‘Thirteen Lives’: Ron Howard’s Cave Rescue Film Needed Over 800 VFX Shots With 350 Just for Underwater Sequences

Director Ron Howard is no stranger to working with his VFX supervisors. “Inferno,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” all required close collaboration with the VFX team. But his latest film, “Thirteen Lives,” presented him with one of the biggest challenges — shooting in caves.

In “Thirteen Lives,” Howard knew Jason Billington, MPC VFX Supervisor, would be a key collaborator. “I knew Jason was going to be additive, but what was most interesting to me was that there was a large amount of work which I expected, but it was not the work that I thought we would be doing.”

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The film retells the incredible rescue effort of 12 boys and their soccer coach after they go exploring in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave. A monsoon leaves the boys stranded until divers arrive and attempt to get them out of the cave, one person at a time.

Says Howard, “I didn’t really understand what the challenge of shooting in the caves was going to mean, and I’ve done a lot of underwater work.”

From the murkiness of the water to the atmosphere within the cave, Howard’s biggest challenge was the overall environment, but that was where Billington came in.

Production designer Molly Hughes built four 100 ft.-long water tanks in a warehouse in Australia. Billington says his biggest challenge was how to depict the movement of the water amid the story of what the divers went through to rescue the kids, and the part VFX would play.

The questions Billington and the team faced were about where to use specific simulations. “When a diver’s flipper flips up in front of the camera, we went for something that would wash in front of the camera to give us something dramatic, trailing off the flipper. Or if a diver was swimming along the tunnel and he hit his head, we would use that moment to simulate some dust and debris knocking off of that connection.”

While Billington worked on debris and murkiness, Howard says he tried to get as much as possible in camera. Says Howard, “When the tank was the clearest, we would shoot the widest shots, as it got murkier, we would move in closer on the details.” He adds, “We were also creating current, but there were times that we needed to make sure the audience could recognize the speed, pace and intensity of that current. What Jason was then having to do was with every shot, sculpt in and around what we already had in camera.”

Billington cautioned Howard about what he was capturing in camera. Says Howard, “Jason said that they couldn’t take things away. He said, ‘I can help define shots and beef them up, but if it’s too much in-camera, I can’t help you.'”

Manipulation was done on a shot-by-shot basis, particularly for the water tank moments. If the water was too clear, Billington could dial things up. The key was not to take the audience out of the story.

Says Howard, “Every once in a while we would actually decide that a shot worked with the particulates in camera and no VFX were required, but there weren’t very many. However, that would be like a moment of celebration in our VFX meetings”

The VFX team also built in set extensions including the main chamber and the outside entrance.

Billington reveals, “There were the outside exteriors set with the entrance that they would walk up to, and as they walk in — it was built on the side of a hill — it just stopped and ends. We used a black screen so the actors would have to look down and just imagine what was happening down there.”

Additionally, the interior set which was part of the chamber was about 40 miles away, so in scenes where the divers or volunteers had to come in and walk around the cave entrance, Billington would stitch the two set extensions together.

(L to R) Colin Farrell as John Volanthen, Paul Gleeson as Jason Mallison and Thira 'Aum' Chutikul as Commander Kiet in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

© 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
The VFX team stitched together set extensions and added in the drips across the caves in post.

Billington says 800-900 shots were touched by VFX, and 350 of those were underwater. And while a lot of that work was done during production, it wasn’t until post that the duo realized something vital to the film was missing: the drips across the cave. “That became a big thing,” reveals Billington.

“We just weren’t thinking on set that it would be a thing. When we got to the edit and we got the story together. It was missing the water inside the cave, so that was added in.”

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