Director's Chair: Kevin Macdonald - 'Black Sea'
Issue: January 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Kevin Macdonald - 'Black Sea'

NEW YORK — Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald recently completed work on his latest film, Black Sea, a modern-day, under-sea drama that centers around a marine salvage crew and their attempt to find a cache of gold that’s been sitting on the ocean floor since World War II. 

Jude Law plays Robinson, a former submarine captain who was unexpectedly let go by his employer. When he meets up with crew members from his past — also experiencing hard times — the group hatches a plan to put their marine skills to use and go after one of Hitler’s sunken U-boats, which is believed to be loaded with gold. 

They manage to find an investor and raise enough money to secure a poorly outdated Russian sub. They also put together a skeleton crew, each with a specialized skill that’s needed to operate the vessel. But communication is severely hampered, as half the team only speaks Russian. Mistrust and greed, coupled with the claustrophobic quarters and hot tempers, puts the mission in danger from the very start.

Black Sea is set for release by Focus Features on January 23rd. Macdonald, who won the Oscar for his documentary One Day in September, is also known for directing The Last King of Scotland. Post caught up with him on a recent visit to New York, where he detailed the film’s production. The crew spent six weeks shooting in the Ukraine and England, and two weeks inside a real, 1960s-era Russian sub.

“It was amazing,” says Macdonald of the vessel’s design, “which is why I felt we had to shoot in it… We couldn’t shoot the whole movie in that. It was too slow, too difficult.”

They also had sets on a stage at Pinewood Studios, mirroring the sub’s control room, engine room, captain’s cabin and kitchen. While 95 percent of the shoot made use of Arri's Alexa — including underwater scenes — they also employed Canon’s C500 and X1, particularly for action scenes or where space was just too limited for the larger Alexa.

“Pretty much everything I’ve done was on film up until this point,” notes Macdonald, “and with the documentaries, I am still a little bit attached to it. I think that as wonderful as digital is, I think there were certain circumstances in this movie where film would have been better, because I think it’s better at representing the human face still. Alexa and the other cameras somehow flatten the face and make it look waxy and less expressive. It’s a subtle thing.”

Black Sea's story comes together quickly: The plot is laid out, the team is assembled and the sub is acquired, all within the film’s first act. UK-based editor Justine Wright, who’s worked with Macdonald on One Day in September, Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and The Eagle, again handled editing duties. 

“I’ve worked with her many times,” says Macdonald. “When it comes to the edit system, I have no influence at all. I’ve worked with Avid and we’ve worked together on Final Cut a couple of times, but she doesn’t actually like it. I leave that entirely in her hands.”

The first act, says Macdonald, initially ran long, but through editorial, was made to move the storyline along much quicker. “We realized the movie only really took on its life when you got to the sub,” he explains. “There were more character scenes where you met the crew, but I felt you want to get on that sub as soon as possible, so I did a cut and took out everything that I could.”

Visual effects also play an important role, particularly when it came to underwater shots and the submarine’s exterior. During the film’s planning stage, it was estimated that a model of the sub would need to be between 12- and 16-feet-long in order to look accurate. Such a model, says Macdonald, could have cost upwards of $300K. He instead turned to VFX house Union ( in London.

“I used them on my previous film and am really happy with them,” says the director. “They are the kind of guys that are never pleased to give you second best. It’s a great attitude and they have great taste as well. These guys would come up with ideas.” 

The film incorporates approximately 200 visual effects shots. As the sub makes its departure, for example, a coning tower was added to allow Robinson to stand outside the vessel shortly before it submerges. The sequence was shot against a greenscreen and composited with live action. The city in the background was also made to look “less English and more Soviet,” as the actual shoot for that scene took place in the UK. The sub’s exterior was also enhanced with VFX.

The vessel submerging for the first time brought together a number of different elements. Since the real sub they used for the shoot was essentially docked and stationary, the Union team shot static footage and paired it with live-action footage of a wake that was created by a tugboat.

“The hardest shot is when the submarine is underwater, and water and spray is hitting the lens, and you cut to the side and see it going under water,” Macdonald notes. “Those two are almost 100 percent CG. That immediate interaction with the water coming over the sub and coming over the lens,” he says, were the hardest to achieve. “They can do incredible things with CG water these days, but it’s still hard to make it look really, really real.”

For the underwater scenes, which were shot in a pool-sized tank at Pinewood, the sub is completely CG. “We wanted it to feel dark and claustrophobic and scary,” says Macdonald. The team spent a lot of time discussing how much particulate would be in the water, how murky it would be, and how far one would be able to see in a deep sea environment. “Occasionally, we’d see the side of the tank, and we’d get rid of that in post,” he notes. “It was always a toss up of making it murky and mysterious, and not being able to see too much, but at the same time, when you have a wide shot and see the U-boat, you want to be able to see enough and say, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ That shot where he holds up an underwater torch and you can see it, I think that’s a great shot.”

The film features 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks, but Macdonald regrets not being able to release a Dolby Atmos version too, especially since he worked with Oscar-winning sound designer Glenn Freemantle (Gravity) and Sound 24 ( “We didn’t quite have the money to do it,” says the director. “[Glenn’s] one of the first to use it in Europe. He did Gravity and learned a lot that he could use in our movie. I’ve worked with him at Sound 24 on everything that I’ve done. They are great and imaginative.”

So did the film turn out as he had imagined? “I think so. I think the underwater sequences in particular really turned out as I wanted them to be, which were scarily claustrophobic — that sense of murk and mystery down at the bottom of the sea — and I’m really pleased.”