Book Review - 'Elysium: The Art of the Film'

Fred Patten walks us through this beautiful collection of images from Neil Blomkamp’s new sci-fi action thriller.

Motion Picture Artwork and Photography © 2013 TriStar Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of Titan Books.

Elysium: The Art of the Film, by Mark Salisbury.  Foreword by Neill Blomkamp.

London, Titan Books, August 2013, hardcover $39.95 (176 pages).

A special Limited Edition version of the book is also available.

As a lifelong science-fiction fan, some of my favorite short fiction and novels have dealt with plots of a ruined Earth inhabited by the poor, with the upper classes in a Utopian artificial satellite circling in space just overhead.  This is even the plot of a well-known Japanese manga and its anime adaptation, Gunnm (a.k.a. Battle Angel Alita) by Yukito Kishiro.  Yet it was never used in any s-f theatrical features.

Until now.

Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp for TriStar Pictures and distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment on August 9, 2013, is an excellent visual presentation of this plot, produced on a reported $100,000,000 budget.  And Elysium: The Art of the Film is a superb book-of-the movie.  It shows in closeup all of the visual details that went by so fast in the movie that they were little more than subliminal blurs.

Elysium is set in 2159 A.D.  (A discrepancy:  this book consistently says 2159 A.D.; IMDb and all the movie reviewers say 2154 A.D.  Was the year changed in the movie after the book went to press?)  The movie takes place in two vastly different locales:  Los Angeles, which has become a filthy, overcrowded, predominantly Spanish-speaking super-slum modeled upon the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the worst slums of Mexico City; and the pristine, futuristic, wealthy, upper-class artificial space environment of Elysium.  “Los Angeles” was primarily designed and built by production designer Phil Ivey and the design team of Weta Workshop, in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, and Elysium was designed by veteran future/s-f artist Syd Mead.  Images of Los Angeles take up pages 24 to 113, and of Elysium pages 114 to 175 of this 176-page book.

Although the futuristic Los Angeles is extrapolated from current Third World slums (it was shot in Mexico City because of security problems with real Third World slums), Elysium called for numerous robots, futuristic weapons and vehicles amidst the grime.  The book is filled with conceptual designs, production models, and closeups of the actual robots and military hardware that appear in the film.  The Elysium section of the book, on the orbiting Torus space habitat, shows Syd Mead’s original designs and the sets built from them by Weta.  Much of Elysium was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia for the aura of lush greenery and floral gardens in which the sets of the estates of the ultra-rich were placed.  This section of the book has such details as closeups of the futuristic toys that the children of the ultra-rich play with, which are only seen in the background in the film.

The well-written text by Mark Salisbury describes how director Neill Blomkamp, who also wrote the film, worked closely with Phil Ivey and the Weta staff to bring his concepts to reality.  Blomkamp, Ivey, and the Weta team were familiar with each other from Blomkamp’s previous s-f film, District 9, which helped a lot.  An example from page 76:  “Components for Max’s Exo-Suit were manufactured at Weta.  Once the design is locked down, and modeled on the computer as an ‘airtight three-dimensional mesh, they can be milled on a milling machine,’ Blomkamp explains.  ‘They send it downstairs, mil each of the pieces out and then build the proper suit, fit it to someone and do some more tests.  Then there are probably a few more things you’ve got to tweak, but it’s pretty much ready to go.  The good thing about Weta – I think they’re the best in the world – is they’ve done this kind of thing so much that they know, These are the pieces that are going to break, and we know for a fact that you’re going to need spares of this, and this.  So they’ll build that into the budget, and send you like 50 spares of certain pieces, and make some pieces out of tougher urethane, and other pieces that don’t need to be as tough out of a nicer looking material.  It’s that kind of practicality that I really like.’”

The careful design of this coffee-table art book extends even to the page numbering.  The Los Angeles section of the book has blocky military-stenciled-looking page numbers, while those of the Elysium section are subtle, delicate, and futuristic-looking.

After reading this book, I feel like I know everything about Elysium – except how the VFX scenes were shot.  The movie has lots of them, but they are only talked about here, not shown.  For example:  “CRASH.  For the sequence in which Kruger’s Raven crash lands on Elysium, Ivey and his team built a 99 ft wide mansion façade along with gardens and a fountain on location Vancouver.  ‘It was a real dream house with white marble floor, white plaster render on the outside,’ recalls Ivey.  ‘Funnily enough no one wanted to crash a craft into their real mansion.’  As envisioned in the concept art, the final set showed the Raven scraping through the topsoil to reveal the metallic floor of Elysium beneath.  Image Engine provided a CG version of the crashed Raven (left) to replace the bluescreened version on set.” (p. 152)  There are three beautiful pictures of the aftermath of the crash, with the model of the mansion and the crashed warship having torn up the garden, but none of the actual VFX.

Still, Elysium: The Art of the Film is a beautiful collection of the imagery of a s-f theatrical feature about a slum Earth with a paradisiacal space habitat orbiting overhead.  If you are interested in seeing this concept brought to life, or in the movie Elysium in particular, this book is a real bargain.

This review is of the standard $39.95 edition.  There is also a $75.00 Limited Edition, slipcased, signed by Neill Blomkamp, and with a limited edition illustration by Syd Mead.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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