New Secrets of the Incredible VFX of 'Elysium'

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Elysium's director Neill Blomkamp says that his summer sci-fi film "punches above its weight" in terms of the quality of its visual effects work, and the film's VFX Supervisor Peter Muyzers explains to ETonline just how the movie manages to achieve such a consistent feat. Watch our behind-the-scenes clip above from the new Elysium Blu-ray, out Tuesday, to see how they pulled off those incredibly convincing special effects for the Matt Damon dystopian sci-fi adventure…
Muyzers, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his work on Bomkamp's District 9, presented a Behind the Scenes of Elysium lecture at the Autodesk CAVE conference this month in Las Vegas, timed to Tuesday's release of Elysium on Blu-ray, and he told ETonline that the variety and the detail that went into the work was the biggest challenge in bringing the world of Elysium to life: "We're having to do droids, ships, rings, faces being blown off and regenerated, exploding droids into a million pieces – that level of complexity never appeared in District 9, but it was very apparent on a film like Elysium."
In the futuristic Elysium, Matt Damon is a landlocked everyman whose life as a menial technician at a droid factory is dramatically altered when he's soaked with a deadly dose of radiation, forcing him to make his way to the orbiting space station Elysium to receive life-saving medical attention.
Using the same "gray suit" technology used in the convincing alien residents of District 9, the visual effects company Image Engine (whose credits include White House Down, Fast & Furious 6, Zero Dark Thirty) managed to achieve believable worker droid effects (and also for the intimidating, realistically hovering shuttles that are a centerpiece of the film) by eschewing the more expensive motion-capture practices used in such films as Avatar and The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.
"We took the opposite approach," says Muyzers, looking back to Blomkamp's 2009 debut hit. "Instead of using capturing devices and electronics and computer systems, which would really add to the cost of the production – the budget for District 9 would not be big enough to do that, unlike Lord of the Rings or Avatar, which have these astronomical budgets. … We said, 'How can we achieve something like this in the most simple form possible that would be cost-effective and productive?' That was that gray suit approach that we used. We did the same for Elysium."
Explaining how the technology works, Muyzers chuckles, "It's not fun for an actor to get dressed in a gray leotard. It's somewhat embarrassing from time to time for them, but really what we're trying to do is put a snug suit around the actor who could really perform the role of the aliens in District 9, and in Elysium it was the droids. … We were just copying 100 percent of the movement of the gray suit actors because it wasn't up to visual effects to determine the performance. It was the actor that determined the performance. … And then we kind of extended that into helicopters. So we pretended the helicopter was the substitute of this gray suit performer. [Neill] could direct the helicopter, make him touch down fast or slow, or [maneuver] left or right, and the camera crew could have the framing correct, and we would replace it with the CG vehicle."
Legendary futurist Syd Mead, whose work on Blade Runner is revered to this day as hugely influential, came out of retirement to work on the designs of Elysium (the floating space station was majorly inspired by Mead's designs before the artist even got on board the project). In return, Muyzers reveals that Blomkamp paid back the honor with a visual cameo in the film.
"Neill likes to add in some homages to various movies that he's a fan of, and Blade Runner is one of them," he explains. "In the background of that one massive shot of [Los Angeles] that Syd was involved in designing, there was this one particular building that Neill said, 'Can you, in the background, put this super-tall, super-large building? … It's kind of inspired by Syd Mead's drawings and maybe it's influenced by the Tyrell Corporation building from Blade Runner.' We obviously changed the shape and made it look like a very different building, but it was inspired by that."
Elysium was recently named by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to be one of 10 films in the running for this year's Visual Effects Oscar, alongside such tough contenders as Gravity, Pacific Rim, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z. Final nominations will be announced by the Academy on January 16, 2014.
Elysium is out on Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital on Tuesday, with bonus features that include an extended scene and behind-the-scenes featurettes such as In Support of the Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium; Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium; Visions of 2154; The Journey to Elysium and more.