Animating the Unknowable — Verona: The Story of the Everett Massacre

Filmmaker Denise Ohio used 3D CGI to help her actually understand the historical event that is the subject of her documentary

Published on in Director's Cut

While computer animation is often a crucial tool for telling a story, filmmaker Denise Ohio used 3D CGI to help her actually understand the historical event that is the subject of her documentary, Verona: The Story of the Everett Massacre (2017, 105 minutes, Virgil Films).

On November 5, 1916, 250 members of the Industrial Workers of the World aboard the steamship Verona were met at the Everett City Dock by Sheriff Don McRae and 140 deputies. When the shooting stopped, six men were dead, one dying, dozens wounded, and as many as twelve missing in the cold water of Puget Sound. Verona reveals the story of one of the bloodiest labor conflicts in U.S. history and what happens when those who have nothing defy those who have everything.

It took more than a dozen years to make this film. I needed material that didn’t exist, not anywhere and certainly not digitized, to explore both why and how the shoot-out happened. A lot of what a filmmaker would have normally relied on was gone. The Everett City Dock had been torn down to make way for a Navy base in the 1970s. The Verona had burned to her waterline in 1936. Key court documents had been destroyed in a courthouse fire. All I had was some propaganda, chunks of court transcript printed in the local newspaper, insurance maps (luckily to scale), and some photos of the location and the ship that someone had scooped up from a dumpster and donated to the Northwest Room of the Everett Public Library twenty years ago. The record was incomplete. To get what I needed, I would have to create it myself.

I had enough 3-D modeling and animation skills that I decided to model a virtual waterfront and ship. I used Lightwave 3-D and Photoshop, but I could have done this using free, open source applications like Blender and Gimp.

 

 

Working in 3-D CGI can be broken down into modeling, animating, and rendering. Modeling refers to creating a virtual object or collection of objects, like a virtual set, and surfacing those objects to get the look you’re trying to achieve. Animating means to put a virtual object into a scene in your 3-D software then changing the object’s position over time so the object appears to be moving. Rendering means to have the computer compile the modeling and animating data you’ve created and export it the final frames. There are sub-groups within each set of tasks, and people usually specialize in one aspect of the 3-D CGI process because it’s extremely labor intensive. That’s why animated films often have such long credit lists: you need a lot of people to create every pixel.

But at this point in my project I didn’t need a lot of detail or even any animation. I just wanted to test some of the eyewitness accounts by placing my virtual camera at different points so I could see which versions were plausible. Using the insurance maps and the photos, I quickly built a virtual set of the waterfront.

The ship was a bit trickier. I had no drawings of the Verona. There were photos from different years and a brief write-up in H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, so that gave me a place to start. I also had access to the scale drawings of the remodeled Virginia V., the last of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet ships. (The Virginia V. still sails the Sound (https://www.virginiav.org) so I took a trip. I walked the decks as we sailed north on the Sound during a beautiful sunny fall day, much like November 5, 1916. Then we sailed into a fog bank, and I realized that the massive cargo ships coming the other way had no way of seeing us because wooden ships don’t show up on radar. I didn’t unclench until we were out of the fog.)

I scaled the Virginia V.’s drawings down to fit the dimensions of the Verona and created a simple model of the hull. Then I used the archival photos I had to add additional detail like railings, windows, companionways, and doors.

It was the water of Port Gardner Bay that almost did me in. The challenge was to get the water’s level on that day and time as accurately as I could. I knew the height of the tide at noon and that the tide ebbed to the south, but I didn’t know if, for example, the passenger deck be above or below the level of the dock, and if I didn’t know, how could I verify what was in the record? How would I know what had really happened?

Then I stumbled across a legal document archived at the King County Court House in Seattle that gave the relative heights of the ship and the dock that day. I painstakingly compared each account, shifting the ship at the dock to accommodate what people saw. In this way, I was able to see what up until then had only been written. And what I saw became the heart of my movie.

About the Writer 

Denise Ohio is a writer-producer-director based in Monroe, WA. She recently completed Verona: The Story of the Everett Massacre now out on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu. Watch the trailer.

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