Producer Riina Sildos phoned Heiki Luts, producer of FrostFilms in Tallinn: the creators of the series are currently in a meeting and need advice on visual special effects. As the office of Amrion OÜ, a production company owned by Sildos, is right across the street from FrostFilms, Luts was in the meeting in five minutes.

HEIKI LUTS ON THE SET OF THE SERIES: With the help of the reflective sphere, reflections from the frame can be obtained in a range of 180 degrees

„I went there not knowing whether the ’Estonia’ series would come to us at all. Rather, I thought it was not going to come to us,“ recalls Luts, who initially went there to give one-off advice.

It turned out that Luts’s advice would be needed throughout the filming period. In the end, about two-thirds of the special effects work was done in Belgium and the remaining third was done by FrostFilms. Frames related to the sea, water, ship and bow visor remained the domain of Estonians. At the same time, Luts also advised on the special effects work carried out in Belgium.

„It was interesting for me to be involved in an international production like this and to see the work of other major effects companies from the sidelines and guide them a little bit as well,“ said the producer of FrostFilms.

The total number of special effects was around 800. Admittedly, most of these were simple clean-ups, with a few inappropriate details removed. However, there were some very complex shots as well.

One of them was a shot of the Estonia’s departure from the port. In this case, the most challenging part was the ship, but DNEG, who was originally meant to create the special effects for the film, had already done a great job with the 3D model of the ship and it handed it over to the Estonian company. Still, to achieve a realistic result, work on the ship had to continue for several more weeks.

Detailed scan from Sweden

In addition, support was received from a Swedish company to make the image of the Estonia’s bow visor as realistic as possible in the series. More precisely, FrostFilms managed to get hold of a LiDAR scan of the Estonia’s bow visor, or a detailed 3D image of it, recently made by a Swedish company.

Such an opportunity does not come along every day, as the Estonia’s bow visor is located in Muskö military base and access to it is strictly limited. The Swedish state had only recently commissioned this scan and so the creators of the ’Estonia’ series had the opportunity to use it.

Thanks to this, the bow visor seen in the series has exactly the same bumps and rust stains as in real life.

For one scene, they needed to digitally restore the bow visor.

„If we had put a rusty bow visor in the scene, it would have appeared as if this was what they started the cruise with and it would have shown the crew of the ship in a bad light,“ Luts explained. „We took a LiDAR scan and cleaned up the visor for this shot.“

Initially, there was not supposed to be a shot of the bow visor being lowered at all, but in the summer, FrostFilms project manager Johanna Maria Vilgats spotted an archive clip of the bow visor closing on YouTube. Since the director of the series, Måns Månsson, liked it, the clip had to be added at the last minute.

To produce the background of the shot, the original plan was to film the Estline terminal, which is relatively similar to the one at the time, but unfortunately, this was not possible.

„To do this, we should have been able to get on the bridge of the Eckerö ship, but we were not given permission. We had to film the ship from its side because it was parked with its nose towards the Estline terminal. We couldn’t film in the direction we wanted,“ said Luts.

A tricky shot for the special effects masters was the one where the Estonia was already in a stormy sea. This was the first thing they did – it took them several months to create the frame. The 48th version of this frame made it to the series.

Creative thinking was needed to make the shot dramatic enough. Subsequent measurements estimated that the ship was about a kilometre away from the so-called camera, but in reality, it would not have been possible to see Estonia from that distance under these conditions.

Originally, the frame was played out with a primitive ship model created in 3D. The camera work was done by the series’ cinematographer J-P Passi in the FrostFilms office, filming a ship moving using the game engine (Unreal Engine). Then they added light, the right materials, stormy seas, rain and fog. Then, a wave was raised in front of the Estonia, which it ran into.

„Another similar shot was the tilted ship at sea, which was an adaptation of the previous shot for us. We changed the camera a little bit and the sea was actually the same, but we had to create a new wave that would take into account the tilted ship,“ says Luts.

In addition, we had to decide how many lights were still on in Estonia at that moment and what to do with the bow visor. Whether we should keep it, lose it, or hide it with light so that it remains obscure. Finally, it was decided to remove the bow visor from the ship for this shot, so that the open hatch to the car deck could be detected.

The car deck was filled virtually

One of the biggest tasks was to create the car deck scenes. They were filmed on a ship that was docked in Istanbul. As the ship was undergoing repairs, it had no car bridge and instead of a full ship’s deck, the makers of the series were only able to use a couple of real cars, which were lifted onto the ship by crane. The rest had to be added digitally.

A couple of real cars were needed to film the scenes with actor Kaspar Velberg, where he had to lean on the vehicles. Kaspar Velberg, who played watchman Janek Tamm in the Estonia series, recalls that it was quite a surreal experience.

„The director showed me a trajectory of about 150-200 metres – run here, make a stop, here make a call, here make the next stop. Heiki had marked things with light markings so that they would have a reference point for building additional things,“ Velberg describes.

„The most bizarre was a very brief shot of Priit Pius ’ character looking at the car deck camera on the monitor and seeing a picture of me moving between cars. There were actually no cars in the shot,“ the actor continued.

After all, Velberg made 90-degree sprints between imaginary cars.


As it was not possible to bring trucks on board the ship in Turkey and the truck wheel that was placed there during the shooting tended to move, one of the car deck scenes was filmed in the Black Box studio in Viimsi because Velberg’s character had to check the truck’s fastening chain.

How difficult was it to imagine that the car deck was full of cars?

„Actually, it was not difficult. You can roughly imagine the dimensions and I didn’t relate to it in too much detail. I just passed through and in the moments when I actually touched something, there were real cars or real elements,“ says Velberg.

„The depiction of the storm was also a kind of ’fake it till you make it’. You adopt a drunken walk and try to provide the camera with moments where a bigger wave comes in, sometimes hitting from here, sometimes from there. It creates a dynamic movement or a stop. In that sense, it was cool that no one put anything in place in advance. Together, we looked for a way to make the scene look convincing.“

How did the cars get on board the ships in the first place? To do this, the special effects creators searched databases for models of cars that could have been on the Estonia in 1994. They were then numbered and the director decided where he wanted to see any particular vehicles. The models were then bought and made to look nice.

There is at least one Estonian in every harbour and this was the case during the filming of the ’Estonia’ series as well

The shots filmed on the ship of the ’Estonia’ series were taken on the Sea Anatolia, a ship located in Istanbul and owned by a Finn. FrostFilms producer Heiki Luts recalls a humorous moment from the shoot.

The creators of the series also decided to involve members of the ship’s crew, who played small roles in various scenes. For example, the man who banged Estonia’s bow visor shut with a hammer in the series was one of the local workers.

„I was talking to a worker near the bow visor in English, but suddenly he answered me in Estonian: ’I’m actually from Narva.’

It’s true that there is at least one Estonian in every port,“ laughs Luts.

In addition to the cars, it was a challenge to make the inside of the bow visor look true to the era. While the Estonia’s bow visor closed vertically, the one on the ship in Turkey closed horizontally on both sides. This meant that the hydraulics of the horizontally closing doors had to be removed using film magic.

Since the creators of the series were able to use a very high quality LiDAR scan with the bow visor, it looks especially lifelike. But in order to get a good enough end result, a few tricks had to be used in real life as well.

Since the bow visor is mostly white, two white trucks were parked in the background during the scene where interviews are conducted in front of it. One of the aims was that they should convey the size of the bow visor, and another was that they should reflect white light. This way, there was less work to do with colours after creating special effects.

In the scene where the bow visor is lifted onto the shore, there was actually a large triangle placed dangling from the crane, which also conveyed the size of the bow visor.

One of the most dramatic shots in the series was when the Estonia had sunk sideways in the water and some of the people were waiting for their fate on it.

„This is how it actually was. Those who escaped from the Estonia reportedly described it as a strange moment of silence where the ship had not yet gone down and it was turned into a big floor,“ says Luts.

Velberg recalls that one of the life raft scenes was quite difficult to make. Namely, his character released an emergency rocket, but it flew into the boat and had to be extinguished.

The rocket fired by Velberg was actually half-charged and made a small spark. However, LED lights were built into the fabric of the life raft, which lit up in the right order and eventually reached the floor. There, the smoke system was then triggered at the right moment.

Especially complicated were the helicopter scenes. The 3D images of the flying helicopter were mainly created in Belgium, but the scenes inside the helicopter were filmed in an aviation museum in Sweden, which was located in a former nuclear bomb-proof military facility.

The museum was home to the Super Puma helicopter used by the Finnish border guards during the sinking of the Estonia. The scenes inside the helicopter were filmed deep underground. The helicopter was wrapped in white fabric for the daytime scenes and in black fabric for the night scenes.

The sea rescue scenes were filmed in Belgium in a large swimming pool where a model of the Estonia sun deck was built.

„In the water studio, we had to imagine and act out a situation where there is a horizon and we can see the Silja Europa. While on the sun deck, we had to look at the captain’s bridge, which wasn’t actually there,“ Velberg says.

The most extreme, he said, was the winching, which involved lifting the actors into a box 10-15 metres high and then moving them from under the ceiling back to the surface of the water. At the same time, waves and wind were generated in the pool.

„The feeling of danger was quite real under the ceiling,“ Velberg admitted. Filming the scene was not made easier by the fact that Velberg himself is afraid of heights.


The filming of the ’Estonia’ series was accompanied by a heightened sense of responsibility

The disaster that took place on 28 September 1994 was the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in the Baltic Sea, where 852 people lost their lives.

Many Estonians, but also Swedes and Finns, are still deeply affected by the Estonia ship disaster. It is therefore no wonder that FrostFilms producer and special effects supervisor Heiki Luts and Kaspar Velberg who played the watchman Janek Tamm felt a great sense of responsibility.

„There was certainly the feeling of a great expectation from society all the time with the ’Estonia’ series; you couldn’t do a sloppy job,“ Luts said.

„If any of the effects looked bad, it would be disrespectful to the people who have been personally affected by the story. The whole team felt a heightened sense of responsibility towards the topic. We wanted to tell it in a way that was respectful of everyone who was affected by the drama.“

He pointed out that while the premieres of the ’Estonia’ series in Estonia and Finland were events with a larger audience, in Sweden, for example, only the relatives of the deceased were invited.

However, their Belgian colleagues had no such connection with the story; for them, it was a normal project.

„I played a person who, when rummaging through the papers, you can see was a real living person, based on whom the character of the watchman was written,“ said Velberg.

„Pretending to be in that situation in warm 30-degree studio water was a silly feeling. The whole time there was the thought in the back of my mind that people were actually in freezing water – I can’t totally imagine what it was like.“

At the same time, Velberg had confidence that the directors had done their job tactfully and were focusing on the people whose stories needed to be told, rather than conspiracy theories.

„When we first met with the directors of the series, they stressed that you have to be in a good mood even when you’re doing something very tragic, and you have to have a good laugh while doing it. You can’t be in a morbid state of mind all the time on the set. Respect and honour for the people involved will not disappear, but we can create more effectively in a state where we are human and don’t lose our sense of humour.“

FrostFilms team

Heiki Luts - VFX Supervisor and Producer

Martin Turu - 3D Lead and VFX Compositing Technical Director

Andres Kluge - CG Water Simulation and Houdini Technical Director

Johanna Maria Vilgats - Producer Assistant

Kalev Mölder - 3D Modelling and Programming

Egert Kanep - 3D Shading and Rendering

Philip Filimonov - 3D Rendering and Compositing

Anton Shtolf - Compositing

Batyr Davov - Compositing

Vahur Kuusk - Compositing

Kirill Pleshakov - Compositing

Reino Aedmäe - 3D Animation

Karl Stokkeby - LIDAR Scanning

Juss Saska - VFX Site Supervisor / VFX Unit Operator


Author of the story: Christopher Krutto

Graphics and design: Karl-Erik Leik, Mart Nigola

Editor: Kerttu Jänese

Creative Director: Mihkel Ulk

Thanks goes to: FrostFilms, Telia