On July 9th, Home Theater Forum was invited to an event at Universal Studios to promote the upcoming release of the Blu-ray and DVD for the feature film Oblivion, which is scheduled for release on August 6th. (My review of that title will be posted later today or tomorrow.) The event featured concept designer Daniel Simon, VFX Supervisors Bjorn Mayer (Pixomondo) and Eric Barba (Digital Domain), and a visit with Deidre Thieman and Natalie Taylor of the Production Archives at NBC Universal.
For my group, the event began with a visit to Stage 34, where the movie’s full-size Bubbleship had been assembled, standing near one of the Drone props. Designer Daniel Simon discussed many of the features of the Bubbleship, walking us through the process of how the ship was developed and fine-tuned for filming.
Simon discussed how he and director Joseph Kosinski based the shape on a Bell 47 helicopter before getting into more futuristic ideas. The landing gear was originally in a reverse configuration until the designers realized they could use the front feet as steps from the cockpit. Simon showed us how the ship was divided into sections to allow it to be disassembled and transported in pieces to the various shooting locations in Louisiana and Iceland. There were apparently 3 Bubbleships made for the movie, including this full-sized prop that allowed the actors to get in and out via remote-controlled doors.
Simon discussed at length how the cockpit interior and the controls were worked out in concert with Tom Cruise. Even the size of the interior was designed to allow the seating to perfectly fit the actor. Simon mentioned that the layout of the front controls and displays was changed at the last minute when Joseph Kosinski added in a little bobblehead figure to go on the front center console.
As a sidenote, a couple of us asked some questions about the challenges of actually filming scenes in the cockpit. I asked about the acoustics on the inside, and Simon admitted he wasn’t sure how sound was recorded when the cockpit doors were closed. Another journalist asked a more pertinent question, wondering about ventilation and air conditioning, and again Simon did not have an answer for that. (I have since learned that neither of these situations were a factor, as dialogue scenes and any long moments with the cast in the cockpit were done using the gyro-mounted rig, for which the clear plastic panels were removed. And as it turns out, the plastic needed to be removed not just for the actors’ comfort but due to the fact that the clear plastic would have shown reflections of the cameras and crew…)
Our group then went upstairs into a conference room where we saw a presentation by VFX Supervisors Bjorn Mayer (Pixomondo) and Eric Barba (Digital Domain), whose respective companies split the workload of somewhere north of 800 effects shots.
Each supervisor showed some clips of what each company created for the movie. Bjorn Mayer discussed the Hawaii shoot of multiple cloud backgrounds for use on the Sky Tower set at the Louisiana stages used for the movie. Rather than shoot with a Bluescreen or Greenscreen setup, the filmmakers instead used a series of projectors and screens to provide real-time playback of moving backgrounds for all the scenes in the Sky Tower. By doing this, they not only saved money on VFX shots, but they also were able to use the projected backgrounds to be the primary lighting of the set. So Mayer and his Pixomondo crew shot 3 ½ to 4 ½ minute sequences of sky backgrounds, into which they inserted a CGI element of the blasted moon for the movie. Sequences were shot at multiple times of day and at night, including sunrise, sunset and moonlight. (Although, given the condition of the moon, one would think this was partial moonlight, right?) I asked two questions of Mayer about these projected backdrops. I noted that the amount of time would thus limit the length of any shot – meaning that the filmmakers would be unable to do a running Steadicam shot that went through the whole environment of the Tower a la The Shining or Goodfellas. (Watching the movie, I can see that such a shot was never intended in any case.) There’s one other complication to this. Mayer also mentioned that the use of the projections as a lighting source meant that the camera crew needed to use an F-stop of 1.3, which tells me the 1st Assistant Camera people were under a LOT of pressure, since the depth of field at 1.3 is extremely shallow.
Eric Barba discussed Digital Domain’s work with CGI extensions of Icelandic locations, with some CGI face replacements for stunt fights, and with a complete CGI battle sequence where the camera follows rampaging Drones through a Scav hideout as they go through various corridors and go up and down from floor to floor. Barba mentioned that the last idea was one that came out of the movie for a while and then suddenly returned, to their chagrin.
I had an opportunity to ask both guys about the nature of working on one movie between two different VFX houses. My specific question was about how they handled common elements. For example, Pixomondo may have developed a Drone or Bubbleship rendering, but Digital Domain would need to use the same render for its own shots. Mayer and Barba noted that this happened all the time during the project, and that they would literally have assistants travelling back and forth between the two effects houses with hard drives containing the various elements each team needed from the other. It’s probably the most interesting part of their interaction – to think of the two houses effectively functioning as one house for purposes of this movie, and to note that even with two different groups working on the project, the various elements needed to have a uniform look.
The third and final phase of the event was a visit to Stage 36, where a number of the movie’s props and costumes were displayed. Deidre Theiman, the manager of the Production Archives at NBC Universal, walked our group through the various items.
Theiman noted various aspects of the designs on display. The primary design area was the futuristic costumes and props used by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough at the Sky Tower and during Cruise’s various maintenance trips down to the surface. Theiman commented on the lighter colors of the futuristic materials, playing on the idea of having a daylight science fiction film as opposed to the darker environments of movies like Alien. The costume for Tom Cruise was specifically noted as having enough flexibility for him to perform stunts and ride a motorcycle comfortably – a factor built into the design. The second focus of design was that of the Scavs, whose assembled costumes and equipment was much darker and cruder, showing more of an influence of things like The Road Warrior or even the mask of Predator. The final focus was the various artifacts of 20th century Earth collected by Tom Cruise’s character during the movie, including a baseball cap and various small items seen at different points in the film.
Theiman showed several full-size props, including the motorcycle used by Cruise in the movie. The motorcycle turns out to be a Honda with a frame built over it. A full-size Drone prop was included in the displays, showing the interactivity for Cruise to do maintenance work here and there. On the far side of the room, the sleeper pods from the Odyssey craft were displayed. (As a sidenote, given that the movie was not filmed in California for any scenes, these displays, and the Bubbleship on the other Stage, were likely the first and only time the materials were ever assembled or presented on a stage at Universal…)
Following these interviews and presentations, the morning event concluded. As always, it was a pleasure to be invited to this event, and on behalf of Home Theater Forum, I thank Universal Studios and Jackie Cavanagh for having me there.
July 29, 2013