The Abyss

[20th Century Fox/Pacific Western/Lightstorm Entertainment]

1989 Academy Award® Winner for Best Visual Effects.


Director: James Cameron
ILM Visual Effects Supervisor: Dennis Muren
ILM Animation Supervisor: Wes Takahashi
ILM Visual Effects Art Director: Steve Beck
ILM Visual Effects Producer: Jim Morris
ILM Studios: San Francisco

Case Study

The Abyss

Release Date: August 9, 1989

A civilian diving team are enlisted to search for a lost nuclear submarine and face danger while encountering an alien aquatic species.

For ILM, creating the Pseudopod creature for The Abyss meant investing in both digital technology and research and development at levels previously unheard of and all of this at a time when what little technology existed left a lot to be desired. The Abyss not only accelerated the evolution of 3D computer graphics, but the water creature was visible proof to the film industry that computer graphics was a feasible new tool for creating cinematic illusions.

The seminal moment in this film happens when Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character communicates with the alien, a transparent water worm. ILM started the project by scanning storyboards for this film and editing them with not yet released software called Photoshop, which was created by ILM’s John Knoll and his brother Thomas. The studio then did 3D scanning of a water tentacle maquette using Cyberware 3D scanner. They animated the character using commercial 3D software to mimic Mastrantonio’s facial expressions. Although the Stained Glass Man was the first animated CG character in a film, the extraordinary, watery creature was the first to show emotion.

While a number of potential solutions from Claymation and stop motion photography to replacement animation were considered, ultimately it was an ILM test created by CG supervisor Jay Riddle under the watchful eye of Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Muren that sold Director James Cameron on the computer graphics approach for the nearly 1-minute of CG effects work required for the pseudopod water tentacle. With Cameron onboard, Muren and the ILM Art Director Steve Beck, turned their attention to the design of the pseudopod itself, creating a series of resin maquettes to finalize the creature’s design. Muren enlisted then Animator John Knoll to maintain the aesthetic component of the creature while Riddle supervised the technical issues. Since commercial software didn’t yet exist to create the imagery needed, ILM’s Mark Dippie and Scott Anderson set to work on what would be a month and a half period of development to create the necessary software from scratch.