'Sharknado' Fever: VFX Supervisor Dishes on Those Unforgettable Effects

Emile Smith says the day that they created the climactic chainsaw shot, the effects team was “jumping up and down and screaming."

“Crazy, no way.” That's what visual effects supervisor Emile Smith thought when he first read the script for Sharknado, Asylum’s campy 90-minute movie about a shark-infested tornado that wreaks havoc on Los Angeles and took social media by storm when it debuted Thursday night on Syfy channel.

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When he started to discuss the production with director Anthony Ferrante, the brief was to make it over-the-top. “They didn’t want to make fun of themselves in the script, but they wanted it to be absurd when you watched it,” Smith said, describing the sort of balance they were seeking for in the production, which was lensed using a Red One camera on location in L.A.

In approaching the visual effects, Smith said he wanted a look that was “stylized and over-the-top and ludicrous all at the same time while keeping a hint of photorealism. … We knew we weren’t going to be able to do 100 percent photoreal sharks flying at people, and even if we did, it would still look ridiculous. We went with a stylized, photoreal look.”

With plenty of CG water, sharks and a tornado, it turned out to be a challenging visual-effects project as the 10-person VFX team at Asylum completed roughly 350 VFX shots using off-the-shelf software in one month. “A normal movie would have months and twice as many people,” said Smith, a VFX veteran whose credits include TV series such as Battlestar Galactica and movies such as Rango.

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With the limited time and resources, “There wasn’t going to be ground-breaking [effects] ... [The work was about] how we could tell the story and make it a fun story."

They also drew inspiration from Asylum-created shark movies including Shark Week and MegaShark as well as classics like Jaws. “For certain types of scenes, we wanted to amp up the ridiculous factor by 100,” said Smith.

The toughest part was the CG water and interaction with the water, which is challenging even in high-end feature production. The team used Realflow 2012 and Maya for the water, with Maxwell Render.

To make the tornado, Smith said, “We used Realflow to create a dynamic particle mass and exported that out and used it to render about 30 layers of particles that we took into comp and blurred.”

The CG sharks were created in Lightwave, and After Effects and Fusion were used for compositing.

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There were also some fun outtakes from the production. Smith recalled: “There’s a shot where a shark flies through the [Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel] sign, and because of time we had to cut a couple shots before it. [In these shots] the shark is thrown out of the tornado, hits a palm tree and then slingshots off the palm tree [before flying] through that sign.

“Everyone had a good attitude and a whole lot of fun,” he said of the production, recalling that the day that they created a key chainsaw shot, the VFX team was “jumping up and down and screaming. … The director loved it.”

Smith’s additional Asylum credits include Battledogs.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com

Twitter: @CGinLA