About the Visual Effects
The film's 750 visual effects shots were overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Jonathan Rothbart, who describes his job on After Earth as "being like a kid in a visual candy shop" due to the wide variety of different kinds of effects on the project. "We have such a broad range of effects in the film. There is an opportunity to create creatures that have to interact in all sorts of environments and situations. We have fully digital environments as we fly through an asteroid storm in space. We have to create other worlds that we shot on location and lastly we have to create an evolved look to our current earth. It's just a cornucopia of different types of effects, which gives us a chance to be really creative and have lots of fun with it."
Rothbart says that imagining the highly evolved creatures of Earth a thousand years hence was "an interesting challenge, in that we're only a thousand years forward -- which is not very significant, evolutionarily speaking." he notes. "We really tried to say, that because of the extreme changes that occurred to the Earth itself forced a more rapid evolutionary shift. Due to this climatic change, the creatures needed to adapt quicker, to enable them to inhabit the planet. We tried to create an interesting change in evolution in the various creatures we were working with, but not so extreme where it seems out of place for the time that has passed. It was a constant design challenge to find that balance."
In some cases, these creatures became characters with their own character arc -- for example, a large bird at first seems to hunt Kitai, then, later, clearly tries to protect him. "We had to give the bird as much personality as we could, but obviously, it's just a bird -- this isn't an animated film. That was a fun challenge -- to give the bird personality without turning it into a caricature," says Rothbart. "And then, of course, there is the whole technical side of making it real. Birds are particularly difficult. There is such subtlety when dealing with the details of feathers and how they look."
The CG animators were also responsible for creating the baboon attack -- one of the film's central action sequences. Rothbart says, "When we originally read that sequence in the script, we got very excited and started storyboarding what the sequence might look like. It is its own little action vignette that gave us freedom to try some things. They have a pretty straightforward role, but they also represent Kitai's first interaction with the inhabitants of Earth, so it's an important moment in the movie. Jaden did a lot of great work to make his character both stoic and fearful in that moment -- we had to live up to that in the performance our animators created out of the CG character. Night wanted to make sure that they started out scary. We found that making our first baboon very quiet and still was the best way to play it, that also gave us the opportunity to build into something much more frenetic and violent as his interaction evolves. It was definitely a fun character challenge to solve."
Generally speaking, there are two ways to create a sequence like that one: either the human characters react to nothing, pantomiming their reaction, or human stuntmen and actors stand in for the digital characters, to be painted out later. OnAfter Earth, the filmmakers opted for the latter. "We had stuntmen in gray suits chasing Jaden at all times. Turns out, when you have a bunch of big stuntmen bearing down on you at top speed, your reaction is a bit different than when you're running on your own! Having the stuntmen in there brought more intensity to the scene."
Rothbart was also responsible for creating the alien planet of Nova Prime. Taking his cues from the production designer, Tom Sanders, Rothbart says that the focus was in creating an environment in which human beings seem to have learned their lesson and exist in harmony with their environment. Again, only 1000 years have passed, so the goal was "to make it familiar and real enough so that people would recognize it was a real place. The city was very complicated, from a design standpoint, to make it feel believable while maintaining that futuristic feel that had been set during the production. We wanted to make sure that you would look at this world and believe that people could live here."
In creating the transformations of the lifesuit, Rothbart notes that the goal of keeping the suit looking as organic and natural as possible was an interesting counterpoint to the "very technical, almost mechanical" way that the suit transforms.
The visual effects team was also responsible for creating the Ranger's weapon of choice: the cutlass, a staff with two blades that protrude in a number of different configurations on command. "The cutlass is one of the ways you show your level of experience as a warrior," says Rothbart. "There's a junior level -- that's where Kitai begins -- with the blades taking simplistic shapes and doing simple things. By the end of the movie, as Kitai is using his father's more advanced cutlass and becoming a true warrior, it takes on its most elaborate look and design."
The crash of the ship, Rothbart says, provided "a nice moment of synergy between the practical and visual effects in the film. We had the ship set on a huge gimbal -- the entire set was moving around with all of the actors and stuntmen in it, and practical effects were blowing things through the set. Later, we were able to marry that with green-screen stuntmen and CG people coming out of the ship, which we did as visual effects. I love that kind of marriage, because it's one more trick you have to try to make the film feel real."
Finally, Rothbart and his team were also responsible for creating the Ursa. As the creature's presence looms over the entire film, it was important for the visual effects team to keep with the overall design of the film: to design a creature that was unique in both look and feel, but also to make it an organic, living creature, with skin and bone structure that resembled a realistic animal.
"When you start doing that kind of work, you really try to take the time to look at various animals that exist here on Earth, and decide which pieces you want to borrow to create a new species," says Rothbart. "You want it to have a texture and a sensibility that is something you'd see as a hunter. At the same time, you want it to be unique -- it's an alien species, so it shouldn't be exactly like an animal here on Earth. That was the push-and-pull -- how to make it familiar enough that it seemed real, but original enough that it seemed alien."
Part of the effect came through in the way Shyamalan structured the film. "Aside from a flashback, we never see the Ursa until very late in the film," says Rothbart. "It's always out there and is a constant threat to Kitai, but it's not 100 percent known. I like the way the tension is built by not allowing us to see the creature until the last act of the film. It lets the audience experience the journey with Kitai -- it's the fear of the unknown."
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