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Ender's World
The filmmakers scoured the world trying to locate the ideal environment to shoot Ender's Game before finding exactly what they were looking for in an unexpected place. "We needed studio space and lots of it," says screenwriter-director Gavin Hood. "There aren't many places where we could find the kind of expansive soundstages we needed to build our sets. Serendipitously, we discovered that NASA has vast warehouses in New Orleans that were not being used. We turned them into studios. It seemed oddly appropriate to make Ender's Game, which is set in space, at a NASA facility."

NASA's Michaud Assembly Facility would serve as home base for the production, providing them with the extensive square footage they required, as well as easy access to top film craftspeople and technical support. "The film was shot in rocket ship-building warehouses, repurposed as sound stages," says McDonough. "It had very big set pieces, so we needed a space that could accommodate our build and there are a finite number of places like that in the world. We also needed to have access to resources and labor that could help us create a futuristic world. New Orleans is a three-hour flight from Los Angeles, which has the world's best sources for making Hollywood sets.

"It ended up being a great cultural exchange between the space industry and the film industry, which benefited us both," says McDonough. "For us, there was an added research dimension that wouldn't have existed otherwise. All of the kids and all of the crew could take a tour of the facility. Anybody could ask questions about physics and astrophysics. They got to meet an astronaut and ask about what being in zero gravity was like. Having these experiences wasn't a part of the planning of the film but was an outcome of being able to shoot at NASA."

New Orleans also provided other locations: for the Wiggins' home, a house on a residential street in the Uptown neighborhood near Tulane University; for Ender's earthbound school, St. Mary's Academy; and for the International Fleet's Veterans Retreat, Fontainebleau State Park on the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain. But even before the filmmakers found their locations, Hood was working with production designer Ben Procter to begin to conceptualize the extraordinary settings for Ender's Game. "Because the visuals were going to be so essential to the film, I wanted to create a teaser to show investors," he says. "I needed a production designer who was adept at creating a computer-simulated world. Ben is one of the most extraordinarily talented, hard- working people you could hope to find."

Hood wanted to give his audience a glimpse of the Battle School's stunning centerpiece, the cavernous zero-gravity Battle Room in which the young trainees face off in mock warfare. The novel left the specifics of the space to the readers' imaginations, but Hood had an image in mind. "It couldn't just be a black box," says the director. "I had this idea of a giant glass sphere that would allow you feel as if you were truly in space, even though you were contained. I gave Ben and Scott Meadows, the pre-viz supervisor, images of geodesic domes and glass balls, and asked that there be a Rubik's cube-like star element that would fit together in different configurations to define the area. Two days later, they came back with the beginnings of this extraordinary space we created."

When the filmmakers screened their teaser to an invited audience of about 250 film distributors from around the world, they were greeted with thunderous applause. "We just stayed out of the way for the next two days while the sales team raised the balance of our budget from foreign pre-sales," says Hood.

Procter's innovative work on the demo earned him his first job as the production designer on a film, a title he shares with Sean Haworth. "Working in independent film sometimes gives you an opportunity to look outside the box for creative ideas," says McDonough. "Teaming Ben, who was concept art director on Avatar and art director on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, with Sean Haworth, who was an art director on films like Tron: Legacy and Thor, resulted in some truly remarkable work being done on this film."

Procter and Haworth not only had to create a live-action version of the Battle School that had been created in CG for the teaser, they tackled a variety of worlds that stretch from an idealized version of Earth to the planet Eros, a former Formic colony now occupied by the International Forces.

In the film, Earth is a peaceful, lush paradise, a place Ender would yearn to return to. "We needed for Ender to come from a world that is worth saving," says Haworth. "It also needed to feel like home in contrast to the rigors of military life in space."

For Battle School, Hood's vision was futuristic and utilitarian, to reflect the harsh reality of young people being forced to grow up quickly. The Battle Room is a sphere 100 meters in diameter, where young trainees participate in competitive squad battles in a zero-gravity environment. Huge metallic stars can be configured in a variety of ways and can be used as obstacles or to provide cover.

"Ben and Sean's designs are not sterotypically sci-fi and futuristic," says Hood. "They are very grounded in the world of the military. When we're at Battle School, it's like we're on an aircraft carrier. Their attention to detail is superb. They give amazing dimensionality and texture to the sets."

After graduating from Battle School, Ender is sent to Eros, a onetime Formic colony now occupied by the International Force, where he works through advanced battle simulations as final training for becoming Commander of the International Fleet. For the Eros Command Center Battle Simulation Room set, which completely filled the 10,000-square-foot soundstages, the designers referenced NORAD's operation center in the vast underground nuclear bunker at Cheyenne Mountain in the Rockies.

For the Formic underground network of caves, in which the humans now take shelter, Hood took inspiration from the eerie and elegant termite mounds of his African childhood. "It was critical for Gavin that the Formic architecture be beautiful," says Procter. "There's something quite grand about them, even in the designs of their spacecraft and cities, which leads Ender to question even more why they are his enemy."

Renowned creature designer Tully Summers contributed the Formic Queen, the regal, insect-like leader of the enemy forces, and helped with the interiors of the caves. "Creating the Formics took a lot of development," says McDonough. "We didn't want creatures that lent a visual hokiness to the tone of the film. They're not stereotypical evil aliens, but when we reveal the Queen, she has to be intimidating."

To create the Queen, Summers used digital tools, including ZBrush, that provide rich surface textures and even translucence to the creature's skin. "We quickly realized we should bring him into our work developing the environments," says Procter. "The result was just as organic and flowing and mind-blowing as his creature designs."

For all of his emphasis on visuals, Hood's mandate throughout the production process remained that character and story come first. "The design is aesthetically beautiful, not glitzy or traditionally pretty, but clean, lean and perfect for the material," says Hendee. "Individually, Ben and Sean are brilliant designers. Together, the synergy between them created a whole new level of work."

The director of photography for Ender's Game was legendary cinematographer Don McAlpine, whom Hood met on X-Men Origins: Wolverine. "They developed a creative spark that greatly benefited Ender's Game," says McDonough. "They spoke to each other almost telepathically. Then Don would communicate to his team and we'd be shooting."

The director thinks of McAlpine as his mentor when it comes to cinematography. "He's full of warmth and enthusiasm. He and his chief lighting technician, Steve Matthis, are brilliant at lighting. Because the battle school has low ceilings, Don and the production designers integrated the lighting into the sets. Everything was wired through a computer system, so it could be customized and we could change the mood within that space. But the lights you see on the set are actually lighting the scenes. It was far more complex than you would imagine. Inside the Battle School sets alone, I think we had about 4,500 individual lights."

It was the first time McAlpine used such an extensive LED lighting system. His team had to devise schematics for thousands of lights wired through a dimmer board and controlled by a computer system that could lower, raise or pulse the lights as needed. "No additional lighting could be used," he says. "We lit the actors with the practical lights of the set, which has limitations but also amazing possibilities."

This is also only the second film McAlpine has shot with digital cameras. He says the freedom afforded by the technology is fantastic. "Film exaggerates differences in color far more than the eye does. Digital reproduces colors more accurately, giving us the ability to mix color in light, which happens in nature all the time."

Although he was working with new technology, McAlpine's years of experience were a huge asset to the production, says Hood. "It is astounding how fast and efficient he is. He's all about quality. The images that he captured are perfection. It's quite an achievement on a shoot this complex to get that as quickly as he did."

: Knowing that Hood wanted to focus squarely on the actors, costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark, with whom the director also worked on Rendition, took a low-key approach to wardrobe. "This is a futuristic, sci-fi film, but it is also an intensely emotional story and a character-driven drama that just happens to be set in the future," she says. "We wanted to tell the story in a beautiful way, but without jamming it up with too much spectacle."

"Costumes and color palettes are very important to me," Hood says. "They can easily distract from what's going on in the eyes and the face of the actor. The costume should frame the actor's face and support the 18 character while allowing the actor to stand out."

Clark broke the story down into three chapters: Earth, Battle School and Eros. For each, she developed a look that was distinct, but still similar enough to provide continuity. "We used color as a tool to take us from chapter to chapter," says Clark. "Earth is where we used the lushest colors. There are lots of greens and ambers with grayish undertones and natural fabrics. It's very organic and easily and identifiable to today's audience in order to ease them into the story.

"As soon as we go to Battle School, it's very steely and cool with a lot of blues and synthetic fabrics. The uniforms are made of Tweave, which is a futuristic wool gabardine, like what contemporary uniforms are made out of, but with a luster that hints at the future. The only color you really see is the Launchie yellow uniforms at the beginning. When we move over to Eros, which is a much more serious place, we retain the cool tones of the uniforms but it's a darker, richer palette."

Uniforms for the International Force officers were drawn from military garb across the world. With a strong shoulder line, clean, classic jackets and pants and a Mandarin collar, the uniform is distinctive, speaking of no particular time or place.

The Flash Suits, worn in the Battle Room during zero-gravity execises, were the subject of the most discussion. They needed to be exciting and interesting, but not fantastical. Using extreme-sports gear as a model, Clark experimented with fabrics and designs until arriving at the final, head-to-toe, one-piece design.

"The helmet in particular had to be sleek and expose the face," says Hood. "The curvature of the visor had to manage the inevitable reflections in a way that made them attractive and interesting. They were custom molded for each actor's head and fitted with a small fan to eliminate fogging when the kids breathe and speak. All in all, Christine did a phenomenal job of meeting some pretty big challenges."

The teaser that showcased Hood's vision for the zero-gravity scenes was created entirely in CG, but for the film, he was determined to recreate the effect in live action. "The sustained period of time that we spend in zero gravity was extremely challenging," says McDonough. "That was made even more difficult by intense dramatic moments that take place during intricate stunt-flying sequences. Stunt coordinator Garrett Warren has spent more than a decade researching how to create zero gravity, and the tools he brought to the table allowed Gavin to balance performances with technical prowess."

Warren also has the kind of enthusiasm and warmth that made him an ideal choice to work with the child actors, says Hood. "He trained them for months and brought them up to a level where they did 90 percent of their own stunts."

"Simulating weightlessness is one of the hardest stunts, even for trained gymnasts," says Warren. "What we didn't anticipate was that they would enjoy it so much. They perfected their moves to the extent that we were able to do more than we ever thought we could, so our use of stunt doubles was minimal."

In the Battle Room, the armies play a futuristic version of laser tag that tests their physical limitations as well as their skill at military strategy. "It is one of the most difficult places anyone could fight," says Warren. "You can't get any traction. This is where we see Ender really excel past the point that any other soldier has reached before."

In tandem with a variety of camera techniques, Warren employed several state-of-the-art stunt-flying devices. He retrofitted the stage with a dual-axis, multi-track gantry system, as well as a winch and descender rig that guided each actor through the air.

He also designed an apparatus specifically for this movie called "the lollipop." "It's a suspended, counter- balanced speed-rail arm that has a fork or a ring on one end for the performer to sit in, and allows them to spin in any position they like. On the other end is a ring used by us to maneuver them as needed, as if we were grabbing a puppet in space."

In addition to Warren's intensive training regimen, the young actors spent time in Boot Camp, to learn basic military discipline, as well as Space Camp, to learn about living and travelling in zero gravity. Both were a dream come true for many of the youngsters.

"The kids were so wonderful," says Pritzker. "While we were in pre-production, they were already training, marching with a drill instructor around the stages in cadence, becoming little soldiers. They were put through their paces physically. If you followed any of their Twitter accounts, you knew that they were hurting after their boot-camp drills and their flying lessons, but they loved every minute of it."

The filmmakers all agree that Ender's Game simply couldn't have been made without a superb visual- effects wizard. Matthew Butler is an Academy Award nominated visual-effects supervisor with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. "Matt's love of science and art is a wonderful combination," says Hood. "Too often, we're told you can be either creative or scientific. Matt Butler is living proof that it's not the case. He blends scientific knowledge with visual style and skill."

With his engineering background, Butler was able to advise the director on the effects of zero gravity and how it affects different types of ships in space. "As a bonus, his former roommate at MIT, Greg Chematov, is a real, live astronaut," says Hood. "Greg lived on the space station for months and he shared his experience with us. That information was critical to what's going on in our virtual space battles, where I wanted to achieve two things: the feeling that this is the greatest video game you could possibly play and, at the same time, a truly immersive experience."

Hood hopes they have found a good balance between the entertainment value and the moral issues of the story. "That was also the most exciting reason to do the film," he says. "It's rare that you get a story that both challenges you intellectually and ethically and also truly entertains you. The richest works of art excite you visually and emotionally, while challenging you mentally. For me, one of the great things about Ender's Game is its amazing ability to feed you on both levels."

Pritzker agrees: "We want the audience to be uplifted. It's a great, fun action movie, but it also raises important issues that you can grapple with and talk about. We never want to be preachy, but we do hope that whoever sees the movie will consider the ideas we explore. I think there are a variety of things that people will think about and talk about after seeing this movie and that makes me really happy."


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