While the film as a whole was met with mixed reaction from critics and audiences during during its theatrical release this past November, one aspect of Gavin Hood's screen adaptation of the celebrated science fiction novel Ender's Game much-deserved universal praise for the highly impressive technical work done to bring Orson Scott Card's futuristic outer space vision to life. As it turns out, the digital and physical work and imagination was even more extensive and intensive than one could plainly see in the finished product--as revealed in a special behind-the-scenes experience held by Lionsgate at Digital Domain's Los Angeles studios and offices on Tuesday, January 28.
Before any visual effects could be created, the actual settings in which they take place needed to built from the ground up--or, in this film's particular case, "computer-up," as production designer Ben Procter illustrated with a walk-through of the design development of the film's most stunning and heavily-used setting, the outer space, zero gravity battle room where the film's young military cadets engage in many an exciting combat training sequence. Once Hood and Procter decided on the room's striking spherical design, much work was still yet to come, with as much if not more time going into the fine detailing of entryways, doors, windows, surfaces, and the "stars" that the cadets would hide behind and hold onto during the war games.
While practical sets--or, rather, portions of practical sets, considering the size of the locations--were indeed built in studio facilities, many of Procter's designed remained in the virtual soundstage to be taken to the next level by pre-viz supervisor Scott Meadows and visual effects supervisor Matt Butler. On first, uninformed view of the film, one can easily see how extensive digital effects made the zero-gravity battle room sequences such a standout, with the bodies moving with almost balletic, yet entirely physically plausible, grace. But just how extensive the effects work was came as a bit of a revelation. While the actors indeed shot the sequences in full costume while suspended by wires and various other rigs on green screen soundstages to simulate the physical context, most of the footage was not used in the finished product, and most certainly not any motion/performance capture. So finicky were Hood, Meadows, and Butler on capturing the true physics of objects in a zero gravity environment that the only visuals from this footage used were the actors' faces, with their entire bodies being digitally created along with the sets in order to show a more accurate depiction of how objects move in a completely gravity-free environment--which makes the work they did even more astounding. A look inside the digital design of the film's worlds is offered in this behind-the-scenes featurette included on Lionsgate Home Entertainment's DVD and Blu-ray of the film:
The "experience" portion of the day came next, with live demonstrations taking place in Digital Domain's studio space. While performance capture was not used for those battle room sequences, the technique was used for the "mind game" scenes in the film, and Hood presided over a live demonstration of how the "virtual camera" not only captures an actor's movements and facial expressions while rendering an incomplete but still fairly detailed live rendering of the digital character in its also-created environment. The day was rounded out by stunt coordinator Kurt Lott and the film's co-star Moises Arias (as bullying cadet Bonzo) demonstrating one of the physical implements used during the shooting of those zero gravity sequences, the so-called "lollipop" rig.
Ender's Game is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
(special thanks to mPRm and Lionsgate)