When producer André Logie heard that a series was planned on the sinking of the Estonia, a passenger ferry sailing between Stockholm and Tallinn, he knew Flanders could also play a role.
If they wanted to reconstruct the disaster, I thought, they would probably have to shoot in a water tank, and that immediately made me think of Lites.
The Lites Water Stage & Film Studios complex, located in Vilvoorde, near Brussels, boasts the most advanced indoor water stage in the world. The 1,450m2 facility is capable for recreating water currents, rain, fog, wind, and of course waves, from paddling sizes up to a tsunami.
Logie was also intrigued by the idea of telling the story of the Estonia disaster, which he remembered happening. Around midnight on 28 September 1994, the ferry was caught in a storm off the coast of Finland. Despite a dramatic rescue operation under the most difficult conditions, the ship sank within 30 minutes, sweeping 852 souls to their deaths.
"Just three months after the disaster happened, I was on the same ferry line between Stockholm and Tallinn," he recalls. "And the atmosphere on the boat was very strange. Normally on a ferry everyone is excited, but here they were very quiet, and a lot of people were praying. And that made a deep impression on me.”
The project was led by Finnish producer Fisher King, with Miikko Oikkonen (Bordertown, Helsinki Syndrome) acting as show runner. Amrion Production in Estonia and Kärnfilm in Sweden joined as co-producers, along with Logie's company Panache Productions and partner La Compagnie Cinématographique.
Can you sink it?
Early in pre-production, the team from Fisher King visited Lites to see what the studio had to offer. “It all started with a question: we have a ship that capsizes, can you do that?” recalls Wim Michiels, the general manager of Lites. “And we said, of course we can.”
Lites already had a large platform that could lower a set into the water, but something more was needed to tell the Estonia story. So the studio designed and built a new platform specifically for the production.
We developed a 12m by 18m platform that is able to tilt up to 50 degrees above water and can also sink under the water
During the production, this new tilting platform was used for two major sets. One was for the interior of the Estonia, with a cabin and a corridor that had to tilt and flood as the passengers struggle to escape. The other set was the deck of the Estonia, which needed to tilt up in the storm and then slip beneath the water as people fight the elements to launch lifeboats.
“This worked well with our other capabilities, such as the wave machines and horizontal rain blown by the wind machines,” Michiels recalls. “It’s just not the same if you try to do this with VFX. When you see the actors with the wind and rain on them, you know it’s the real thing.”
Meanwhile, control on the platform was precise enough to meet the demands of the camera crew. “When we were tilting the deck, we could adjust it by 5cm at a time, and that allowed us to control exactly what is in shot.”
In addition to these two major sets, the water tanks at Lites were also used to shoot scenes involving the rescue boats and life rafts.
With all of the water scenes taking place in Flanders, and post-production and visual effects taking place in Brussels and Wallonia, Logie was able to build a strong contribution from the Belgian Tax Shelter. This is an incentive for Belgian investors to back audiovisual productions and co-productions, with amounts determined by the eligible costs incurred in the country.
In addition to studio costs and equipment rental, the Estonia shoot involved an extensive Flemish crew, including gaffers, grips and a first assistant director, who oversaw the entire water shoot.
In the end we spent a little over €4.5 million in Belgium, so it was a huge undertaking.
His own company Movie Tax Invest began the Tax Shelter operation, joined later by BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance. This financing was then supplemented by Belgium's regional funding bodies, including Screen Flanders.
In addition to work at Lites, there were three shooting days on location, mainly in Antwerp harbour. “The inquiry into the disaster included an investigation in Hamburg, where the Estonia was built, and instead of going to Hamburg we recreated Hamburg in Antwerp,” Logie says.
Other locations were found to make optimal use the crew's time, such as a hotel in which a scene with the victims' families could be shot.
Estonia had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, and is distributed internationally by Beta Film.
A new water attraction
Meanwhile, Lites is now exploring other options for using its new tilting platform. Tests have been done using a part of the platform to sink a car, and the system has been used in for a scene in the film Saint-Ex, about an episode in the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This involved having a plane floating on the water, which then had to tilt and sink, with its tail up.
“It’s a modular system, so it can hold a small or a large set, and perform different manoeuvres,” says Michiels. “This platform can move freely, in a controlled way, and that opens up all kinds of possibilities.”