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Going Post Apocalyptic with 'After Earth'

CG creatures dominate the latest sci-fi adventure directed by M Night Shyamalan and starring Will and Jaden Smith.

All images © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Post apocalyptic movies are all the rage at the moment but each has its own distinct take and look. After Earth is an intimate father-son story starring the real-life father/son team of Will and Jaden Smith. After enjoying The Last Airbender, Will called M Night Shymalan to wish him Happy Birthday and to persuade him to make his movie, which is about a father and son growing closer together when they crash land on Earth 1,000 years from now after humanity has relocated to an alien planet. It's a rite of passage story in which the young military cadet must overcome fear and hone the special ghosting skill, like his legendary father, that renders him virtually invisible to a predatory alien.

After directing The Last Airbender, Shymalan was attracted to a more intimate story that's a throwback to his breakthrough hit, The Sixth Sense. And yet he approached the 800 VFX, including an assortment of oversized animals and creatures, as part of a naturalistic backdrop for his two-person drama. Jenny Fulle of The Creative-Cartel (Ted) served as VFX producer and Jonathan Rothbart handled production VFX supervision.

Fulle continues to successfully manage a VFX hub business model, which is fast and nimble during these turbulent times. Her latest wrinkle is Joust: new workflow software they beta tested on After Earth, which streamlines management of the digital workflow by tracking dailies, images, scenes, and meta-data, saving time and money and bringing greater efficiency to production.

"We were able to do all our own visual effects pulls, so on an 800-shot show, getting a plate pulled used to take five days," Fulle explains. "Joust can now do that in a matter of minutes for us. With the truncated schedules that we're given in post-production, every hour and every day we can save, the better it's going to be for the film.

"It was the most spread out I've ever been," she adds. "Jon Rothbart was based in San Francisco, Night and editorial were in Philadelphia, my production team was in LA. We had vendors in Northern California, Southern California, Philadelphia and around the world." Tippett Studio and Iloura did the creatures and Iloura and Pixomondo worked on environments on Nova Prime and Earth, respectively. Other contributors included Incessant Rain, Ollin Studio, Pixel Magic, Spin VFX, Spy Post, Svengali VFX and Dive among others.

"But it worked out very well," Fulle continues. "All of us worked remotely and made it feel like a team and we even figured out a way to do 2K sync reviews for finals with Night watching on his 2K projector from the comfort of his farm."

This was a very different experience from The Last Airbender for the director, which was handled by ILM. "But he liked the idea of taking the best of everything and melding it together," Rothbart suggests. "Each facility has its own character and artistic vision so it was nice to work with different vendors and having it fit together."

The overall challenge, of course, was the concept of what Earth looks like in 1,000 years. How have animals and creatures evolved? "And then it was creating those creatures and creating those environments," Fulle continues. "We were at the upper end of the spectrum of the work."

Look wise, Earth and the alien Nova Prime are a study in contrast: Even though Earth (shot in Northern California and Costa Rica) is no longer home to humans, it is lush and robust and overrun with large creatures. Nova Prime (shot in Moab) is desolate and rocky. To enhance the naturalistic beauty, they shot and projected in 4K with Sony's new F65 digital camera. However, because of cost the CG cityscapes and otherworldly creatures were done in 2K but the overall result is stunning despite only half the movie being true 4K.

The young cadet encounters a host of creatures along the way, including baboons, leopards, a condor and, eventually, the Ursa alien. The familiar animals are beefed up, but the six-legged Ursa from Tippett (supervised by Blair Clark and Aharon Bourland) is unique, even though it has echoes of Giger and Harryhausen.

"I've never worked on anything quite like it from an anatomical sense," Rothbart says. "At first, we looked at rhinos for the hides and we pulled that back and let the skin be a little more sweaty and translucent. And it's a bio-generated creature where they took a lot of plates and melted them to the body. It's a mix of metal and skin. We spent a lot of time with Tippett and Night working out its motions and expressions. "

The director was very specific with the camera and hiding it as much as possible in creating suspense. But the hardest part was the fact that the creature doesn't have eyes. "There was a lot of work on Tippett's side in being able to get it to emote without eyes," Rothbart offers. "They relied on different movements: a slight head jerk here and dropping the chin a little bit. It's the artistry of animation and it's what they do best."

Sometimes Shyamalan wanted the Ursa confused and angry but a level of anger that was different when the creature can't sense your presence at all because of the ghosting ability.

Meanwhile, there's a tense sequence in which the cadet leaps off the continental shelf and is chased by the condor (also done by Tippett). Yet the stunt itself was quite daunting, according to Rothbart. "We used the brand new Canon C500, which shoots 4K. It was the only camera that was small enough that could hold up to the F65 and we mounted it on the helmets and chests of two squirrel suit jumpers. We went to Switzerland and shot plates of them flying off the sides of cliffs. They would jump out of helicopters and reach 130 mph and flying 10 to 15 feet off the side of the cliffs dropping into cracks and wedges.

"You don't realize how big those cliffs are until you sit with binoculars and try to spot them. You're just making sure they're staying alive up there and they're just pin points on the sides of these cliffs. It's crazy."

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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.