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Creating Time And Place
Production Designer Tom Southwell has collaborated with Director D.J. Caruso on 10 previous occasions, six as his production designer. "When we first worked together,” recalls Southwell, "we came up with a system of communicating by using miniatures. We would strap a little camera to the top of a toy car and work out the car shots. On this movie, we built miniatures of the sets. D.J. would take his miniature camera to work out his camera angles. The storyboard artist would take that video and create sketches that everyone could look at and see the shots D.J. had planned.”

The story centers around a high school—the hub of the movie—so the film crew was in that setting for a long period of the film, both during the day and at night. The simplest way to get the shots was to use a real school; consequently a lot of the scenes were shot at Franklin Regional High in Murrysville, Penn. However, as Southwell points out, "There were certain sequences that we couldn't shoot there because they involved mass destruction.”

The creative challenge for the director and his team was to take the high school "look,” which kids see every day, and make it more interesting. "One of the ways to achieve that is to use special lighting effects,” explains Southwell. "Another is by using color. I am constantly trying to influence the audience by using color because it is so psychological. You can make people feel more frightened just by taking the color out. It creates an unnatural feel that makes them uneasy. Gradually they start to feel that something terrifying is about to happen.”

Southwell adds, "The same thing is true of light; the darker it gets, the more apprehensive you get, especially if you know a creature is about to come down the hall.”

Another interesting element in the production design of "I Am Number Four” is that the sheen of everyday objects became very important. As Southwell explains, "There is very little light at some points of the movie, and the only way you are able to see our characters is in silhouette from the shine that comes off the floor. The camera department shot tests on all our materials to make sure they were getting enough sheen and difference in textures.”

Since the school hallways were the setting for the majority of the physical, special-effects work on the film, Southwell also had to rig the sets for the numerous stunts and effects that would take place there—in addition to making the corridors visually exciting and menacing.

As Visual Effects Supervisor Greg McMurry explains, "There are a lot of different types of visual effects and action sequences, and there's a real dynamic because the characters have different abilities. We also have creatures that we worked with ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] to create; one of which is the Piken, which are unleashed by the Mogadorians.”

Special Effects Coordinator Peter Chesney worked on the design and creation of the 3500-pound iron Piken. "The Piken represents the bad guy's bulldog, basically a 1500-pound flying squirrel with teeth,” he says.

"We had a scene where John uses his telekinesis to smash a bunch of lockers in an effort to slow up the charging Piken,” recalls Chesney. Chesney built 24 100-pound hammers that would rise up on both sides of the hallway and swing in an arc, smashing into the back of 20 lockers. Then he used a golf cart to represent the Piken and raced it down the hallway as the hammers were released one at a time in a sequence of 12 parallels.

In another scene the team used real cinder-block walls for part of the set and launched the Piken at 20 miles per hour. "The trick was that it was done with a lot of aggressive camera moves,” explains Chesney. "So we actually had to break through everything before we filmed it so that we'd get the timing right. In a lot of the camera moves, where you're doing a whip pan with the creature running through, we would set off sparks and back time it on video during rehearsal.”

Production Designer Tom Southwell comments on the stylistic changes in the movie. "The color palette for the film is very varied,” he says. "The movie opens in an isolated hut in the African jungle. It's brief, but it's enough to give you a sense that there is some terror to be had in this movie. Then it moves to the Florida Keys where John and Henri are living. They live on a beautiful white beach with palm trees and aqua clear water. It's the perfect place for a teenager.”

Henri and John live in a stilt house that is like a beachcomber's hideaway. When John has a terrifying experience in the ocean one night, Henri realizes that they are in danger and tells John they have to leave. They grab all their belongings and leave no trace behind. "That was a big challenge,” recalls Southwell. "The house sits on this beach of sugar sand and it's absolute paradise. We had to convince the owners to let us build a façade around the house to give us the look we wanted, and then to blow it up.”

Henri and John are forced to go on the run and they end up in Paradise, Ohio. "It's still quite beautiful, but the colors are very pale. There is a visually boring aspect to it, maybe because it is so traditional,” says Southwell.

Director D.J. Caruso wanted Alex Pettyfer's character John to dislike the new house in Ohio, so Southwell helped to convey that feeling by making the actual house less attractive and in direct contrast with John's previous idyllic place. Southwell decided to break open some walls as if a renovation had been taking place, and for some unknown reason it had just stopped. He showed beams and wiring so the characters would be sitting in an unfinished room.

This was in direct contrast to the warmth Southwell created in Sarah's home, where John would encounter the comfort of a true family environment for the first time.

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