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Immersed in Movies: Neill Blomkamp Talks 'Elysium,' Sci-Fi, VFX (TRAILER)

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 6, 2013 at 2:21PM

"Elysium" director Neill Blomkamp discusses going more commercial and the have and have nots of his movies and the VFX industry.
Sharlto Copley Elysium

Blomkamp also admits that "District 9" was more satirical than "Elysium," even though the premise of the rich cutting themselves off in illusory paradise and hastening the aging process by a few hundred years was ludicrous. It was a matter of aesthetics and tone. But he instinctively knew that he wanted his buddy, Sharlto Copley, to play the volatile mercenary baddie, Kruger, as a "nut job." 

On the other hand, working with movie stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster was a new and thrilling experience for the young director. He learned to appreciate their experience and talent. When he gave them direction, they would play it exactly as he described over and over again, down to the newest nuance.

"There were subtle nods to the genre in their performances," he explains. "Jodie plays an ice queen as the secretary of defense. She's a straight ahead person that calls the shots. I wanted the audience to understand that she's protecting the homeland, whether you agree with her or not. Jodie and I were on the same page. So when I met her, she came up with the idea of her being French because it's international and it's rich and I loved that. And Matt was designed to be a movie star with a built-in currency with the audience. He's always likable but isn't just a straight up nice guy. Matt could fit in with the barrio of LA."

But when it came to the technical challenges of "Elysium," especially the world building of the complex CG geometry of the Torus space station and the beautiful landscapes, Blomkamp concedes that it was "fucking hard." As with "District 9," though, he relied on the Vancouver-based Image Engine as his VFX hub, working alongside a host of other studios around the globe, while Weta Workshop assisted with weapon, vehicle, and early drone design, and made the practical HULC armor suit that Damon comfortably wears.

"The Torus was so difficult to get to a photorealistic stage that it nearly wrecked the morale of the animators," he offers. "You have to build that asset and decide every single pixel: What kind of foliage is it? Is there any wind? Which direction is the light coming from? How much atmosphere particulate is there? Are there any clouds? And if it doesn't look real, is it because of this choice or because of another choice?"

Fortunately, Blomkamp studied computer animation at Vancouver Film School and knows his way around design and technology, and can communicate his vision and get smooth and efficient results. It also helps being around Peter Jackson and James Cameron and knowing what you can achieve. He figures he saved $50 million on "Elysium," which cost $100 million.

But he's also sympathetic to the plight of the VFX industry, which he believes are the have nots in comparison to the older and more established departments in production. "From their perspective, it's gotten more diabolical and cutthroat. The margins are narrow and it's so competitive that companies are going under. I speak to the VFX guys a lot because I want to know why, but no one seems to know why exactly. They're not unionized and get skimped the most. But I firmly believe that VFX can do anything, so now it's up to the filmmaker to come up with a concept, a story, and a world that people want to go see in a theater. And you need to execute them properly. So if it's something that requires giant resources, you need to do it in a way that makes fiscal sense."

And it makes both creative and fiscal sense for Blomkamp to return to "D9" territory for his next feature,"Chappie," which he begins shooting next month for $60 million in Johannesburg. Based on his short, "Tetra Vaal," a ridiculous "RoboCop" riff about androids that patrol the slums of South Africa, "Chappie" explores sentience and prejudice. It stars Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire"), Copley, and the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord. Blomkamp promises that it will be quirky, gritty, and touching. 

"But it's contemporary," so the buddy sci-fi comedy will be a departure yet still cut from the same cloth as Blomkamp's first two movies.

This article is related to: Elysium, Neill Blomkamp, Immersed In Movies, VFX, Interviews, Interviews , Interviews, Sci-fi, Matt Damon, Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley

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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.