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ILM and the VFX of a Futuristic ‘Tomorrowland’

Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Eddie Pasquarello takes AWN on a whirlwind tour of the studio’s work on director Brad Bird's live action Disney feature.

For his sophomore live-action effort, director Brad Bird trades in Mission: Impossible for a world where the possibilities are limitless and instructions don’t self-destruct.  The story for Bird’s new film, Tomorrowland, centers around a disillusioned and reclusive genius named Frank Walker (played by George Clooney) being sought out by a precocious budding teenage visionary named Casey Newton (played by Britt Robertson) who seeks the way to a futuristic place she envisioned upon coming in contact with a mysterious high tech pin.  “It was amazing how much work was put into designing Tomorrowland because we had to build a city that has to function through three different time periods [1964, 1984, 2014],” states ILM’s Eddie Pasquarello, who served as a co-visual effects supervisor on the project with Craig Hammack. “Craig started six months earlier than I did - he was first unit and I was mostly second unit.  There was some crossover there where I helped out the visual effects work.”

“Craig was going to handle ILM [San Francisco] and I was going to handle ILM Vancouver and all of the vendors but then it became a hybrid version where we ended up becoming a solid team and building everything together,” explains Pasquarello.  “The Pin Experience was all done here in San Francisco and that’s its own four minute movie within a movie.  A lot of the space launch and Eiffel tower stuff was also done in San Francisco.  Vancouver did a lot of the work with the House Assault and Bridgeway Plaza. They also did a lot of the work on the monitor crashing down and with Athena in the end.  Rodeo FX did some of the distance shots of Tomorrowland from the wheat fields. Hybride did a lot of the work on when we’re in the monitor. The rest of the work was divided among the houses based on the sequences.  We leaned on Rodeo FX and Whiskytree for their digital environment matte work.”

Tomorrowland was a section of Disneyland constructed in 1955 by Walt Disney as a unique showcase marriage of technology and urban planning. EPCOT Center (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) opened later in 1982 at Florida’s Walt Disney World. “The whole thing about EPCOT was that it was an experimental community of tomorrow and that’s what Tomorrowland is supposed to be,” notes Pasquarello.  “It’s this world where everything is optimized for creativity and innovation.”  In the film, the ideal Tomorrowland is the daytime 1984 version of the city which is showcased during the Pin Experience.  Says Pasquarello, “I like the vibrancy.  If it was any other time of day it wouldn’t feel as optimistic or like the perfect world”  

“There’s a familiarity to Tomorrowland when Casey crash lands there in the modern day but it had clearly changed,” continues Pasquarello.  “The silhouette of the city was similar. The unique city version was when young Frank [played by Thomas Robinson] flies through it in the 1960s.  That was a one off in the sense that it’s the only time we’re going to see all of those places under construction.”  A key collaborator throughout the project was Scott Chambliss, who was responsible for the production design. A lot of the initial concepts came from Scott and his art department, who worked hand-in-hand with the VFX team.

Real life structures assisted the design process.  Says Pasquarello, “We had tons of reference that we pulled off different buildings from all over the world that were modern concepts. We needed a little bit of the flavour of the retro view of tomorrow but at the same time it had to feel fresh and different.”

“No one ever did anything in a vacuum,” observes Pasquarello, who partnered with special effects supervisor Mike Vézina and supervising stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo. “We talked about the safety, practicality and believability of the stunts - what SFX pieces we needed and what should and could be done in visual effects. Those guys were super…‘How can I help you? What can we do?’ Hopefully they felt the same way back. Everybody worked to get the best and a lot of times that meant a lot of discussions before, and even on the day of – ‘We may do an extra take or two to make sure that we get what we need.’”   Conversations were also had with the cast. As Pasquarello explains, “We tried to do as much previsualization as we could to show them [the film’s actors] what our intention was going to be.  A lot of times that helped.  We talked them through, ‘This is greenscreen but what is really going to be here is this.’ Raffey Cassidy [who plays Athena] did a lot of her own work which impressed everybody.  Raffey was into it when she was doing her fighting. She was a trooper with that kind of stuff.  They were all willing to go as far as they could.”

Pasquarello continues, “When Frank arrives in Tomorrowland as a boy that’s an entirely CG environment. We would always prefer if possible to have plate-based photography. There are cases in big animated sequences like that where it’s not possible. It’s always nice to have a physical reference as it shows you lighting even if it’s hooking into a mountain range. It grounds the shot. It makes it feel more real.”  Actual locations appear in the film, such as the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain. “The funky modern building was a good set piece to dig into and add Tomorrowland around it,” says Pasquarello. Principal photography commenced in Pincher Creek, Alberta where the Hollywood production paid a farmer to grow a specific winter wheat. As Pasquarello details, “That was really shot that way.  The biggest challenge for the wheat fields was removing all of the tracks. There were huge pieces that were bulldozed over for the shooting and we had to make it seem pristine.  There was a lot of road and wheat replacement.”

No motion-control cameras were used for the Pin Experience when Casey Newton, courtesy of a pin touch, flashes between a personal tour of Tomorrowland and her current day visual reality. “We knew what the shots were going to be on the A and B sides of that match,” states Pasquarello.  “There was a lot of A/B onset to visually line those things up and then ILM did the match.  For instance, when she’s popping up in the wheat field there’s some creative morph and trickery that goes on to get those two performances to match up.  We tried to get it as close as possible so even if you just cut it would match up pretty damn close. But no matter what you do there are always strains of hair that are different or something is different that we would have to fix so when she goes between the two places you don’t see any pops.”

Bridgeway Plaza was a shot on a partial set. ILM built the city around it in CG. Everything in the porthole and past the porthole is where the visual effects integrate into the scene. The extension was built because they didn’t have an actual tower to shoot. The massive monitor and energy sphere were also added. Bridgeway Plaza took six months to build and was about half the size of a football field.  With no sound stage big enough to accommodate the set it was situated outdoors in Vancouver. The fact it was often overcast sometimes was a good thing for the lighting work.

A fully functional monorail was constructed which was elevated sixteen feet in the air.  As Pasquarello describes, “When you see the monorail moving it’s all CG. When Nix [played by Hugh Laurie] gets out of it that was a practical piece that we added onto. When Casey is in her Pin Experience she’s in a partial set that was built on a sound stage in Vancouver and totally surrounded by bluescreen.  Our task was to give the impression that it is moving and travelling all of the way through Tomorrowland.”

“Beyond the whole environment build of Tomorrowland, the next biggest thing for us was hearing that we were going to launch a rocket out of the centre of the Eiffel Tower,” continues Pasquarello.  “We shot extensive plates so we could create the city of Paris around the Eiffel Tower.  They became all CG shots but we had great reference.”  The Spectacle provides the means to escape for Frank, Casey and Athena.  The Parisian landmark was turned into a launch pad. According to Pasquarello, “The ship was put there by the Plus Ultra in case it was needed to get back to Tomorrowland. The Spectacle is a steampunk Jules Vern [20,000 Leagues Under the Sea] looking ship that comes right out of the centre of the Eiffel Tower. We added in the bridge that comes up so they can walk over to the ship as well as the ship, the silo beneath, all of the effects and lighting.  We literally built the tower and split it in half.  It’s cool.”

Early in the film, a major fight takes place at a bizarre memorabilia emporium named “Blast From the Past,” which was constructed on a sound stage. The sequence involved a lot of practical stunt work. “A lot of that was [shot] in-camera.  You can certainly tell that Lucasfilm has a lot of pieces in there [the store] and so does Brad Bird,” says Pasquarello. A time bomb had to be created for the sequence, which required digital doubles and the use of 360 degree cameras.  The concept for the bomb was that it was comprised of plasma that expands quickly and grabs everything up, freezes, then starts receding very slowly.  As Pasquarello explains, “It’s a bubble that will hold you in it but only for so long.  When Athena sets the bomb off she traps both of the ‘Blast From the Past’ guys, but Casey also gets her arm stuck in the bubble. They have to time it perfectly while it’s receding to get her pulled out.”

Casey then gets followed to Frank’s house by a group of armed Dave Clark Robots. ILM designed all their weapons. “The weapons are obviously deadly but there was also a fun aspect to them [such as shooting colourful rings],” notes Pasquarello. Battery packs were added to the ray guns to allow for interactive light. He continues, “For every shot, we discussed things like interactive light or any type of onset practical piece that would help ground the shot so we could add and enhance versus fully doctor and replace.”  Craziness ensues when Frank’s home is under siege, and he unleashes a series of booby traps, concluding with the launch of his bath tub that serves as an escape pod for both him and Casey. As Pasquarello points out, “The House Attack was the first sequence that we completed and also sets the tone for the movie.  It was a fun adventure. It’s a strange mix of danger with fun.  It has an animated quality to it.  It’s like the thing that keeps on unravelling.”

Overall, the work of creating Tomorrowland itself was the VFX team’s main challenge. “The biggest challenge was building and designing Tomorrowland,” observes Pasquarello.  “For us, the biggest sequence was Casey going through a four minute Pin Experience which was one big seamless shot. It required every division to do their best work here at ILM. The DI was great.  I don’t feel that there was anything wrong like, ‘Oh, my God. They crunched that.’  A lot of that was working with Claudio Miranda [the film’s cinematographer] early on. Claudio knew what he was getting and we knew what we were getting so there were no surprises.”  Pasquarello concludes, “For me, Tomorrowland was a pure pleasure.  I’m proud of it.”


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.