The Hunt for Red October – Recreating an effects sequence

Back in 1990, a films which I latched onto was the excellent Hunt for Red October, an daptation of the Tom Clancy novel and a gripping cold-war thriller.

I’ve started reading old Cinefex back issues and there was a really great article detailing how ILM made the underwater scenes for the movie.  And then found this Making Of video on YouTube:


I’ve cued the video up to the point where they talk about shooting the miniatures.  Although, if you watch the video, you’ll see that the term miniature doesn’t really do these models justice, the Red October main model was 25 feet long!

The FX team took over a large warehouse and used blue light filters and smoke and shot at high speed using motion control rigs.  Because of this set up, there was little traditional compositing, every model and rock that was in the frame had to be shot at the same time.  It’s truly amazing and the Cinefex article goes into great detail about how complicated this all was.

ILM did use early CGI for adding particles (the plankton and bubbles) and (what would now be considered) basic match-moving for water distortion.  And this is what got me thinking…

Would it be possible to recreate the look of a 1990 movie, using the software I had at my disposal?

Answer: hmm… almost.

The Submarine

First things first, I needed a model of the Red October.  I couldn’t find anything compatible with Element3D, but I did find this model by Leon on 3D Warehouse:

The model looks amazing, but due to how it’s constructed, it wouldn’t import directly into Element.  I’d hoped to simply combine shapes and retain the original, but it didn’t work out that way.  As is often the case with 3D programs and models, there were odd artifacts, uneven surfaces and other glitches.

Instead, I used Leon’s model as kind of a 3D blueprint and recreated the submarine, matching the lines and dimensions to the original.

model for element

The colours may look a little psychedelic, but that’s because I textured in VC Element. so for now, just needed bold colours to get the various different pieces to stand out.

elementElement’s pre-built shaders got me very close to the final look, and tweaking the colours and bump maps got me to this.

I had also gone as far as including animation channels for the properllors, periscopes, rudder and fins.  I even cut into my model so I could animate the caterpillar drive, although in the sequence I recreating, this isn’t used.

The Environment

Next, I had to replicate the look of the underwater environment.  There’s lots of tutorials on the internet showing how to match the look of water surfaces and light rays near the surface, but this movie takes place at much greater depth.

In order to match the look, I needed to grab a copy of the sequence and then match it in After Effects.

originalmy version

Using Element’s default rock model, stacking it and creating variations with all the randomise options and then using a lot of fog, it was possible to get something approximating the movie’s underwater look.

Critiquing my work, I’d say my version is “too perfect” – the lines for everything are too sharp (I tried to compensate with different blurs).  In the moving shot, I’ve even resorted to adding a water distortion effect, which doesn’t exist in the original, but anything to make it look less clean.  I added a Match Grain effect too, but that also feels like cheating somewhat.

I also didn’t use any lights – I started with them, but I couldn’t get anything diffuse enough to look right.  In the end, I used Element’s Underwater option and tinting the environment got me closest.

element settings.PNG

I used Trapcode Particular to add plankton and the camera’s movements gave each shot a nice sense of depth with this included.  I also used Particular to create distortion maps for the water – both generally and for the wakes.

particular distortion.PNG

And for the counter measures:

counter measures.PNG

The explosion

At the very end of the sequence, the chasing torpedo is fooled by Ramius’ tactics and collides with a rock wall.  (There’s a lovely bit in the Cinefex article which talks about how they hand-animated elements of the original explosion.)

I tried various options for this, but came up short when using particles.  Andrew Kramer has nice tutorial on Depth Charges, but a straight copy of this didn’t look right either.  The SlowMo guys have some underwater explosions and I used that as reference to recreate the initial shockwave.  I then used a couple of aerial explosions which are included in Video Copilot’s Jet Strike along with plenty of lens flare and tinted everything to look underwater.

The Sequence

The sequence I choose to recreate is the torpedo attack in the canyons.  It’s the most dramatic and there’s lots going on.

After importing this sequence into AE, I chopped it up into the VFX shots:


There are technically 9 shots, but 3 at the start are actually continuations of the same shot.  I then took each shot in turn, made it its own comp, set up the seafloor, canyons, sub and camera.  I wasn’t too bothered about matching angles exactly… that way lies madness.

One thing I did notice is how short the shots are.  First collection aside, each composition was exactly 3 seconds and 23 frames long.  Almost as if they had been edited to a formula.  The live action shots were not as restricted, but I found this interesting.  Maybe there were technical, budgetary or contractual limitations?  Or maybe it’s because VFX always look better the less they are on screen.  Next time you get a chance, check out the dragon chase in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  That dragon is never on screen for more than 4 seconds at a time!


Ultimately, this was about giving myself a project to do and I had fun doing it.  I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but the particles are the least convincing element.

Recreating stuff is always going to be disappointing, especially when trying to use a desktop computer to simulate physical models and lighting.  I got as close as I could and taught myself a few new techniques along the way.

See what you think:

One last thing

Normally, I’d include project files and/or tutorials, but this project was so limited in scope, it didn’t seem worth it.  That’s not to say I’m not willing to share.  Drop me a line here if you want any of the files.


Published by ShiveringCactus

Tutorials and videos, mainly After Effects, but with some 3D and puppetry stuff too.

3 thoughts on “The Hunt for Red October – Recreating an effects sequence

  1. Hey, thanks for the tut and sharing the awesome result 🙂
    I’m doing a hobby project with the submarine from HFRO, but can’t seem to find a model in a nice resolution. Since your upgraded version seems very smooth and detailed, I was wondering if you’d be willing to share it? That would be a great help 🙂 Thanks in advance, Lasse.

      1. Hi “Shivering”,

        Awesome!! Thank you SO much! 🙂 Well, particles are never easy to handle – I remember doing quite a bit of tests following Andre Kramer´s missile and airplane tuts, and even tho they turned out nice, it´s hard to get it right. FWIW I think you got a really great result – and one that actually improved on the FX of the original movie 🙂

        All the best, and thanks a lot again!


        > Den 19. okt. 2019 kl. 12.36 skrev Shivering Cactus : > >

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