The Impossible tells the true story of a family
holidaying in Phuket as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami swamps the
small island. Susan King, of the Los Angeles Times, takes a
look at the wizardry behind the film's terrifying wave.
Tom Holland and Naomi Watts in a scene from The
Impossible. Photo from Reuters.
The tsunami sequence in the new film The Impossible is
so terrifying in its intensity that you might believe you are
watching actual documentary footage of the natural disaster
that struck Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, killing
hundreds of thousands.
The verisimilitude is the result of more than a year's work
of exacting planning - and experimentation - by director Juan
Antonio Bayona and his visual- and special-effects
supervisors, who used a giant water tank in Spain (the
largest in Europe), a sprawling miniature of a beach resort,
on-location shots in Thailand and some computer wizardry to
create the 10 minutes of terror.
The Impossible, a drama of faith and bravery based on
the real-life experience of a Spanish family, stars Naomi
Watts and Ewan McGregor. They play a husband and wife, Maria
and Henry, who are on vacation with their three sons in
Phuket, Thailand, when the tsunami hits their hotel.
''The whole film was about a true story,'' Bayona said, ''so
it had to feel very real.''
Bayona began storyboarding the sequence two years before
filming began. He enlisted visual-effects supervisor Felix
Berges and special-effects supervisor Pau Costa, who were
involved in the project for more than a year.
To prepare, Berges travelled several times to Thailand, but
because almost everything had been rebuilt since the disaster
- including the resort where the Spanish family stayed - he
found images and footage of the actual tsunami to be more
helpful in his design of the effects.
He spent hours upon hours watching footage of the disaster.
''Everybody has an idea of the tsunami of being a big wave,''
''It is not a big wave. It is a huge amount of water that
comes to land.''
Though the team studied other films and found what Berges
called ''some very good examples of CGI water,'' they decided
to use the real thing for The Impossible.
''I was almost 14 months on the project, because we never had
done anything like this [in Spain], so we really had a lot of
tests,'' said Costa.
The production team worked with a specially built channel in
an outdoor tank - measuring roughly 120m by 80m - at the
Ciudad de la Luz studios in Alicante, Spain. There, they
spent a month shooting scenes of the wave, the flood and
Maria and her son Lucas being carried by the wave and lashed
by felled trees and other debris. The scenes of Watts being
submerged were shot in a small tank, with the actress sitting
in a moving chair to which a camera had been fixed.
The production tapped Edinburgh Designs Limited, which
specialises in wave generators and equipment for marine and
coastal engineering labs, to help the film-makers figure out
how to make the wave in the channel, Costa said. Then he and
his team worked on modifying the design to allow the doors of
the channel to open quickly for retakes.
''We started off with a test with like six submergible pumps
to try to get the current,'' Costa said.
''We ended up with 33 submergible pumps, and each pump
weighed like 600kg.''
Each pumped about 300 litres per second. Four large
generators supplied power to the pumps, which had to be
adapted for the tank because they could not be visible on
The actors would sit in carts that moved on two rails inside
the channel, and they were pulled by steel cables at the same
speed as the current, Costa said.
''They were very protected. They were sitting in the baskets
with their arms and legs sticking out, and we would pull the
camera next to them and behind them.''
Bayona said millions of gallons of sea water were used for
the sequence. The water was treated with food colouring to
To film the tsunami obliterating the resort, the German
company Magicon GMBH constructed a large miniature on a scale
of one to three of the resort's recreation area. The
production had only one chance to get the shot because only
one miniature had been built. Director of photography Oscar
Faura used an apparatus with 10 cameras to make sure he could
capture it all.
The miniature was of only the centre of the hotel; everything
surrounding it, such as the bungalows, larger palm trees and
other debris, was generated using computers, Berges said.
Some water was also added digitally.
The production shot many scenes at the actual locations in
Thailand where the Spanish family experienced the disaster,
including the Orchid Resort. The resort had been rebuilt and
was about to reopen when the filming began. But the resort
did not exactly look the same as in 2004; for example, laws
enacted since the tsunami forbid the construction of
bungalows on the beach. So production designer Eugenio
Caballero built facades of six bungalows, redesigned the
garden area of the resort and expanded the pool.
Bayona described digitally combining the on-location footage
with the footage filmed in the tank as ''kind of a puzzle.
... We were working for months on every shot. Every shot
could have tons of layers.''
Capturing the right sound for the 10-minute tsunami sequence
was critical. Bayona wanted supervising sound editor Oriol
Tarrago to create a sound design that would not have any
music. After many experiments, Tarrago came up with the
concept of having a different sound for each shot of the
''Every shot has a different point of view, so I tried the
idea of making a contrast between every shot, like high and
low frequencies and volumes,'' he said.
''We collected different sounds from waterfalls and
Conversations with Maria Belon, the Spanish woman played by
Watts, helped inform Tarrago's choices.
''Maria was telling us she didn't know what was going on [as
the tsunami approached],'' said Tarrago.
''She thought that a plane was flying really low. So we
recorded a lot of planes here in Barcelona.''
Tarrago also used ''sounds like a far-off plane flying when
the water is coming to the resort. We also used the vibration
sounds of glass and animals running and birds flying because
they could feel what was going on.''
Belon, Bayona says, was ''very impressed'' with the sequence
when the water comes in.
''But she was really shocked with the sequence where you see
her underwater, because for her that was the perfect metaphor
of what was life, how you cannot control your destiny,'' he
''You are only dragged by the current.''