Big sea battles on a small budget

For the sea battles of Admiral, film-maker Roel Reine used three 17th-century replica ships, then duplicated them with computer technology.
For the sea battles of Admiral, film-maker Roel Reine used three 17th-century replica ships, then duplicated them with computer technology.PHOTO: EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL

Dutch film-maker Roel Reine managed to film a grand seafaring adventure movie on a tight budget, avoiding green screen and using real wooden ships

It is a dream of many film-makers to put the life of a national hero on screen. But that dream dies because the stirring events that thrust the person to greatness - the wars, the riots, the disasters - are too expensive to properly put on screen.

The fact had always been true about the life of Michiel de Ruyter, a figure of major historical significance to The Netherlands.

De Ruyter was a man of humble birth who rose to the rank of admiral in the 17th century. His defeats of the English and French fleets protected the young Dutch Republic, cementing the nation's status as a maritime power with a colonial reach that would extend to South-east Asia and elsewhere. 

The prospect of showing large- scale sea battles deterred other film- makers, says Roel Reine, a Dutch director based in Los Angeles.

"It's such a technical movie, the budgets that you can get in Holland are not that high, so nobody thought it was possible," he says by telephone from Los Angeles.

But when the 45-year-old heard that there was a script about de Ruyter, he took it on, confident that he could do what others could not.

It was up there with Jurassic World and Fast And Furious 7. It tells you that people were really hungry for a movie that tells their own story in their own language and shows their own culture.

DUTCH FILM-MAKER ROEL REINE on the success of his movie, Admiral, at home

He has 19 features under his belt, most of them cheap and cheerful action movie sequels such as The Marine 2 (2009), Death Race 2 (2011) and The Scorpion King 3 (2012). Reine says he has mastered the art of "making low-budget movies look really good".

The result is Admiral, a biopic that mixes grand seafaring adventure with court intrigue and family drama. It will be screened here as the opening film of the European Union Film Festival, with Reine attending.

Admiral has a €7 million (S$10.6 million) budget. This is a fraction of the cost of a typical Hollywood epic, but many times that of the usual Dutch movie.

Each of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, for example, costs an average of US$200 million (S$271 million) to make.

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Reine's film contains several sea battles, featuring formations of tall-masted ships blasting away with cannons, ships ablaze and dozens of sailors and soldiers.

To save money, Reine doubled as the film's cinematographer.

He optimised scheduling so that photography, including on-water scenes, could wrap in a brief 40 days.

But, most importantly, he says he avoided green screen.

Green screen is a technique used to blend computer-generated images with real-life ones and can be time-consuming and expensive to do well.

Reine opted for the real thing whenever he could.

Shooting on location in old buildings that stand in for palaces and houses of government took care of the land scenes.

For the battles at sea, he needed actual vessels.

"We used three 17th-century replica ships, which came from Russia, France and Holland. They are used today in situations such as naval training. With those three ships, we can double or quadruple them on computer," he says.

Working on board a precious wooden artefact was tough, he says.

To re-create explosions caused by cannonball blasts, the crew used compressed air canisters that shoot debris.

But one common special effect was ruled out.

"We could not use fake blood because it would stain the wood," he says.

The lack of blood does not seem to have hurt the film's success.

The movie, starring Dutch actor Frank Lammers as de Ruyter and Charles Dance (from HBO's Game Of Thrones) as King Charles II of England, was a commercial hit in The Netherlands last year. It was the only Dutch entry on the country's list of top 10 highest- grossing films for the year.

"It was up there with Jurassic World and Fast And Furious 7. It tells you that people were really hungry for a movie that tells their own story in their own language and shows their own culture."

Say yes to unfamiliar foreign films

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Big sea battles on a small budget'. Print Edition | Subscribe