Primetime: TNT's 'The Last Ship'
Issue: August 1, 2015

Primetime: TNT's 'The Last Ship'

The Last Ship, from executive producer Michael Bay, set sail on TNT in 2014 and continues its voyage in Season 2, taking viewers on one sea-bound adventure after another. Here, the crew of US naval destroyer the USS Nathan James is forced to confront reality when a pandemic kills off most of the Earth's population. Setting off on the high seas with a cure for the deadly virus for survivors is CO CDR Tom Chandler (star Eric Dane), scientist Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), who developed the cure, and the ship’s crew. However, not everyone they encounter along the way is as anxious to deliver a cure to survivors — many have their own agenda — and the team faces opposition in a variety of scenarios.

The series is shot predominantly in Manhattan Beach, CA, aboard an actual US naval destroyer, on Red Dragon cameras. According to VFX supervisor and co-producer Marc Kolbe, the Dragon’s small form factor was perfect for the many scenes that take place inside the ship's tight interiors. “We’re shooting in 5K, which gives us a huge latitude,” says Kolbe, pointing out that the cameras help the team deliver what he describes as that signature “Michael Bay look with lots of saturated color.”

However, the visual effects for the show — and keeping them as realistic-looking as possible — is where Kolbe’s attention is set. With storylines that take the ship and crew to both domestic and international waters, and various environments, certain shots are captured in front of greenscreen and/or require set extensions. Kolbe says the VFX shots on The Last Ship can range anywhere from 100 to 150 per episode.
“It is definitely a handful,” he says. “We’re shooting on a navy destroyer that is either at port, sitting on the docks and we have to remove everything externally, or we actually go out to sea and shoot.”

Kolbe describes certain scenarios where the team could be shooting in San Diego, but the storyline is supposed to be set in places like Florida or along the East Coast. “We obviously have to do a lot of set extensions and taking a lot of locations and making them look totally different from what we started with.” 
One of the episodes, for example, was set in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but was shot in three different locations — Lancaster, Santé Fe Springs and San Diego. “We did set extensions to bring it all together.”

Other scenes require enhancements, such as CG helicopters, muzzle flashes or additional shells during battles. 

“We try to do as much practical work as possible,” says Kolbe (pictured), “and then enhance it by adding debris, things like that. When we’re on the ship, we’ll sometimes mix. For instance, we were able to get one helicopter to do some of our stunts but then we augmented it with multiple CG helicopters within that same scene."
He continues, "We try to make it as invisible as possible; I think [viewers] would be surprised with how many shots we actually do and pretty much [have] gotten really good at selling.”

According to Kolbe, some of the visual effects are completed in-house, while other work is shared with such VFX studios as Gradient Effects or CoSA VFX, both based in LA.

“We do all of the above. To pull off the amount of visual effects required in these scripts, and for the costs, we’re always trying to find new and different ways of doing the work. My past experience is I set up facilities specifically for projects, I rent facilities as a vendor and now what I do, depending on the project, I will either put together a small team to be able to do a bulk of the work in-house and be able to use those savings to be able to afford to give work to a Gradient or a CoSA. That’s kind of the way we’ve been working lately.”

Kolbe says the teams rely on the same arsenal of tools as other studios, such as Nuke for compositing, but also points out that Gradient Effects has its own proprietary software used to create CG versions of the Nathan James as well as create some “phenomenal” water simulations. 

“This year, Gradient has taken their water simulation software to a whole new level,” he says. 

For the show’s 2015 run, Kolbe was brought on not only as VFX supervisor, but as a co-producer, which he says allows him considerably more input in the creative process and early planning of the episodes.

“By having the visual effects and production sides together, and being involved in the creative side, it’s definitely given us a lot more latitude and ability to create better visual effects work,” he says. “Now we’re designing visual effects with the writers, which is great. Being able to be more involved in the creative process and a part of the production process from the beginning will show much better up on the screen. I’m hoping that’s going to be more of the plan as far as where the visual effects industry is going to go, which is to be more involved in the creative process as well as doing the visual effects work.”