Battling Gravity

March 21st, 2014 Film, Film Features, Video&Filmmaker

It might not have the old-school charm of Yoda strapped to Luke Skywalker’s back as he does somersaults in the swamps of Dagobah, but as far as training sequences go, the Zero G battle chamber of Ender’s Game is one of the most visually sweeping and operatic locations in recent sci-fi.

As gruff commander Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) tells the International Military recruits, including hero Ender (Asa Butterfield) – through the round gate off the austere staging area is a zero G environment. The cavernous room contains obstacles (called ‘stars’), enemies from the opposite team and – as the name suggests – no gravity, leaving recruits to float and propel themselves.

Was it done with actors hanging by wires? A large set? CGI? All of the above, as co-production designer Ben Procter explained to Video&Filmmaker. “The film used the set pieces we created very much as planned,” he says. “The battle room is conceived as a 100-metre wide sphere, but we built smaller parts that could be digitally extended and connected. The gate itself, the staging area, the sort of dish that extends outside the gate – it’s all there for when Ender starts to play in zero G and he’s hanging on to those handles for dear life. A big part of the frame in those shots – and certainly everything he was interacting with – was a camera ready piece of scenery.”

Procter explains that there were several stars built to simulate the pyramid-shaped obstacles scattered throughout the room, some for the actors to interact with which would be replaced digitally, and as photorealistic props that would appear in the film.

Step two was to attach the actors to wires, which proved tricky enough in itself. “There were so many issues with wire and rig removal [in post production],” Procter says. “The costumes are form fitting and the rigging had to shackle through the costume through various holes and it caused distortion. It turned out that in far more shots than we expected, it was easier to replace the entire body with a digital double version of the suit than it was to try and fix it.”

Which brings us to the most interesting aspect of staging the battle room. Even though the actors were on wires performing the movements the script outlined, in some cases the only part of them that makes it to the screen is their faces. “I won’t say impossible, but it’s still very difficult to practically simulate the effects of zero gravity,” Procter explains, giving particular kudos to stunt coordinator Garrett Warren.

“When a figure changes pose, the centre of gravity of that person is moving, so their spin through space is going to change. There’s a subtlety to that which was quite well done in Gravity of course, and I think it’s done equally as well in Enders Game because we had this digital double option in certain cases.”

Of course, all this prompts the question of why the production didn’t just animate the entire scene. The answer is because while we can program computers to create alien spaceships attacking cities or giant ships battling in space, computers are still surprisingly poor at replicating the human face. Talking about the sequence for, podcaster Mike Seymour says digitally animating the performance of a real face onto a computer-animated body is cheaper (and the result better) than animating the entire character.

That means a large number of people in different departments have to work more seamlessly than ever – from construction crews building the gate dozens of feet in the air to digital shadow and colour specialists painting the details into the room and space outside. To Ben Procter, the secret to making it all work is to have everyone collaborate early. “It depends on the project, the studio and the director you’re working with,” he says, “but it’s always about the level of demand for visual effects design support. It’s a phrase we’ve come to use a lot.”

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