by Michael S. Palmer
[NOTE: if you missed 'Oblivion' theatrically and loathe even minor spoilers, you might want to avoid this article and its forum thread. Akin to watching Blu-ray special features before seeing the movie, this backlot tour was designed to get a behind-the-scenes peak at the vehicles, special effects, and props used to create the final film. As such, there are allusions to sequences that may, or may not, be obvious plot twists. Cheers.]
With 'Oblivion' set to make its Blu-ray debut next week (August 6) here in the states, HDD's own Aaron Peck has already given the Blu 5-stars for video and audio, calling this release "highly recommended on all fronts. Even if you don't like the movie, the demo material this disc provides is some of the best you'll find anywhere."
To promote the film, which is already available as an HD digital download from services like Amazon Instant, Universal invited foreign and domestic press to its backlot for three separate behind-the-scenes displays. We got to check out the film's Bubble Ship, with a brief presentation by designer, Daniel Simon. Then Digital Domain's Eric Barba and PIXMONDO's Bjorn Mayer took us through the film's visual effects. And finally, NBC-Universal Production Archivers, Deidre Thieman and Natalie Taylor, were on hand to give us a quick tour through the film's props, costumes, and smaller vehicles. Here's what we saw:
Daniel Simon -- Bubble Ship Designer
We first met Daniel Simon, a German concept designer. Supercar enthusiasts might know Daniel's work for Bugatti; the rest of us might recognize his vehicles from 'Tron: Legacy', 'Captain America: The First Avenger', 'Prometheus' and, of course, the 'Oblivion' Bubble Ship (and Drones). I have to say, in person, this thing looks like it could fly. Only when Daniel physically moved the hand-adjustable engines did it become clear this beautifully-built ship was only a prop.
Though the initial idea only took two minutes to draw, Daniel worked on the Bubble Ship from 2009 through 2012. The first stage was for Director Joseph Kosinki's Oblivion graphic novel. Then, all the way through the script's development and the film's pre-production stages. Visual Effects Companies Digital Domain and PIXMONDO (see below) used Daniel's original CAD designs to build their fully CG versions of the ship.
Kosinski's core idea behind the Bubble Ship was to do a futuristic cross between a Dragonfly and a Bell 47 Helicopter. This silhouette helps audience immediately understand what the Bubble Ship is on an gut level, despite being future technology. As Daniel's team built multiple prototypes and, eventually, the final version, Tom Cruise visited many times. The ship was customized for Cruise, who on certain days would spend up to eight hours in its cockpit (co-star Olga Kurylenko "just had to deal").
Walking around the Bubble Ship, Daniel discussed everything from the landing gear to the cockpit controllers. The landing gear was always a tripod, but it was original one leg in the front; two in the back. However, this configuration proved too challenging for entering and exiting the cockpit. So they put two legs up front with a built-in step. The one rear leg also needed to fork to ensure the Bubble Ship did not tip over while in windy Iceland.
As a piece of TET technology, the Bubble Ship needed to be futuristic, yet reminiscent of Old Earth (our world). Hand controls were inspired by space shuttles and yacht parts, and custom made to meet Kosinski's design aesthetics. There are two exceptions if you look close enough. First, the Bubble Ship's seat belts had to be fully functional to keep the actors safe on various gimbal rigs. Second, Daniel's least favorite part is the passenger seat's "oh shit" handle. This was put in to give Olga Kurylenko something by which to brace herself when the Bubble Ship was on the gimbal.
Another cool design detail, which you may have noticed in the film and can check out below in the Props section, is that every TET-designed gun is aesthetically congruous. The Bubble Ship and Drones were created first, followed by Tom Cruise's pistol and rifle.
Eric Barba & Bjorn Mayer -- Visual Effects
Next we went to a short presentation from the film's two VFX houses, Digital Domain ("DD") and PIXOMONDO. 'Oblivion' features approximately 804 VFX shots, with Digital Domain taking 370 and PIXOMONDO taking 434. If you were to break the film down, it's about 85% live action (shot in Hawaii, Iceland, and Louisiana) and 15% fully CGI, though about 50% of the film has some CG element(s).
PIXOMONDO was responsible for Ice Canyon Bubble Ship / Drone chase sequence, the CGI Sky Tower set, and the Front Projection footage used while shooting the live action Sky Tower scenes. That's right, when you're inside the Sky Tower with Tom Cruise, that's not a CGI back ground.
Let me explain. To make the sets feel real for the actors, Kosinski and Bjorn decided to use an old school technique, Front Projection, in a 21st century way and on a much larger scale. They built a projection system six times larger than an IMAX screen, powered by 21 Full HD projectors. This screen could be moved to different parts of the set, the footage could instantly change the time of day and, miraculously, the projections actually lit the whole set with little to no additional lighting.
How did they do it? Bjorn's team went to the top of a volcano in Hawaii to get above the clouds. There, they recorded 32 hours of 5K footages covering a 180-degree field of view. They then took the footage and sped it up -- to see the clouds boil and sun rise -- while painting out mountains and any passing airplanes. They ended up with 130 clips, each of them four minutes long.
On set, Kosinski could choose a clip, which area within it to see behind the actors, and work around specific time codes. Because there were so many reflective surfaces, this technique saved the production time and money that would have gone to costly visual effects.
Next, Bjorn spoke about the Ice Canyon chase sequence. Kosinski's idea was that it would be through a glacier that had been carved by lava flow. It's supposed to be more like a cave than a canyon so Tom Cruise's character couldn't escape easily. Bjorn's team went to Iceland to shoot reference footage; footage by which to compare their CG for authenticity. They couldn't shoot the live action "plates" because the helicopter wasn't fast enough, and it wasn't safe to fly one close to the real glaciers. The final CG set is 20km long, and made up of a hundred or so "block" variations.
Digital Domain's Visual Effects Supervisor, Eric Barba, then took the stage. Eric previously worked on 'Tron: Legacy' and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons'. On 'Oblivion', DD was responsible for creating the TET, the drones, the hydro rigs, and the "Jack vs. Jack fight." They also designed (and/or extended) a few key locations, such as the post apocalyptic New York Public Library, the Odyssey crash site, and the Scavs' base camp Drone attack sequence.
Eric talked at length about Drone 166, who is a key character in the story. DD's VFX artists first used Daniel Simon's designs to make concept art featuring the Drones (and the other vehicles and locations). The filmmakers also built a practical Drone 166 for the set to aid composition, light reference, and framing. And though the practical piece looked great, it didn't have enough life to be the final character. Other than a few shots where Drone 166 is motionless in the background, it's the CGI version (basically, anytime a Drone moves, it's CG).
After building the CG Drone 166, which they very much wanted to be a big killing machine and not a Pixar character, Eric's team worked on making it look as real as possible. They did multiple tests to see how Drone 166 interacted with its environment -- we're talking heat, smoke, and muzzle flashes. Then, they rendered out various Drones in multiple environments to makes sure they matched the practical props in every environment.
The Drone attack on the Scav base took many months to sort because the longest take was realized in a fully CG environment. For a while, that shot was cut from the film, which Eric appreciated because it was quite complex. But, when the shot was put back in, Eric's team of 100 artists rose to the challenge.
The Jack vs. Jack Fight was planned out over two weekends with Tom Cruise and his stunt double. On set, with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees, it was Eric's job to know which visual effect they would use for each shot. To keep the seems as hidden as possible, Eric's team used multiple VFX tricks, including split screen, "face paste", and full head replacement to make sure they were always matching Cruise's very recognizable features and profile. Funny enough, because Eric doesn't animate individual shots himself, as this sequence was nearly finished, Eric got to the point where he started to forget which Tom Cruise was the real one and which one was CG-modified.
Finally, Eric and Bjorn talked about their preference for using blue screens rather than green screens for VFX work. Apparently, green is easy, but ruins skin tones because it neutralizes reds. Basically, green screen VFX shots have a tendency to make people look less natural because you can't put the red back in once it's been neutralized. Blue is more natural, not such a foreign color, and you can leave a little of it in. Interestingly, if you look in the Odyssey Space Ship scenes, because the production designer used a blue color too close to "blue screen" blue, the filmmakers utilized green screens. When you pick up your Blu-ray, you'll have to see if you can see a difference in skin tones.
Deidre Thieman & Natalie Taylor -- Props
Our last behind-the-scenes tour was with Deidre Thieman, Manager of Production Archives for NBC-Universal, and Natalie Taylor, the Assistant Archivist, Loans & Exhibits. These two remarkable women acquire, catalog, preserve, and exhibit props and costumes from NBC-Uni film and television properties.
Deidre (pictured next to the prop case) began by showcasing the film's three distinct prop styles below blueprints for the Sky Tower's set. In 'Oblivion', the three prop styles consist of TET tech, Old Earth Things, and Scavs tech.
TET is futuristic, clean, forward-looking technology. It resembles the things we know, but is further beyond our time. Kosinski set out to make "daytime science fiction" as a direct counterpoint to most sci-fi, which takes place and night or the dark reaches of space. Oblivion's color palette is bright and monochromatic as seen in the drone parts as well as the rifle, sets, and costumes. FYI, if you look closes, all TET technology has at least one TET logo. Old Earth Things are leftovers from our time. The things Tom Cruise's Jack collects even though he's not supposed to. Yankee caps, the bobble heads, etc. Scavs props and costumes were designed to evoke a very science fiction feeling. Dirty, gritty, rugged technology. And though it takes hours to suit up in one of these costumes, the helmets are held together by magnets so they are much easier to take on and off between takes.
Deidre then took us to see the Bubble Bike and Jack's costume, which was designed by Marlene Stewart. The Bubble Bike is a real bike (built on a Honda, they believe), and it was used in stunts and jumped 30-50 feet during production. Jack's costume is all original, built from the ground up. This one, and its 26 variations, is made of leather, but interspersed with stretch panels to make sure Tom Cruise could be mobile.
Next, we met Natalie (pictured behind the drone), who showed us Drone 109, a couple more costumes, and a Sleep Pod. Drone 109 represents a drone with its shell off because it's in for repairs at the Sky Tower. This one weighs 500-600 pounds and took four months to build. The eye actually works (editor's note: so creepy!) and the fuel cell in the center is hard-wired.
Finally, we got a close look at the Sleep Pod where Jack finds Olga Kurylenko's character, Julia. This particular one is the "light weight Sleep Pod", designed for actors to drag it around set. It's made of fiberglass and, though it opens, doesn't have anything inside of it. The "Stasis Costume" was designed to be comfortable, warm, stretch, and breathe very easily -- everything you'd want for a long time in stasis.
Well, there we have it, 'Oblivion' fans. An all-too-short look behind the scenes at the vehicles, props, visual effects, and costumes used in one of this year's best Blu-rays. Speaking of, pre-order your copy today or pick up one up starting August 6.