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Director Kenan Shines a Light on 'City of Ember'

Gil Kenan talks about transitioning from Monster House to City of Ember and all the technological and aesthetic challenges it posed.

When director Gil Kenan began visualizing City of Ember, he made drawings of key elements, like its signature grid of lights. Courtesy of BUF Compagnie. All images © Walden Media & Twentieth Century Fox.

If there's truth to the adage, "Show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are," then we're learning a lot about director Gil Kenan from some very good company he's been keeping. It was Kenan's animated UCLA thesis short The Lark that caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis -- who tapped the 20-something filmmaker to direct the performance-captured Monster House. Kenan turned in such an accomplished film with his debut effort that it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. The Lark had also led Kenan directly to a meeting at Tom Hanks' production company Playtone, where he saw an advance manuscript of a young readers' book called City Of Ember. Four years later, City Of Ember has become Kenan's second directorial effort, with Tom Hanks producing.

Released today by Fox-Walden and starring Bill Murray, Tim Robbins and Martin Landau, City Of Ember chronicles the adventures of two teenagers (including Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan from Atonement) as they attempt to escape a dying city. The teens must elude capture by the authorities and navigate a frightening labyrinth of tunnels and underground waterways to make their escape. To bring this tale to the screen, Kenan collaborated with scriptwriter Caroline Thompson, Production Designer Martin Laing, Special Effects Supervisor Kit West, Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Durst and a raft of visual effects companies that included BUF Compagnie, Luma Pictures, Amalgamated Pixels and Below the Radar. The visual effects work complemented the live action that DP Xavier Pérez Grobet filmed on a huge city set that was built within the world's largest ship hangar in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Kenan explains, "The way that the aesthetic for this film was achieved was that I sat down with my art department and we started by designing a perfect utopia: a totally clean, modern master-designed city that was built for functionality and for flow -- all the things you would do if you set out to design a city from the ground up. Then we let time ravage it. We referenced lots of cities that have gone to pot all over the world for various reasons. We were able to see how time and atmosphere -- or a lack thereof -- have affected them. It was a fascinating experience."

Author Jeanne DuPrau originally envisioned City Of Ember as a subterranean city that had been illuminated for 200 years by a grid of lights. But the deeply buried generator that powered the grid was failing, and Ember's flickering lights and dwindling food supply were signaling the city's imminent demise. "I couldn't put this book down," recalls Kenan, who turns 32 this month. "Having grown up at the end of the Cold War, I was always deeply fascinated and disturbed by the idea of the end of the world. It's so deeply imbued with the idea of limited resources and the way we're using our time on this planet, and also our emotional attachment to the place we call home. All these things got me excited. I think that the notion of telling a story grounded in an alternate reality that's derived from our own -- but that is its own closed world -- really took me away. If I think back to who I am as a moviegoer rather than a moviemaker, the idea of going to see a movie about an underground world lured me in."

Luma created added a key component of the generator system in the form of giant waterwheels that churn Ember's underground river into electrical power.

A curious thing happened to Kenan as he began visualizing Ember. He made drawings of key elements, such as its signature grid of lights. But he also found himself unconsciously adding elements. "I pictured these big, droopy moths hanging around on the electric lines between the lights. They're kind of oversized -- like the size of golden retriever puppies! When I read the book the first time, for some reason I saw those things. When I went back to look for them in the book, they weren't there. But at that point it was too late -- I had already drawn them!" Animating those [3D] moths would become part of the assignment for the Paris-based CG studio BUF Compagnie.

Kenan also imagined that in the dark "pipeworks" tunnels snaking beneath Ember there would be a mole scurrying around in search of food. "Like everyone else in Ember who's hungry and will do whatever it takes to get by, this mole is hyper-aware and hyper-hungry. I felt that it was my duty to make the world as alive and varied as possible. So that's where these notions came from." Animating the mole in CG would be handled by Luma Pictures in Venice, California.

"Luma also did all the generator sequences," notes Kenan. "Another avenue that I exaggerated from the book is the notion of this generator -- it's a critical component in whether the city makes it or doesn't. It's like a beating heart. That's the metaphor I kept driving, so I wanted to create an extraordinary machine that was designed with all the mechanics of it concealed, so that it was never considered something that would need upkeep. For me, when something is important thematically it becomes important visually in my parsing of the story. So this generator became an icon of the film for me and was one of the first drawings that I made. That drawing basically ended up on screen. What we ended up with was this totemic, monolithic structure that's almost eight stories tall. Luma made it as a CG structure because we wouldn't have been able to build that."

Kenan drew oversized, droopy moths hanging around on the electric lines, thinking they were in the book, but they weren't, but by then, the vision stuck. Courtesy of BUF Compagnie.  

Luma also created added another key component of the generator system in the form of giant waterwheels that churn Ember's underground river into electrical power. "I wondered why no one from the city had tried to follow to river to escape, so I imagined that massive waterwheels would create a clear deterrent against trying to take the river anywhere. That became a bit of a clockwork sequence when the characters' exit strategy -- in a harrowing boat sequence -- is revealed." While Kenan admits the movie does take liberties with the book, he notes that he consulted with author Duprau along with screenwriter Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas). "In our conversations, we knew we had to let it stretch out to make this live and breathe, and take paths that were independent of the source material. Caroline definitely understood the balance between the darkness of the world and the brightness of the characters. She really nailed the town."

Kenan was determined to physically build as much of Ember as possible. "I knew I wanted the place to be tangible. I didn't want greenscreen acting. I had just spent three years making a virtual world with Monster House, where most of my energy on that film was spent trying to counteract the computer aspects of digital performances. On this film I needed to put my energy elsewhere, and I wanted the actors and the audience to have tangible reactions to the place. So we set about trying to find somewhere in the world big enough to house a city and where we'd be able to control the light. With young actors you can't shoot in the middle of the night, which would have been one way to do it outdoors. So we had to go far and wide to find a place big enough, and we found it in Northern Ireland."

Inside the cavernous Harland and Wolff Shipyard, reportedly the world's largest dry dock, an enormous version of Ember was built. This allowed Kenan and his DP the latitude to film the protagonist Lina (Saoirse Ronan) as she runs throughout the city in her job as a messenger. There was a particular irony to working in this dry dock location for Production Designer Martin Laing, who previously won the Art Director's Guild Award for his work on Titanic, because the shipyard that housed Ember was the site where the actual Titanic had been built.

The look of Ember is such an intriguing admixture of machinery that defies any identifiable time and place that it brings to mind Terry Gilliam's Brazil. That film and Time Bandits have influenced Kenan immensely.

"We built most of the city that's seen in the film, including the riverbed and the base of the generator," says Kenan. "I wanted it to be grounded in as much textural reality as possible. We had a few weeks where the sets were built before we started shooting, so we could get comfortable and live in the place. I'm really proud of the performances of Saoirse and Harry Treadway, who plays Doon. I feel like they really are planted in Ember, and they give really human performances. I didn't want to cloud this story with bigger political themes for the actors, because then they'd start 'playing to the outfield.' It was easy to make them feel comfortable with the city because of the set that we were able to build. Unlike most films today, I was actually able to create a place where the actors and the cameras could move."

And what a place it is. The city is crammed with all manner of Rube Goldberg devices that its inhabitants have cobbled together to keep Ember running. As Kenan explains, "Everything has been recycled for hundreds of years. It's what would happen if a space ship crashed into a forest and a bunch of villagers occupied it and made it cozy for a few hundred years." The look of Ember is such an intriguing admixture of machinery that defies any identifiable time and place that it brings to mind Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Kenan takes the comparison as a compliment. "I should say outright that Terry Gilliam has been an enormous influence. When I saw Time Bandits as a kid I was changed forever. I had the opportunity to have dinner with him right before I started shooting this film, and it was a highlight of my career so far. I'm hugely indebted to him. The notion of creating a timeless story environment is very important for a film like this. it creates a more relevant context for watching the story at any time and to make the film relevant to multiple generations -- from kids to grandparents -- or to kids who aren't even born yet who will watch it in 20 years on some 'space disk'."

Kenan observes that he also feels a kinship with Gilliam because of their shared background in animation. (Gilliam's Monty Python animation is an influence that can be seen in Kenan's thesis film, The Lark.) "A lot of people draw lines between Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton and I think the thing that those guys have in common is a grounding in animation which they took into a broader live action universe. Anyone who's ever animated knows that you can't leave that behind. The power of being able to manipulate imagery to serve your story is just too great to go dry."

Making the move to a live-action visual effects film after making the animated Monster House was eye-opening for Kenan. Courtesy of BUF Compagnie.

Making the move to a live action visual effects film after making the animated Monster House was eye-opening for Kenan. "I have a good sense now of the pros and cons of both. I miss the absolute control of a completely virtual world where things are manicured down to the pixel. It's so easy to tell a story when you control every aspect of it. With a physical shoot like Ember there's so much that demands instant attention on set. That creates something totally valid and different, but I'm sure that you lose some storytelling control when you shoot live action. Part of that is a good thing, because it puts more power in the actors, and it allows the sets to tell stories. You sort of throw everything up into the air when you call 'Action' on a live set. That's part of the thrill of it, but there's immense pressure to move on. That's all part of the balance you teach yourself as you go along. Ember was a really difficult shoot but it was incredibly satisfying."

Throughout the filming, Kenan again had his Monster House DP Grobet at his side. Grobet (who also shot Nacho Libre) had to find ways to evoke the film's primal fear of being cast into total darkness. Kenan notes, "I'm really proud of the blackout sequences because I feel like we were able to create a horror out of darkness in a way that feels exciting on screen. It's interesting to let darkness work for you in storytelling."

To bring a plausible source of light to the deepest tunnels of Ember, Kenan came up with another invention. "There are no batteries in Ember but I created a frayed, elaborate system of electric 'leashes' that the pipeworkers wear. They're each attached by a tether as they walk through the pipeworks so that they can have a light on their helmets. There are moments when the character Doon is exploring the pipeworks on his own when he's cast into the inky black tunnels and the only light is the one from his helmet. In those moments you get a real sense of the relationship of light against dark."

But the ubiquitous light grid that hangs above Ember had to be created through pure CG. As Kenan explains, "For reasons of photography, we couldn't build the canopy of lights that's so much of the character of this place. We couldn't get both movie lights and these 'set aesthetic' lights into the same housing. We experimented a little bit and there was always a compromise, either in photography or in the look of the set. So a decision was made early on that above the third story of the buildings -- which was the tallest building in the city -- we would go purely to movie lights on set. Anytime a camera moved up, which is quite often in the film, we would create a digital set extension of the canopy of lights overhead. BUF handled all of the digital city shots. There are a number of aerial shots over the city looking down and they handled all of those." Olivier Cauwet, who served as BUF's visual effects supervisor on City of Ember, brought his experience gained on films like Batman Begins and The Matrix Reloaded. BUF also handled the different generations of mayors passing the secret along to their successor as well as 2D and 3D matte paintings for enhancing multiple sets.

BUF Compagnie had to create many of the film's vfx because the studio could make the world of Ember feel elegant and not

Kenan recalls being turned on to the talents at BUF by the production's Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Durst (Syriana, Nights in Rodanthe, Spider-Man 2). "Once I got a feel for BUF, I was very aggressive in making sure that we hired them," says Kenan. "I wanted this world to feel elegant and not 'computery.' I wanted it to have sensibilities that were driven by artistry and not technology, and that's the embodiment of BUF. Their artistry drives technology, not the other way around. We experienced all the good -- and bad -- of working with French artists," Kenan laughs. "They'll fight very hard for things that they believe make a shot better, which is what I ask of any of my collaborators. You don't look for 'yes men' in this business; you look for collaborators who will enrich the final product."

Durst also brought the Santa Monica, California boutique house Below the Radar onto City of Ember. Kenan says, "It was my good fortune that Eric has a relationship with one of the principals there that goes back to their days shooting miniatures. Below The Radar did a ton of shots throughout the film. They didn't do environments, but sort of 'movie magic' work across the whole movie. It was mostly 2D stuff, including some light effects and sparks in certain places. They were real workhorses for us."

Kenan strove to create as many on-set effects as possible (under the watchful eye of Kit West, the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor from Raiders of the Lost Ark). But the film's climactic escape sequence, which carries the protagonists on a terrifying boat ride, required a full range of digital effects. Kenan explains, "Once you've touched that concept of what you can do with animation and effects, it's very simple. We used a lot of greenscreen and digital double work in the boat ride sequence, and Luma Pictures did all of that work."

Luma's work was supervised by Vincent Cirelli, whose credits include Hancock, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and No Country for Old Men.

Kenan recalls with a laugh how easy it was to collect the actors' data to create digital doubles. "We had a mobile scanning unit that came to the set and scanned them. They literally opened up a briefcase and a laptop and the actors sat down, did a few oohs and aahs, and they were done. I did walk over to the actors and explained that their souls weren't being stolen!" Kenan adds, rather more seriously, "Because this movie was shot in such a gritty way, having a computer show up on set almost felt like an aberration."

Orchestrating the escape sequence in City of Ember -- which makes up nearly the entire third act of the film -- was almost all in Luma's hands, says Kenan. "I wanted to make sure it was a visceral, exciting sequence that had a rush and a wonder to it. The real excitement of that was in wondering what's around the next corner. It's equal parts scary and exhilarating. Luma handled everything involving the generator and the water wheel and the huge surge of water that pushes our characters' boat over the water wheel and sends them roaring towards their destiny. Almost every drop of water in the film is digital. The point when the water finally pushes them over the wheel was a really taxing water simulation. They spent a few months honing that, but it came out great."

When the protagonists arrive at their final destination, it's a world that audiences will have seen many times before, explains Kenan. "But I wanted to show it to them in a slightly new way, and Amalgamated Pixels created a lot of that." Kenan and Durst employed CineSync's live video chat technology to stay on top of all of these far-flung effects shops -- from Amalgamated Pixels in Agoura Hills, California to Luma in Venice, BUF in Paris and Below the Radar in Santa Monica. Kenan reports, "It was easy. CineSync was a life-changing concept for me. I was able to analyze high res Quicktimes the second they were finished rendering in Paris. It's the same stuff I was doing during Monster House when my cutting room was in Culver City and I'd drive four blocks to Sony Imageworks. So there's no reason not to use someone because of geographical limitations. That concept is obsolete now."

As Kenan reflects, "We filmed in Northern Ireland. We scored the music in London and mixed the sound in L.A. So it's an international production to be sure. In a way, that's sort of how this movie should have been made. It's definitely still an American film, but I feel like it's better because of the texture it has picked up on its journey around the world."

The generator, critical to the city's survival, is visually important to the story. Kenan's original drawing showed a totemic, monolithic structure that's almost eight stories tall, which Luma made as a CG structure.

As Kenan prepared for the premieres of City of Ember, news of his forthcoming project also began to circulate. The Hollywood Reporter announced that Kenan would direct Airman through Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital -- the company behind Monster House and Zemeckis' own films The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. The tale of Airman, which is based on the Eoin Colfer book in which a hot air balloon features prominently, would employ the same kind of performance capture technology that Kenan used for Monster House. "I'm not sure what the timing was on that press release," admits Kenan, who says that a script hasn't even been completed for Airman. "I think it might have come from the book agent. I've been working with Bob Zemeckis' company on securing the rights to the book for about four or five months because the manuscript really captured my imagination. It's an amazing film-in-waiting. It's begging to have a lavish big screen treatment in a way that only an animated universe could give it. I've had some shots planned that make me giddy just thinking about it. The goal is to give the audience for the first time a feeling of the collective cheating of gravity. I'm really confident that I have some tricks up my sleeve."

But Kenan cautions, "I don't want to sell it too much because I haven't created it yet. I also don't know if this announcement merits too much because there's a strong likelihood that my next film will be something else. I'm developing a few things, and any one of them could have had a press release like that. I actually don't like to do press releases until I'm actually making a movie. Development is cheap. There are a lot of filmmakers who live by keeping their name in the press but I don't feel like it serves any purpose other than self-promotion."

Having said that, Kenan stresses that he does look forward to working with Zemeckis again. "We've been talking since Monster House about finding something else to do together. Airman would be a natural fit, because it's very much an animated story and the kind of movie I'd want to make when I go back to animation. And Zemeckis has created a studio that's waiting to work on these films. I feel like there's a place for performance capture to go that takes it in a direction that was only hinted at in Monster House. To be honest, in some ways I felt like the best thing I did in Monster House was to 'go primitive.' I reduced the number of dots on the facial capture and simplified the basic rigging of the model. I learned a lot from making Monster House and it would be amazing to be able to put that knowledge into another film. But I haven't gotten to the design phase for Airman so I don't want to make too much of it. I'm a little superstitious too!"

For now, Kenan is happy to revel in the underground world he made for City of Ember, so it seems fitting that as he ended his conversation from his car phone, an unusual 'subterranean' event occurred. "I can't believe what I'm seeing -- I'm driving through Century City," he says, referring to the L.A. neighborhood filled with sleek skyscrapers. "There's a giant, lazy raccoon crossing the street! He's beautiful! I'm turning back around so I can watch him. Ah, he's going down into a storm drain now. How amazing is that?"

Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.