TORONTO - For anyone who saw Neill Blomkamp's breakout film "District 9," it's no surprise his follow-up "Elysium" is chock-full of elaborate flying machines, futuristic weaponry and an assortment of bizarre robots.
Most of the effects were handled by Vancouver-based Image Engine, which also worked with Blomkamp on "District 9." Smaller, specific tasks were spun out to the Embassy, Moving Picture Company, WhiskyTree and Method Studios, says Image Engine partner Shawn Walsh.
"We have a good reputation for doing visual effects work which is seamless," says Walsh. "We would talk a lot with Neill about trying to un-sci-fi our work and he was very conscientious about consistently reminding us that we're not trying to create something that is openly acknowledged as science fiction."
Blomkamp's latest vision, which boasts a budget roughly three times that of the $30-million "District 9," stars Matt Damon as an ex-con battling his way to an idyllic space station reserved for the world's richest.
"He's a very talented filmmaker, the kind of filmmaker that I think, appropriately, deserves the description of visionary," Walsh says of the South African-bred director, now based in Vancouver.
"He's very much in the school of James Cameron or (George) Lucas or (Steven) Spielberg in that he imagines a kind of complete world, a complete universe, and posits his story within that."
For those who haven't seen "Elysium" and want the effects to be a surprise, stop reading now — although there's plenty more than what's outlined below. Here's a look at how some of the wild images came together:
The film takes its name from an orbiting paradise that offers sanctuary from a polluted, disease-ridden Earth in the year 2154. Walsh says Blomkamp consulted scientific experts to come up with a plausible space habitat.
"We approached it very much like an engineering or design firm — we approached it by breaking it up into its component parts and designing each and every one of those independently," he says of the fictional super-structure, which he described as "a bicycle wheel spinning in space."
"It's based on this idea that's called the Stanford torus, which was a NASA jet propulsion lab idea of what kind of a shape would you need to create in order to create a centrifugal force that would create gravity?" he says, adding that other parts of Elysium are inspired by images from conceptual artist Syd Mead.
2. The droids.
Image Engine was in charge of an array of robots, known here as droids, that fulfil several tasks on Earth and Elysium ranging from food service to health care to policing. Anytime you see a droid moving "it's 100 per cent computer-generated," says Walsh.
This was achieved by filming an actor in a grey suit performing the scene first.
"Essentially, we removed the actor from the plate and replaced him with a digital version of the character that's moving in a very, very close approximation to what the actor did," Walsh says.
3. The weaponry.
The Embassy handled the film's wild weapon effects, which include a powerful anti-aircraft railgun and an impressive force field-type shield, says Walsh.
"Neill has kind of a gearhead background that leads him into creating these sort of fantastical weapons in his movies and he has worked with the Embassy before."
The villainous Kruger, played by "District 9" star Sharlto Copley, gets one of the more unique toys — a sort of energy shield that can turn on in an instant to deflect whatever flies his way.
"It was a bit of a worry of ours to understand exactly what that thing was and how it functioned and they managed to make it look extremely physically real," says Walsh.
He says Image Engine devised a laser-like device that Damon's hero uses to cut a hole into a spaceship from afar.
"There was a practical effect of blowing the hole open, and the door essentially, but then we had to reverse engineer it so you didn't see the hole. And then obviously all of the sort of tracer markings and burning embers and smoke and stuff was visual effects," he says.
4. The vehicles.
The assortment of aircraft includes a sleek, red Bugatti-like shuttle, crafted by Moving Picture Company, that ferries bad guy William Fichtner to and from Elysium. There's also the more utilitarian fleet used by the government-run Civil Cooperation Bureau to keep Earth-dwellers in line and several rebel crafts used in a bid to smuggle illegals onto Elysium.
But Walsh is most enamoured by the Raven, a monolith Kruger uses to swoop in on his targets, armed with automatic guns, missiles and an all-seeing surveillance system.
"It kind of becomes this bird of prey," Walsh says of the creation, handled by Image Engine. "We used helicopters to show framing and staging and movement as well as editorially to get the interaction of dust and debris from the ground when a vehicle comes in and lands or takes off. And then essentially we remove the helicopter and add in the computer-generated vehicle."
5. The City of Los Angeles.
"It's in this slow, grinding, sand-paper like decline," Walsh says of the city's imagined future, laid bare in a fly-over shot provided by Industrial Light & Magic.
Squalid shanty towns that dot the landscape are actual slums on the outskirts of Mexico City, says Walsh, while dilapidated skyscrapers are inspired by actual L.A. city plans.
"We researched with the City of Los Angeles which buildings had been approved to be built but had yet to be built," says Walsh.
"So anybody who's a real student of the downtown area of Los Angeles will be able to pick out these buildings that don't quite exist but somehow are very accurate to the future plans of Los Angeles."
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