The short opening of 1995’s Waterworld turns the Universal logo into a flooded futuristic Earth – and it was rather difficult to pull off.
Opening in July of 1995, Waterworld was Kevin Costner’s summer blockbuster of that year, and at the time too, the most expensive film of all time. By distance.
Described as Mad Max on water, the film already had its fair share of problems behind the scenes, with the industry press seemingly willing it to fail. With stories such as sinking sets, CGI hairlines and having to extend a local runway to enable the cargo planes to deliver sets and equipment, there’s almost as much entertainment from reading behind the scenes material as there is from watching the film itself. Although the film itself has its moments too (yep, come at us, haters…)
Here’s another tale from away from the physical production though, which is both true and contains a few surprises and is limited to just the opening 60 seconds of the film. Here’s a refresher of the movie’s opening…
For those who have never seen the film (apparently there are some, we learn), the movie thus starts with the typical Universal logo but instead of the usual bombastic trumpeting fanfare, there is an ominous hum which evolves into singular pan pipe notes. As you can see, the word Universal fades away and the camera moves towards the top of the Earth so we can witness the polar ice caps melting with the sea water rising, engulfing all land. (Whilst this is happening right now, there’s not enough water trapped in the polar ice to make this a reality).
The voice of Hal Douglas reads a brief narration, with a voice that used to grace the action film trailers of the 1980s and 90s. “The future. The polar ice caps have melted covering the Earth with water. Those who survived have adapted to a new world.” It’s a line made for his tones. The camera then moves closer to the Earth, passing through the clouds to reveal the film’s opening logo, Waterworld, and James Newton Howard’s score kicks in.
In such a short space of time, the film has perfectly set the scene, but creating this opening wasn’t without its own problems. Heck, everything on this film seemed to be a problem. In this case, the opening sequence was created by the company Pittard–Sullivan–Fitzgerald, who were founders of film title design.
Eric Ladd was an executive producer at the company when the job for Waterworld came in. The film’s director Kevin Reynolds, as well as Kevin Costner and various Universal executives, wanted an opening that told a story. The zoom into the Universal logo had been an idea since an early script draft and never really came out. “We came up with the zoom-in idea, pitched it to them and they said, ‘great,’” recalled Ladd. Wayne Fitzgerald, a premier title designer at Pittard-Sullivan-Fitzgerald, looked at Ladd worryingly and replied “how are we going to do that?”. A good question, but Ladd was confident they were going to be able to pull it off.
Context was important though. This was the mid-1990sand CGI work was still evolving, but the plan was simple. Universal had already created its opening logo in the digital realm. If the animators could obtain those digital files, they could create computer generated water, add it to the existing globe animation and make it look like the Earth was flooding.
VFX Supervisor Kirk Cameron and Eric Ladd contacted Mike Greenfield of Universal Marketing and asked for the globe model. They then patiently sat by their email inboxes and awaited the digital files. Four days later, Cameron was contacted by building security informing him they couldn’t get his statue upstairs in the company elevators.
Cameron went down to the lobby to try to make sense of the situation. Instead of sending the digital files of the Universal opening, they had sent one of the original four-foot model globes that had been used to create the original older logo. Rather than embarrass the Universal executives for not knowing the difference between a real model and a 3D digital model, it was placed safely into storage to be returned later.
To recreate a digital version instead, they had to scan the original film elements from the creation of the old Universal logo and then wrap that picture around a 3D sphere. The starfield behind the globe was also recreated digitally because the film formats used in the creation of the original logo didn’t match the format being used for Waterworld.
Afterwards, they had to cut out the ‘Universal’ text from the old logo and place it on top of their new 3D globe to complete the work. There was also fear of a legal rebuttal as Pittard–Sullivan–Fitzgerald were technically recreating a new Universal logo digitally without the studio’s permission, so they kept it quiet. They didn’t want to complicate the executive approval process and slow down production of the shot.
Cameron remembers years later that Universal contacted the firm for the digital version. “I remember someone in Universal Home Video called to request the files and I had to sleuth out how Universal learned that they even existed. I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
Once they had finished, they had created one of the most memorable transitions between a studio opening logo and the start of the film. The 60 second opening was the longest full CGI scene ever created at that point in 1995, but that title was quickly stolen away. Four months later, an animation studio called Pixar released their first full length CGI film, Toy Story. But, on the flip side, Toy Story didn’t have a ton of water and Kevin Costner with gills behind his ears. A stern lesson for Pixar to learn there…
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