Forging a Wachowski World
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2015)

Forging a Wachowski World

Framestore sets the stage for a boardroom battle and builds an impressive spaceship, its largest model yet

While critics say the story for Jupiter Ascending has missed the mark, they are quick to laud the complex visual effects in this latest space opera.

Andy and Lana Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending brings Mila Kunis (Jupiter Jones), Channing Tatum (Caine), Eddie Redmayne (Balem), and Sean Bean (Stinger) together in a lavish and beautifully designed sci-fi universe run by an ancient dynasty that farms entire planets for their DNA.

This action/adventure film from Warner Bros. tells the futuristic story of a young, destitute caretaker (Jupiter), who goes on an unexpected journey that takes her to a world outside our own. Accompanied by a genetically engineered soldier (Caine), she encounters a tyrannical ruler of a planet in need of a new heir.

Framestore’s London and Montreal teams delivered more than 500 shots for the film, with the movie’s melting pot of aesthetic styles reflected in the wide range of visual effects the team delivered.

The work ranged from hero characters of the extraterrestrial Keepers and the lizard-like Sargorn, to the environments of powerful royal alien Balem’s boardroom and lab, the armory, and the Clipper ship dock belonging to Balem’s brother (Titus), as well as digital doubles, spaceships, planets, and all manner of explosions, fireballs, shattering glass, and liquid-like nanotechnology.

Framestore got involved in pre-production, with a team of animators spending six months carrying out animation tests at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, England, to help the directors plan the sequences and develop the alien characters. The crew also worked closely with Double Negative, which was responsible for a Chicago environment chase scene, among others, as well as Halon and The Third Floor previs teams. The group also worked on set with NVizible.

The Fight is On

First, there are the Keepers. Creepy by design, they are a group of slinking aliens able to cloak themselves from sight. “They appear in a number of really nightmarish scenes and work more as creatures of the night than as traditional aliens, so we gave them these reversible knees and elbows, which made them quite insect-like,” explains Framestore Animation Supervisor Max Solomon.

The Sargorns were a different prospect – powerful and capable of speech, the winged reptiles provided an animation challenge as they flicked between calm conversations with humans and moments of bestial rage. Their long, lizard skulls made dialog interesting, especially as their teeth are fused to their lips. “We had to find the right balance of flexibility within the constraints of that, so we made them talk out of the side of their mouth, where there are fewer teeth,” adds Solomon.

Once they entered fight mode though, the emphasis was on making them as animalistic as possible – moving on all fours and using their tails, or beating their huge, leathery wings.

An impressive fight takes place between Caine and a Sargorn named Greeghan in Balem’s boardroom – a huge digital environment constructed by Framestore. Below the cavernous, gilded hall of the boardroom is another Framestore environment, a gruesome DNA laboratory revealed through the floor, which can be made transparent in an instant.

The fight that rages through these environments is a combination of practical and visual effects, transitioning seamlessly between real-life stunts and full-CG shots.

Ramps were built in the partial Balem lab set, which allowed actor Channing Tatum, who plays Caine, to skate as if he were using jet boots. The team then removed the ramps, added Caine’s boots, and animated the pursuing Greeghan. With the environment built in CG, the artists were able to replace camera moves when necessary and create fully CG shots with a Caine digi-double for any shots that were impossible to film practically, such as when the pair crash through a pane of glass.

Super Spaceships

As well as environments, Framestore created several of Jupiter Ascending’s spaceships. The most complex, Titus’ Clipper, is introduced with a majestic sweep through the icy rings of a planet. At three kilometers (a little less than two miles) long and consisting of close to a billion polygons, the Clipper is Framestore’s biggest model so far, a much larger construct than even the International Space Station (ISS) in Gravity.

The ship is more lavishly detailed than the ISS, too, “a floating city with a city’s worth of architecture,” as Montreal VFX Supervisor Chris Lawrence puts it. “Part of the challenge was giving the model enough richness to sell the scale while still looking functional – a challenge the modelers were very happy trying to solve.”

The dock the Clipper arrives in is just as grand, a sprawling palatial environment with hundreds of individually placed lights and lots of reflective grand architectural detail. A small section of it was shot – a single floor for the actors to walk across, surrounded by greenscreen.

Needing to rescue protagonist Jupiter from the Clipper, Caine and his old friend Stinger enter an armory, another fully CG environment build, to commandeer a pair of nimble, one-man fighter ships called Zeros.

The ship protects itself by releasing a shoal of Warhammers – half a million mines that litter Caine and Stinger’s path to the ship. With so many Warhammers to weave in and out of, and plenty of explosions and debris along the way, there was a lot of emphasis on choreographing the elements in a way that would be easy to follow visually.

(Top) Actor Channing Tatum is filmed skating on a ramp, and then the scene (bottom) was digitally altered to look like he was wearing CG jet boots.

“Making it readable was a big challenge,” says the sequence’s CG supervisor, Andy Walker. “It was all about using different colors to contrast different areas of the shot, backlighting it with explosions so you could see the Zeros. We made the Warhammers slowly spin to make them catch the light, which made them less flat. The idea was that they glistened a little bit, like shoals of fish. Otherwise, they would remain black for much of the shot – either all invisible or all too visible.”

Taking the Wachowskis’ vision for their sprawling and original universe and helping realize it on the screen produced a multitude of extremely diverse challenges that were equal parts testing and enjoyable.

“The variety meant we could never slip into a rhythm, but it was also a lot of fun,” says Solomon. “It meant that no two sequences were the same, which is also what’s so surprising and appealing about the film.”