About the Special and Visual Effects
Elysium marks a hybrid between the special and visual effects -- capturing in camera what could be physically built and in the computer what could not, and, in some cases, blending the two techniques.
"Neill wants to make a movie that people haven't seen before," says Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Muyzers. "Every director does that to one extent or another, but Neill takes it to another level. He creates the story, develops it, and gives them an experience unlike any other out there."
Blomkamp began by giving strong direction on the look of the droids and the weaponry to the artists at WETA Workshop, who also designed the aliens and weaponry on District 9. They would also design the "HULC suit" -- the biomechanical exoskeleton that Max wears and gives him superhuman abilities, even as he is dying.
"It was my favorite prop in the movie," says Special Makeup FX / Costume / Props Supervisor Joe Dunckley. "When we first got the brief from Neill, it was difficult to imagine how we were going to execute it. In the end, it came off great."
According to Dunckley, the HULC suit required eight months of research and development and 75 revisions before the design was finalized. In the end, the actor wearing the suit was impressed. "The big thing was mobility," says Damon. "Elysium is a real action movie, with running and jumping and climbing and fighting, so they wanted to make sure that I could actually move in the suit, and the guys at WETA knocked that out completely. I had 100% mobility. Everything looked metal, but it was super-lightweight, just 25 pounds, distributed all over my body. I could stay in it all day and I'd feel totally fine."
There are several different kinds of droids populating the world of Elysium -- police officers, military, government, medical -- and though most would be completed by the visual effects artists at Image Engine (which also created the aliens of District 9), the design process began at WETA Workshop. "The process of designing the droids was very similar to what we did on District 9," says Dunckley. "Neill wanted them to have a similar size and proportion to humans, but a much sleeker look."
And that humanoid, bi-pedal form was no accident. "We had to make sure that the design allowed us to cover up the actors," says Dunckley. Indeed, during production, the roles of the droids were played by stuntmen in gray suits and painted out later, in the computer, by the VFX artists.
"The most important aspect of creating the performance of the droids was making sure that Neill could direct that performance on set with the gray suit actors to achieve a realistic interaction with the cast and environment," says Muyzers. "Then we could replace that actor with a droid in postproduction and maintain that performance all the way through. We didn't use motion capture, but the animators were able to directly translate all of the nuances of the droid's actions frame by frame in exactly the way Neill wanted it."
Muyzers re-teams with Blomkamp after collaborating with the director on District 9. "District 9 was fairly straightforward -- we had a real environment, and we put characters into that environment as realistically as we could," he says. "On Elysium, it was almost the other way around -- Neill wanted to create a world that didn't exist, but had to look absolutely believable. We created the environment into which we inserted live-action characters. Because of what Elysium is -- the home of the very rich -- we did lots of research. Neill provided us with images and video of Beverly Hills and Hollywood and the luxury lifestyle. We coordinated closely with Phil Ivey, the production designer, to determine the size of the ring, the width of the ring, how many people could live on Elysium, and how many houses would there be, what do these houses look like, what kind of infrastructure would there be and then obviously, how you get to Elysium. We ended up with a ring three kilometers wide, with a diameter of sixty kilometers -- that translates to about a half-million people, living on this space station."
The most challenging visual effect, says Muyzers, are the establishing shots of Elysium. "It had to be a design, a torus, that you could see in the sky when you're on Earth. Even when you're far away, it has to be recognizable as a ring, like you're holding your wedding band up to the sky," he says.
Then, Dunckley continues, the shots would have to be believable as they push in on the space station. "We have Elysium floating out there like a giant ring, and then we approach it, getting more and more detail -- plants, birds, buildings. You're traveling through space, and suddenly you arrive in Beverly Hills," says Muyzers. "That's very challenging, to build that, to show it in a way that's believable, and I'm not sure I've seen that in any other film, to the degree that we do it in this film."
According to Muyzers, the design of Elysium is based on real scientific concepts. "Neill consulted with scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, basically to see if we were on the right track. Would this design be sustainable, given the technology?" says Muyzers. "And it turns out, this is pretty much an idea that NASA has been playing around with -- on a different scale, for sure. But a spinning ring out in space that would create its own gravity field -- that's a very real concept." And not only does the spin of the torus provide gravity for the space station, but the station's large body of water acts as a balancer to keep the high-tech world spinning. "To have a sustainable atmosphere, you'd have to have an enclosed ring," Muyzers continues. "We have an air purification ring that runs along the top and creates the pressure and forces the air to stay on the surface."
Figuring out the atmosphere was another challenge. "We're on Earth, we look through the atmosphere into space, and that's what gives us our blue sky, darker at the top and brighter on the horizon," says Muyzers. "But Elysium is inverted. On Elysium, you're on the inner tube of a bicycle tire, so it gives you quite a different aspect of the atmosphere. Night and day, too, work differently. On Earth, you don't see night coming -- it just gets darker. But on Elysium, you can see the parts of the ring that are in a different time of day -- they can be in darkness while you're in daylight. Figuring out how to portray that was a challenge."
For Muyzers, the most helpful part of designing and completing the visual effects was being on set, seeing how the director was shooting. "We spent a lot of time with Neill in Johannesburg during District 9, and it was the same experience this time," he says. "Neill is an expert in visual effects -- he's worked in visual effects. That gave him a lot of experience -- he understands the limitations of effects and how best to embrace what we can do. He's an amazing, creative director."
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