Powering Up for Elysium
"The Torus was so difficult to get to a photorealistic stage that it nearly wrecked the morale of the animators," admits Blomkamp, a Vancouver Film School alum who provided early sketches of the vehicles and weaponry and initial Torus design. "You have to build that asset and decide every single pixel: What kind of foliage is it? Is there any wind? Which direction is the light coming from? How much atmosphere particulate is there? Are there any clouds? And if it doesn't look real, is it because of this choice or because of another choice?"
Mead, whose main contributions were the control room and briefing room, provided inspirational DNA such as the curvature of a line or the way that lines structurally bisect in a way that makes engineering sense.
There were 1,000 VFX shots overall, with Image Engine handling 70%. Other contributors included MPC (which contributed a digital version of a beautiful Bugatti shuttle), Method Studios (which handled a large data wall), ILM (which contributed a single flyover shot of future downtown LA) and The Embassy (which contributed a broad array of explosions).
However, Weta Workshop contributed significant designs, from the imposing Raven to early work on the droids. These were then redesigned and animated by Image Engine, shooting actors on set wearing gray suits as reference and then replaced in CG. "We took the animation process to a new iteration level whereby the droids were driven by the performance on set and fit the proportions of the actors," Walsh offers. "There was far less interpretation of movement than on District 9."
Meanwhile, the impressive Raven harkens back to such watershed vehicles as the Millennium Falcon. "They take on a personality in the film and Neill achieved something with the Raven that is an iconic bird of prey. The design contributes to that component. It's a former military machine that has been co-opted by mercenaries."
Weta's greatest contribution, though, was making the HULC armored suit that Damon comfortably wears to give him added strength. This required very little CG augmentation.
The various assault vehicles were another key challenge for Image Engine. "What we did with a lot of the interaction of vehicles, and what was important to our process, was the use of real helicopters," Walsh insists. "Most times, the helicopters were used for staging and framing and interaction with the ground around them. It was important in terms of capturing something in camera that could support and enhance the reality of the scene and to match the lighting when replacing with a much larger vehicle. Some of the VFX shots are among the most convincing in the film, with effects animation involving dust swirls and other debris. This helped the continuity, and the vast majority of was done by Image Engine."
Even though Blomkamp says it was difficult balancing metaphor with sci-fi, he believes he found the right tone while saving $50 million on VFX (Elysium cost $100 million).
"I firmly believe that VFX can do anything, so now it's up to the filmmaker to come up with a concept, a story, and a world that people want to go see in a theater. And you need to execute them properly. So if it's something that requires giant resources, you need to do it in a way that makes fiscal sense."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld and the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com). He's also a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and contributing editor of Animation Scoop at Indiewire. Desowitz is additionally the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.