking about the animals, how did you approach giving them that realism?
Jake Braver: We looked at a lot of references. When effects handled the shark, one of the things I talked about with their supervisor Chris White is that there are a lot of movies with shark sequences in them. The point of the shark in this one is the scariness and unknown of the open ocean. We are not trying to have it be a shark attack sequence; there are lots of movies that have done bigger and badder shark sequences. That wasn’t our goal. We really wanted to keep the audience with Diana. So that meant we really looked at a lot of shark animation to keep it scary and keep the audience on edge. We ended up with this really erratic behavior from the shark, and with a shark it is all in the animation, how you bring it to life and how close it gets to Diana and the camera. It helps it feel natural and scary. That was always how we went about it, starting with reference and then knowing what we wanted to do storytelling wise. It’s scary looking into the big blue and not really seeing what is coming and then seeing there’s a shark and you are then there with Diana in her fear as they are trying to get the shield back up.
Awards Daily: In terms of creating all the storms and rough waters that Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, and the rest of the actors cannot see, how did you communicate to them so they were able to give such realistic performances as to what was supposed to be happening around them?
Jake Braver: I think there is this interesting misnomer out there that “green screen acting is easy.” You just show up, look at a piece of tape and that’s it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is so challenging to be so present in a moment and so inside what you’re creating in a performance, but also imagining what is going to be there. It’s so challenging, and I think it’s another level of performance to be able to do that. It just comes down to the communication and the skill in the craft of the actors. Obviously these are tremendously experienced actors who can ask the questions: Okay, how big is this wave? And where is it coming from? They can then internalize that, and that is one side of it. The other side of it is that you get beautiful gifts from actors in those moments. That their foot is shifting to the left and they take a step back and you realize in the edit that gives us a minute to have a splash come over the side of the boat and come up on Bonnie. You find these moments and you work them in because they’re organic and real. It is not exactly what Jodie thought was going to be happening when she did that on set, but it’s something that we managed to make work. So between the skill and the craft of it and the accidents that happen when you’re shooting scenes over and over again like this–that is where the performance comes from, as well as how it was cut by Chris Tellefsen, our fantastic editor.
Awards Daily: Looking over your filmography, you’ve been doing this for quite some time. What gets you excited about a new project?
Jake Braver: I would say it’s about the filmmakers and the story. I think it’s always exciting for me to have a new challenge. Like a movie like this that is a very visual effect heavy movie but is story-driven at the same time. That there isn’t anything I’m doing in visual effects that isn’t in support of the story, that is my favorite thing. Because that means I am sitting there with the directors and the editors as scenes are being crafted, bringing stuff to the table. That is a wonderful way to work, that to me is really exciting. Larger scale visual effects can be in service of story and I think this movie is a really great example of that.
Awards Daily: I will admit to not even thinking about the special effects while watching the movie, just watching the actors in this environment. It was actually later just realizing that this movie is overrun with visual effects.
Jake Braver: I think that’s the idea, when VFX works really well is when they are so integrated into the fabric of the movie and the storytelling that they meld in with the rest of the movie and you are not really thinking about it. It becomes inseparable. That’s when you know it is working.