Fortunately, he wasn't all at sea

The task of bringing to life the HMS Surprise, the 1805 sailing ship on which most of "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is set, fell in part to special effects coordinator Dan Sudick.

When he joined the project in January 2002, the producers had already decided to use the enormous water tanks in Baja, Mexico, that had been built for the filming of "Titanic." Working with the visual effects supervisor, the production designer and director Peter Weir, as well as the construction and transportation crews, Sudick designed a steel structure onto which a steel-framed version of the Surprise could be mounted

Known as a "gimbal," the device Sudick and his team engineered and constructed, which looks like an industrial-strength playground dome, would be used nearly every day of the 22 weeks of shooting, at times running both day and night. It had to support not only the ship, which Sudick estimates at hundreds of thousands of pounds, but also all the people and equipment on board -- and the pressure of the wind in the ship's sails.

Parts of the gimbal could be moved to shift the ship from side to side, and the entire structure could be moved backward and forward along nearly 60 feet of track and rotate 360 degrees. The device operated at the bottom of 40 feet of water, though the majority of the enormous tank is only 3 feet deep, allowing equipment to more easily be moved in and out, as well as simply using less water.

Once the Surprise was operational, the true work of the movie began.

"Now you start to deal with the water," Sudick says. "What looks like a wave to you? What looks like a wave to Peter Weir? The water was the most difficult part of the movie."

Using jet engines and four "dump tanks" that held 2,500 gallons of water each, Sudick and his team devised methods to make it appear as if the boat were weathering the toughest of storms on the open seas.

"We do a small area, create an environment in limited space, and then the visual effects people can come in and extend off the work we've done," Sudick says. "If they draw a big wave at the edge of an image where we've created spray and pieces of water on the deck, you believe it's a big wave hitting the boat."

-- Mark Olsen

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