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

Interviews
by Bill Desowitz
November 8, 2013 1:14 PM
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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.

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.

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