Exclusive Case Study: Estonia TV series

KFTV’s Underwater Filming Report, Part Two: We speak to the team behind multi-European TV series Estonia, who are reproducing the ferry sinking events at Belgium's Lites Studios

By Chris Evans 11 Aug 2022

Exclusive Case Study: Estonia TV series
Miikko Oikkonen. Credit: Kimmo Korhonen

KFTV Underwater Filming Report

Sponsored by Lites Studios in Belgium and South Africa-based marine film service specialists Frog Squad

Part Two: Case Study of Estonia TV series

As part of KFTV’s underwater filming report, Chris Evans speak to the show runner, Miikko Oikkonen, and studio head, Wim Michiels, behind the forthcoming multi-European TV series Estonia, which has been reproducing the infamous ferry sinking at Lites Studios in Belgium

The MS Estonia sank on Wednesday 28 September 1994 crossing the Baltic Sea en route from Tallinn, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden, claiming the lives of 852 people. It was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.

An investigation ensued, but surprisingly no one was blamed. Skip forward 25 years and the details of that investigation were finally revealed and released to the Finnish National Archives.

“There were about 14,000 articles and documents about the accident. That was the starting point for our [eight-episode] TV series,” explains Miikko Oikkonen, chief visual officer and founder of Finnish production company Fisher King, and showrunner of Estonia.

The series’ storyline will follow what happened during the investigation and will then flashback to what occurred on the ship, looking at the different points of view, so crew members and passengers, and the rescue operation afterwards.

The key for the production team is getting across how the accident affected the main three countries involved, Sweden, Finland and Estonia.

This is why Fisher King is co-producing the series alongside Kärnfilm (Sweden), Amrion (Estonia), Panache Productions (Belgium) and Beta Film (Germany).

While the writing team consists of Sanna Reinumägi, Tuomas Hakola and Olli Suitiala (Finland), Henrik Engström (Sweden), and Livia Ulman and Andris Feldmanis (Estonia). Måns Månsson from Sweden is the main director.

“We wanted Swedish, Finnish and Estonian companies and writers onboard because the accident involved all three countries, so we wanted their input and to get to grips with how it affected each country,” confirms Oikkonen. “We’re also using crew and actors from those three countries, and the characters will speak in the three languages, as well as English when they are together.”

The series also has the support and local distribution of commissioning channels C More in Finland and Sweden, MTV3 in Finland and TV4 in Sweden.

Lites, cameras, action

One of the biggest decisions and major challenges for the producers was where to re-enact the sinking, which happened in the middle of the night in stormy conditions, and how to reproduce the look of the MS Estonia.

“We looked at a couple of water tank sites, The Malta Film Studios and Lites Studios in Belgium. When we visited the latter, it was clear we could do everything there,” explains Oikkonen.

The team spoke with Wim Michiels, head of Lites Studios and an expert in underwater filming, about how they were going to rebuild replica parts of the ship, including a giant exact size section measuring 24 meters long and about 13 metres wide. And then tilt it into the tank at roughly the same angle as the original ship when it sank.

Lites Studios has one of the most advanced water stages in the world with a movable floor for set construction, a tank up to 30 feet deep, waves up to one meter high, rain-based mist, water cannons, and dual overhead cranes with four hoists that can lift 25 tons of weight. All ideal for the job at hand.

But building a platform that can tilt at up to 55 degrees proved to be a huge challenge and undertaking. “We had to custom build the platform to capsize,” says Michiels. “So I initially did a little drawing and took it to a rigger, who worked with some engineers to build it.”

The physical prep started in January this year, especially ordering all the parts needed. “It is proving harder and harder to get all the technical equipment you need delivered because of a shortage in the market and difficulties with transport,” says Michiels.

“[When the parts eventually arrived], we made the platform as sturdy as possible with 40 tons of lift under it and ballast tanks with big manifolds with lots of valves you could put air in with the right pressure to release the water. And then with cranes, which are standard in our studio, we could lift the platform very smoothly.”

For filming, the team started with the sundeck of the ship part, then a long corridor scene and shots inside the cabins as the passengers attempt to flee.

“We wanted to make it as authentic as possible and checked all the material to see how everything looked,” explains Oikkonen. “We even filmed the actors in the compartments on the tilting platform, so they’re at the correct angles as the boat sank and you can see the water coming in.”


Filming of Estonia in the Lites Studios tank. Credit: Fisher King

To help the director of photography (JP Passi) and camera operators, smaller platforms were built at 90 degrees around the main platform, so they could stand on those to get the right shots.

“We wanted it to be this cinematic documentary style, where the viewer is immersed in the scene, so we used handheld cameras, filming close-up to the characters, following everything through their eyes or on the shoulder,” adds Oikkonen. “We were amazed with how authentic it was at the studios. When we put the wave machine on it looked incredible.”

What made filming even more incredible was the fact that the production team decided to do long takes following the characters around as the ship is sinking in the storm. This is not the norm. Usually, productions do things shot by shot to allow for prep.

“I think the longest take was 15 minutes with the actors, using one whole memory card,” enthuses Oikkonen. “We were doing the scene again and again and not stopping at all between. It actually worked really well. There were some tiny mistakes with making it look real, while trying to handle the operating and acting, but those mistakes made it even more authentic.”

These scenes were made easier by the fact that Lites has warm water in its tank so the actors, crew and support teams could last a bit longer in the water.

For shots of the entire Estonia ship, measuring around 150 meters, the production team will use VFX extensions. And there will be plates with the extras and stuntmen, and some 3D characters used in the background. Post-production work is due to be supervised by Oscar-winning outfit DNEG in the UK.

Locations and funding

The production team finished filming at the Lites Studios in July, and have since been filming in Istanbul where they have rented a whole vessel, which was built at the same time period as the Estonia, to make it look like Estonia before the accident. “Within this vessel, we have recreated the inside areas, like the stairs, lobby, bar etc,” says Oikkonen.

They are also filming in Tallinn, where they will recreate the investigation team office, and Helsinki and Stockholm for location and drama shots of the investigation. Shooting is due to be completed by the end of October.

The total budget for the series is around €15m, which may not seem much compared to major US streaming shows like Game of Thrones, but it is the biggest Finnish series budget to date.

Funding has come in from the commissioning channels and the production is accessing local tax incentives in Belgium, Finland (worth up to 25%) and Estonia (up to 30%).

The plan is to have everything ready by end of March/early April next year. Beta in Germany is handling sales of the project. “They should have an easier time of selling it when we give them stunning material to show,” enthuses Oikkonen.

Homepage image of Estonia filming in the tank. Credit: Fisher King

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