Life in the Troposphere: Imagining Skytower
With just two films under his belt, Kosinski has established himself as one of our generation's leading aesthetic visionaries, a creator of worlds rich with remarkable design and wondrous beauty who also fuses propulsive action, thoughtful ideas and powerful themes into his cohesive design. This is never truer than in Skytower.
In the late 21st century, the world above the clouds serves as stark contrast to the dilapidated state of Earth. As mop-up crew operatives Jack and Vika prepare for the final days before they join the remaining survivors on a new colony, they live in functional comfort and enjoy a breathtaking view.
Gilford explains the inspiration for this universe: "The contrast between those two worlds -- above the clouds and on Earth -- was important from a design standpoint. We had to establish this world above, which is a high-tech, clean, synthetic environment. Below are the ruins of Earth and the scavengers' infestation. The cross section of those two worlds and how they collide are important."
Jack and Vika's home, the Skytower, is one of the first locales to which the audience is introduced, and it was crucial to Kosinski that the delicate structure appeared to be perched 3,000 feet above Earth's surface in the troposphere. Says Gilford: "We wanted it to feel like it was on the bounds of what practical engineering could hold or withstand. We wanted the Skytower to feel as if it's a futuristic evolution of architecture, that human engineering has evolved to the fact that this would be a stable structure."
This modern residence, with its blue-, gray- and white-colored palette, gives a theoretical glimpse of 60 years from now, complete with the concomitant design and functional possibilities of life in the lower atmosphere. The Skytower living room, dining room, bedroom, kitchen, infirmary, bathroom, workout area and swimming pool all combine imagination and practicality. Gilford shares: "Jack and Vika live in this oasis above the cloud layer. So there's this great contrast between this peaceful, beautiful world above the clouds and this dangerous landscape and hostile environment when you drop down below."
Five months before principal photography started, construction on the Skytower set began on Stage 5 at Celtic Studios. From cabinetmakers to lighting designers, craftspeople on the production worked around the clock to create a space that is a house designer's dream. Producer Henderson offers the goal was to keep the set sacrosanct: "There was a Zen feeling when we were shooting in the Skytower. Nobody wore shoes to keep it as pristine as possible; everybody had socks or booties on."
To achieve the most realistic performances -- as well as perfect the reflections -- Kosinski opted to have the almost-entirely glass Skytower set look and feel as if it were actually in the clouds during filming... instead of having it surrounded by blue screen. The VFX team, led by Oscar winning VFX supervisor Eric Barba Pixomondo's VFX supervisor, BJORN MAYER, had to come up with an innovative way of making this occur.
Kosinski and Barba knew there was much to be learned from the use of old-school front-projection techniques, similar to the method employed by filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey. They would take this method to new heights on the Skytower set, and Barba teamed with Production Resource Group (PRG) to manufacture a realistic projected sky for the film set.
PRG is known for its creation of looks for the Olympics, the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl, and the company is accustomed to working within the parameters of an enormous venue. But for Oblivion, the team had the challenge of creating the same clear and precise imagery within a much smaller space -- one that had an existing set already inside. It took three weeks of loading in and camera tests to get the exact look with which Kosinski, Barba and Miranda would be happy.
The plates that made up the look of the projected sky surrounding Skytower were actually filmed by the VFX crew on location in Hawaii. In January 2012, before principal photography began, the VFX crew -- over four days -- traveled 10,000 feet to the top of Maui's infamous Haleakalā Crater. There, from dawn to dawn, they used three cameras to shoot dramatically different versions of the sky. These 120-degree panoramic images were shot in 1,920-pixel-high-by-1,080-pixel-wide clips. the end, 10 distinct looks were selected for use during filming.
The images of the sky captured by these three cameras were seamlessly stitched together, and all the mountains surrounding the crater were painted out. Then details specific to the movie, such as constellations and the destroyed moon, were added to the night shots. The end result was 35 minutes of crisp, clear footage that could be projected flawlessly. In sum, the pristine sky was crafted with 20 HD projectors and 34 video feeds, using 19 different layered image zones that were connected to the 42-foot- high-by-500-foot-long screens. Additionally, two technicians not only ran this projection system, they invented a way to soundproof and cool down the technology.
Offers ZACH ALEXANDER, one of the projectionists: "We had a night sky, a storm, nighttime with clouds that was less bright than the other one, two different sunsets, two variations on a sunrise, as well as a blue sky. Then we had about half of those choices for the other room -- just in slightly different cloud configurations based on Joe's artistic feeling for what the sky needed to look like in a particular shot."
Crew and cast alike were absolutely blown away by the creation. Offers Riseborough: "Living and working inside of the Skytower for weeks on end was like living out a day in your regular life, except with this panoramic glorious view. For Tom and I not to have to work with a blue screen outside of our window and to be able to catch all of those reflections of the set was incredible."
Her leading man agrees with the assessment. Says Cruise: "Not acting with green screen does help as an actor. It's interactive, so it was without a doubt the most beautiful and peaceful set I've ever shot on. This natural lighting became our lighting. With the clouds projected all around us, it gave the set a very ethereal, yet organic, feeling."
Of note, extensions of the large Skytower set -- such as Jack's workroom, where he repairs a drone, and Vika's hermetically sealed control room, where she receives intel from Sally via com -- were also built on different stages at Celtic Studios.
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