MAN OF STEEL
Going back to the beginning of Superman's story -- to Krypton and its inhabitants -- was an opportunity for director Zack Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell to "world build," to create from scratch a fantastical yet logical imaginary world. Their goal was for audiences to become so immersed in this new environment that they never once question its reality, and are never drawn out of the movie by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings before them. McDowell states, "You're designing a space that has to contain a complex narrative, building a history that will reverberate throughout the story. And it has to follow rules, rules that will drive the world forward."
The filmmakers envisioned a planet on the eve of collapse, a place whose leaders had surrendered to the inevitable and turned inward, their inertia allowing their culture to decay along with the land. Light years ahead of Earth in their technology, they nevertheless had exhausted their resources, the mining of Krypton's core for energy having been the last insult the planet could bear.
These two key premises -- the exhaustion of resources and an organic basis to their technology -- became the foundation upon which the story of Krypton was built. "The planet has been mined for its resources," McDowell expounds. "They've denuded the surface and gone underground, building a city inside a protected space. The surface is furrowed and they've carved through to caverns well below ground. So, we designed their architecture and technology to have an organic feel. Nothing is sculpted in the manner that we understand; there are no straight lines whatsoever on Krypton."
The challenge was how to build the sets from what became "probably the most complex set of construction drawings that have ever been issued from an art department," laughs McDowell. The task became literally too much for the computers, and the designers had to revert back to sculpting out of foam and scanning those back in. Most interestingly, perhaps, was the use of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) drilling to carve out the hundreds of individual wooden "ribs" that form the skeleton of Krypton. To carve these out by hand would have been prohibitively time-consuming, yet building entire sets using CNC would have been equally so. What resulted was a marriage of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology: CNC-built ribs pieced together by expert ship builders, then hand-lathed and plastered by the construction crew, and finally painted by set artists.
"We couldn't do it traditionally," McDowell recalls, "but neither could we build all of this out of the computer. Every step of the way, we had to make very refined decisions about which side of the line we were falling on between digital technology and classical methodology -- we were breaking new ground. A great deal went into creating these massive standing sets that allowed us to do so much in-camera." Even the much smaller elements of architecture and props were created using a blend of sculpture and rapid prototyping or 3D printing technologies, so that complex computer-sculpted objects could exist in-camera and tangibly support the actors' performances.
For moviegoers paying close attention, there is another dimension of Kryptonian culture on the walls of this alien world: an entirely new language. It all started with Superman's glyph, which stands for "hope," and that led to a series of forty or fifty glyphs representing the other houses of Krypton and, in turn, other abstract ideas. Serendipity intervened when McDowell, while readying sets in Vancouver, Canada, came across a newspaper story on a University of British Columbia linguist, Dr. Christine Schreyer, who was using the fictional Klingon and Na'vi dialects to teach her students how to understand lost languages. The linguist explained to the filmmakers the basic rules for the development of language, one key rule being cultural emphasis. For example, in English culture, the focus is on the individual, so it is "I want an apple." Krypton, the filmmakers decided, was object-oriented, so in this case it became "apple I want," putting the object first. That set in motion the rules for the Kryptonian language. Within a short time and with Schreyer's help, over 300 words and full phrases had been developed, and then the team returned to writer David Goyer and the Superman canon. Looking for key phrases, they then began assigning those to the ancient engraved surfaces of robots and swords and flying creatures, and so on.
McDowell notes that creating a language was indicative of the kind of world-building process that he cherishes. "Each one of those details, like the fact that the 'S' in a shield exists on the chest of a Super Hero from another planet, becomes a problem you have to solve. It opens up layers and layers of questions that give us a way into the world."
Resurrecting a "lost" language is fitting, considering that loss is the unifying theme of all things Krypton: lost loved ones, lost culture, lost opportunities and a lost technological edge. This is reflected not only in the barren landscape and crumbling edifices of Krypton, but also in the ancient fleet of ships seen in the film, such as The Black Zero, initially a mothballed Colony ship commissioned back into service as a penitentiary; and the Scout ship, left in a patch of frozen Arctic on Earth when the ship failed in its mission.
The Black Zero -- a huge, organically shaped tripod structure built to house thousands of refugees and attached to a gigantic Phantom Projector capable of catapulting the ship into the Phantom Zone -- resembles, as McDowell puts it, "a few people hitching a ride on an enormous engine."
In contrast to Zod's dirty but functional fleet is the still pristine Scout ship, which resembles a seed pod, a metaphor for its role in finding new and hospitable worlds for the Kryptonians to propagate. Linked to the house of El in its design, it reflects the softer, gentler approach to colonization, as personified by Jor-El.
"Man of Steel," however, is not only concerned with this fantastical, fictional world of Krypton, but about Earth, its beauty and its emotional hold on Clark Kent. Synder was determined to use practical locations as much as possible. By eschewing a stylized vision, Snyder wanted instead to pull the audience into Clark's world and invite them to share in his experiences. Shooting took the crew to a diverse list of locations, from the small town of Plano, Illinois, to the big city of Chicago. They also ventured to the glaciers of British Columbia, boarding a real crab boat, called the Debbie Sue, off Ucluelet, Vancouver Island -- for a scene in which they were pounded by 35-foot waves. On the other extreme, they went to California's Mojave Desert, where they had the privilege to film at Edwards Air Force Base. At each location, as much as possible was shot in situ, rather than building mattes or adding green screen.
In Chicago, McDowell's team transformed an entire floor of the old Sears Tower, what's now the Willis Tower, into the Daily Planet offices, and used 111 East Wacker in Chicago for some of the Metropolis exteriors. The building was designed in the 1950s by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is considered one of his classics.
One demanding sequence involved the rerouting of 40,000 cars per day for the freeway overpass scene. "Normally when you do that kind of scene, you're looking for a place that is already closed for some reason," supervising location manager Bill Doyle relates. "Usually it's under construction and you can deal directly with the contractor. But to close a working expressway takes months of planning and SCAT (Signal Coordination and Timing) studies, and getting permission is difficult. But once we had the Illinois State Patrol on board it was much easier and, I think, extremely successful. We picked that spot because we needed cornfields and an overpass all in one place, and there was nothing else like it within three-and-a-half hours of Chicago."
One of the more critical locations was the small city of Plano, Illinois, which would serve as Clark's hometown of Smallville. Deborah Snyder recalls, "Plano just really embraced us. They let us shut down their town and turn it into a backlot. We worked with their police and fire departments, and a lot of the townspeople worked security for us. It was such a warm, welcoming community."
The town was the ideal foundation upon which to build the rest of Smallville. "In a way, Smallville represents Clark's innocence," Goyer says. "It's the human side of him, a physical manifestation of his Earth heritage and a safe haven. Unlike so much in his life, it's uncomplicated. It's home."
Gaps between buildings in Plano were filled with facades for a Sears, a 7-Eleven and an IHOP, instantly identifiable symbols of true Americana. Twenty minutes outside of the town, a farm was planted with corn, and upon its idyllic rolling hills, the crew constructed the Kent farmhouse.
"The Kent family farm also served to ground the film in a contemporary reality that humanizes Clark and, at the same time, brings home the economic crisis with a contrast between the young Clark's home and the one he returns to as an adult, decaying and in foreclosure," McDowell notes.
The support of Plano was particularly important to the filmmakers because of the story's need for numerous stunts involving explosions, flying fragments and low-lying flight sequences -- using real military aircraft -- that occur in Smallville. Plano, as Doyle puts it, essentially allowed the production "to do all kinds of crazy things."
Things that, without the support of the Department of Defense, would have been impossible to achieve in-camera. The DOD supplied the production with junked aircraft pieces to serve as debris; piloted jets, helicopters, and a cargo plane; technical advisors; and almost 300 soldiers as extras.
Moving to California, they were also grateful for the cooperation they were given by Edwards Air Force Base for additional scenes and training for the actors. Filming on a working Air Force base was the experience of a lifetime for the cast and crew, for whom it was likely the only time they would ever encounter a C17 cargo plane or F35 fighter jet up close and personal.
"We had a wonderful time working with them," raves co-producer Wes Coller, "coming up with ideas of how one might respond to a threat such as the one that we face in the film. It was interesting to play in their sandbox, and on such an elite level. To have been at Edwards Air Force Base where so much history lives and so many notable things have happened was amazing. We were lucky to have been welcomed with such open arms."
"I don't think that we could have done this film without them," Roven concurs. "They were great, not only in allowing us the use of their incredible assets but in making sure that what we were doing was credible and correct. It just added to the realism that we were dedicated to in this film."
Part of that realism was also achieved by the almost exclusive reliance on a handheld camera, unprecedented in a film of this size and scope. Zack Snyder collaborated with cinematographer Amir Mokri to combine elements reflective of a gritty, embedded journalistic documentary style. The use of lenses not usually associated with handheld work, as well as the use of special rigs and dollies, bridged the gap between the immediacy of the Steadicam and the sleekness of a traditionally shot big action film.
The actors also appreciated the more intimate camera work. "I quite liked the camera not being so rigid," Cavill reflects. "Nothing was off limits as far as the performance was concerned; it lent a freedom to the acting, which was great."
One of the most important aspects of putting Superman on film involves special and visual effects, considering there is little Superman can do that is not an effect in some form. But the director, who has built strong relationships with second unit director/stunt coordinator Damon Caro and visual effects supervisor John "DJ" DesJardin, felt confident his team could pull it off. "We just take challenges as they come now," Snyder says. "We knew this was a broader challenge conceptually, because Superman can't do anything that's not at least partially achieved in post. He can't be flown on a wire. We did put Henry on wires to get perspective shots and various angles, but not to fly him, because the flight pattern of the modern movie Super Hero will not support that concept."
The director continues, "And then there was all the subtle cape action that had to happen. There were a trillion decisions that we had to make on every little move. Having Damon and DJ working with me on that was invaluable. We have a shorthand, and we're all interested in making the coolest movie we can."
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