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Immersed in Movies: Digital Domain Talks 'Ender's Game' Zero-Gravity VFX

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 8, 2013 at 1:14PM

As co-producer of "Ender's Game," Digital Domain 3.0 has a lot more at stake than cool zero-g and simulated battles in space. As one of LA's few remaining VFX studios, DD is experimenting with content creation as a new business model, and the rest of the industry is watching closely.
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Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford in "Ender's Game"
Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford in "Ender's Game"

As co-producer of "Ender's Game," the rebooted Digital Domain 3.0 has a lot more at stake than cool zero-g and simulated battles in space. One of LA's few remaining VFX studios (now under the post-bankruptcy ownership of Sun Innovation and Reliance MediaWorks), DD is also experimenting with content creation as a new business model, and the rest of the industry is watching closely.

Ender's Game

So far, so good, if not spectacular: "Ender's Game" led the box office last weekend with an opening take of $27 million. And while former DD CEO Ed Ulbrich suggested at the recent Visual Effects Society Summit that content creation is a worthwhile concept, he cautioned that you obviously have to mitigate the risk to offset it.

As expected, the VFX is noteworthy and deserving of an Oscar nomination. Director Gavin Hood wanted an immersive, holographic-like depiction of the zero-g Battle Room, and DD (under the supervision of Matthew Butler) was an integral creative partner from the outset, designing with Hood as he wrote the script.

"We wanted to shoot as much as possible to get the performance of the kids, but we need to feel realistic in terms of the motion, so we had to develop tools to help us capture it photographically but then to augment that to make it realistic for zero-gravity," explains Butler, who holds an M.A. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

"That required us to take imagery that we shot, reproject it onto animated geometry and reanimate the content to be correct for zero-g. Obviously we also needed to create the environment around the zero-g room, but the hardest part was emulating the right kind of dynamic physics."

Production designers Sean Haworth and Ben Procter developed four different looks that DD realized: full-daylight for the opening sequence, soft-light/no-sun for Petra, and Ender's one-on-one training session, a golden hour for the battle with the Salamander Army, and film noir for the final battle with the Dragon Army.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Features, VFX, Ender's Game


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.