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A New Post-Apocalyptic Look for 'Oblivion'

Digital Domain and Pixomondo tell us about working on Joe Kosinski's follow-up to Tron: Legacy.

All images copyright © Universal Pictures.

Get ready for a summer full of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, from the father/son After Earth (May 31) to the zombie action of World War Z (June 21) to the social conscious Elysium (Aug. 9). But first up is Oblivion, the Tom Cruise-starrer about a blue collar drone repairman haunted by dreams of a woman he's never met. However, the philosophical Oblivion has elements of thriller, mystery, action and romance that distinguish it from the rest of the dystopian movies.

Oblivion also has its own bright design aesthetic created by director Joe Kosinski -- who studied engineering -- inspired by sci-fi illustrators Chris Foss and Peter Elson. Unlike his debut feature, Tron: Legacy, though, Kosinski wanted to step out into the real world for this passion project and shoot a sci-fi Lawrence of Arabia as much in camera as possible. At the same time, Kosinski went up in the clouds in a beautiful glass Sky Tower structure where Cruise lives.

Click here to view a vfx breakdown clip.

Kosinski additionally relied less on CG (800) and did something rather unique in shooting the Sky Tower sequence totally in camera in real-time (which posed a reflective light problem with all the glass). In collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi), they developed an ultra high-resolution front projection system (500-foot wide and 42-foot tall) with 21 projectors (handled by PRG).

"Joe asked us to generate the clouds in CG and he needed 10 different settings, but I found it unfeasible," admits Bjorn Mayer, the visual effects supervisor from Pixomondo, which split VFX duties with Digital Domain, (Tron: Legacy). "We went to Hawaii for four days with a crew and shot clouds around the Haleakala volcano with three Epic cameras. Then we took all that footage and stitched it together and created this 15K image that would play live on the set on the projectors. With the software, we could move those clips around on set. Later in the movie we made some CG clouds. We also shot 12 hours of mood shots and two storm sequences with sheet lightning in CG. And we made a glacier canyon for the aerial battle with three drones. We used our own cloud tools but the interactive lighting was too demanding so we used Terragen.

There was also an elaborate gimbal system constructed for the bubble ship. Tom wanted to ride it all the time but it can shake the shit out of you. Joe wanted to translate all the animation from the Third Floor previs into gimbal moves, but it was too dangerous, so we designed a new library of moves with turbulence and curves for going into the canyon during the chase sequence."

Meanwhile, DD's Eric Barba (who's collaborated with Kosinski since his commercial days) worked as an integral part of the production team from the earliest concept to principal photography, to the creation of CG imagery and final integration. DD's work covered planning the shooting approach to creating full CG sequences, digital doubles and vehicles to set extensions, explosions and natural phenomena to simple wire removal. DD created the CG drones, the Tet space station (an inverted pyramid), and created as well as destroyed the resource gathers known as hydro rigs.

"The cool thing about this one as opposed to Tron was that we shot as much in camera as possible, which is great, but creating post-apocalyptic world is difficult," suggests Barba. "But we were fortunate to shoot three weeks in Iceland in some areas we haven't seen on the big screen before. It allowed a really fantastic backdrop for making New York City look like it's been flooded with mud and dirt over 50 years, and dropping in the George Washington Bridge in a spot you never thought it could exist, just the juxtaposition of things that show how the world has changed so drastically like the Empire State Building."

Click here to view a vfx sequence clip.

For the Tet, which is 30 miles long, a small practical stage was built to shoot plates, but everything else was digital. It was a challenging element to texture and light. DD was also challenged to create shots that communicated the Tet's scale accurately when the tiny bubble ship flies toward it. The interior of the Tet is a series of three inverted pyramids leading to the chamber where Sally (Melissa Theo), herself an inverted pyramid with a pulsating texture and red lens-like eye similar to the drones', resides. Artists created a sense of scale inside the Tet largely through atmospherics.

A practical drone was built and DD used the CAD files to create CG versions; modeling, texturing, lighting and animating them. One of the biggest challenges was that the physics of the round drone crafts would have prevented them from being able to fly. DD therefore worked with Kosinski and the art department to devise an approach for the drones that have an exhaust system that emits from various vents around the structure that stabilize them and provide directional propulsion. The result is a cool-looking vehicle with plausible motion. DD additionally made the look and graphic design of drone vision; what the world looks like from their eyes.

The hydro rigs are giant mechanical structures that remove vital components from the world's oceans, are fully CG. In fact, in one key sequence, the renegade Scavs strike back by destroying them; creating fuel cells that they put in the water. When the resource gatherers suck these up, they explode. DD made the mushroom cloud and devastated, smoking shells of the resource gatherers, still partly on fire.

The Ravens Rock attack underground is the DD's most complex sequence. Cruise and the drones attack the Scavs’ base camp, and the Scavs fight back, trying to engage the drones to steal their power supplies. The Scavs' base camp was shot in an abandoned power plant in New Orleans. DD created a full CG environment, added CG drones to the plates and extended the live-action environments with battle elements -- lasers, digital doubles for the Scavs and explosions. The sequence includes a complex 500-frame fly-through of the environment mid-battle.

While following a drone beacon into a hole in the Earth's surface Cruise nearly falls into a deep chasm that drops into the remains of the New York Public Library, where Scavs are living. DD extended the live-action library set to create the CG chasm and multiple floors it breaks through, as well as augmenting the shots of the scuffle with gunfire, explosions and multiple CG Scavs.

Cruise finds the site of the crash of his former ship -- along with human pods, and discovers someone important from his past. DD added CG smoke and fire to the environment in a 1,000-frame shot that follows Jack around the site.

"The biggest challenge was scale, making the audience believe the bubble ship flies around," Barba explains. "The hydro rigs are massive, as is the Tet. So any time you've never seen anything before, it's hard to figure out what's gonna sell it to the audience. There are some amazing designs but in the case of the Tet it's very sparse and simplistic. But we have a pretty good action hero in Tom Cruise selling the movie so that makes us look very good. Our real challenge is to make the audience believe that we're in this post-apocalyptic world and it wasn't that difficult once we sorted it out.


Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (, a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (, which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.