Powering Up for 'Elysium'

Exploring the future with Director Neill Blomkamp and Image Engine's Shawn Walsh.

Even before finishing his acclaimed, Oscar-nominated breakthrough hit, District 9, director Neill Blomkamp began envisioning a more ambitious sci-fi action/adventure about the haves and have nots. The result is Elysium, which stars Matt Damon trying to escape impoverished Earth in 2154 to the luxurious space station where disease has also been vanquished.

"District 9 was a singular anti-Apartheid metaphor whereas Elysium is a more general metaphor about immigration and how the First World and Third World meet," explains the South African-born Blomkamp. "But the thing that I like the most about the metaphor is that it can be scaled to suit almost any scenario. Like Elysium can be South Africa and the future of LA is Zimbabwe with people crossing the border. It can be a pocket of LA where it's like Compton and Beverly Hills. It can be California; it can be the U.S. and Mexico."

All images © 2013 CTMG.

Elysium is the ultimate gated community patterned after Bel-Air, while Earth is a futuristic vision of Mexico City, and that's exactly where the director shot it. Conversely, he shot the Elysium scenes in pristine Vancouver.

Once again, Blomkamp turned to Vancouver-based Image Engine as his VFX hub. However, the challenges were far greater than District 9. "If you look at District 9, the focus was on creating a digital alien and variations of that digital alien and creating convincing performances on a repeated basis throughout the film in a very consistent manner," suggests VFX producer Sean Walsh, who worked alongside VFX supervisor Peter Muyzers. "But the scope and diversity of work that was completed on Elysium was much broader so we had the droids, the immigrant shuttles, the Raven assault vehicle, Elysium and tons of other miscellaneous work and compositing. And Battleship, The Thing, Immortals and Zero Dark Thirty really contributed along the way to our capabilities in terms of ramping up for Elysium."

Indeed, there was significant R&D in terms of volume rendering that came out of simultaneously working on Zero Dark Thirty and Elysium. There was also massive scale world building and handling all of the assets. "We were looking at 3 trillion triangles when the full extent of the [Torus spinning] ring was tessellated for rendering," Walsh adds. "Being able to push very large-scale, heavy-duty assets through our pipeline was something that does require progressive R&D over time to build up a toolset that can handle that kind of data. It's more about fine-tuning and magnifying the full suite of tools that have been built up over a diverse range of projects and pushing those tools to their fullest extent."

The main challenge was the outer Torus ring itself along with the complex geometry of the opulent landscape within it, particularly the foliage, while the large body of water acts as a balancer to keep the high-tech world spinning.

"Neill gave us conceptual design work, some created by Syd Mead as far as the Torus station," Walsh continues. "Peter and I put together an internal design team. We came to grips with the extent of the build into post." In keeping with its pipeline capabilities, Imagine Engine took on the major hard surface aspect of the Torus ring and reached out to more appropriate companies to handle the Elysium landscape."

"We entered in a unique situation with Whisky Tree in San Rafael as an in-sourcing/outsourcing where we synced the pipelines so they could deliver these beautiful 3D elements to Image Engine and we could be rendering separate elements of the same shot," Walsh says. "We essentially built our own digital environment team by contracting another company. We would set up shots, animate shots, get a lot of approval aspects doing the Elysium shots in advance with Neill and get him comfortable about how we were framing Elysium. And then we'd start to go to work building the kind of resolution that you see in the film, which was extremely detailed. We used Maya, Softimage, 3Dlight and Arnold to render, and composited in Nuke."

"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."

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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.