After the success of Alien, in 1979, director Ridley Scott became involved in an attempt to adapt the science-fiction classic Dune to the big screen. In attempting to convince acclaimed fantasist Harlan Ellison to pen the screenplay, Scott remarked, “The time is ripe for a John Ford of science-fiction films. I’m determined to be that director.”
Blade Runner and three decades later with Prometheus notwithstanding, Scott never made good on that promise. But an exciting new filmmaker named Joseph Kosinski might very well take up the “Ford of Sci-Fi” mantle. Prior to coming to the attention of David Fincher and signing with Anonymous Content, Kosinski had studied engineering and worked as an architect, often employing the same design tools utilized by major VFX houses.
An innovative visual style characterized his spots for the Xbox game Halo 3, as well as for BMW, Chevrolet and Nike. Kosinski’s commercial for Gears of War utilized the game’s actual engine, and he shot performers going to war on a mocap stage, which bypassed the need for extensive CG rendering. Once linked to a remake of Logan’s Run and currently attached to a new version of The Black Hole, Kosinski, as Kevin H. Martin found out, made the leap from commercials to features with Tron: Legacy (2010), followed by his newest release, Oblivion, a project he first began to develop back in 2005.
ICG: Did your original concept for Oblivion change once you started the film? Joseph Kosinski: I was trying to get my foot in the door for commercials and music videos when I began, so it was initially meant to be a small first feature with a much smaller budget. It was a character-driven story with a modest-sized cast set against a much larger backdrop. Having survived the development process, the story is essentially the same as I conceived it, just much greater in scope, with major movie stars.
You also developed Oblivion as a graphic novel, a popular format in Hollywood these days. We were working on an illustrated novel of the story, and circulated what in the industry is called an “ashcan,” an opening chapter/preview with eight sample images. We gave them away at Comic-Con in 2008, and that is what got the attention of Tom Cruise. He actually called me about it, and when we sat down I pitched him the full movie. We continued to develop the graphic novel in parallel with the screenplay until I realized having people experience this story as a film first would be preferable.
With the book you would essentially be publishing spoilers about the movie. Exactly, I didn’t want to sacrifice the effect of those twists and turns in advance of the film coming out. Though we may still revisit that after the film release, if there’s sufficient interest. The ashcan and graphic novel are great ways to pitch a movie, and it makes a lot of sense to show the world what your ideas for a new environment look like.
Part of the way you’ve chosen to showcase that new environment comes from your choice to shoot on the high-resolution Sony F65. My DP Claudio Miranda and I have always been first-generation users. For some reason our projects seem to line up well with the production of new cameras: first the F23, then the F35 and now the F65. For me, it was very important to have 4K for this film. I looked at 48 FPS and other systems, but 4K and 24 FPS felt right for what is a largely in-camera big-budget science-fiction film with extreme location looks. I wanted a camera that could capture the beauty of Icelandic landscapes plus the detail featured in our built-in-studio environments [laughs].
And did it respond well to the extreme conditions? It doesn’t get much more difficult than bright skies and light-colored suits against black sand, so Claudio was really pushing things in terms of dynamic range. But this camera seemed to have a stop or two more than the F35. Also, the Sony cameras in general seem to render skin tones and color in a way that feels very natural to me. I’m super-pleased with how the camera performed – especially since it came to us pretty much off the assembly line, and we had to do software updates all along the way.
Was there any particular technical challenge that caused you the most concern? That would be our main character’s home in the clouds, the Sky Tower. It featured a lot of glass and reflective surfaces, and I was not going to use blue screen or green screen, which would compromise the look I wanted. So we went with projected backgrounds. For 2001, Kubrick had medium-format stills front-projected onto 3M material during his “Dawn of Man” sequence with the apes. Our approach was in that vein, but we shot a week of sky plates with three 5K Epic cameras in an array atop a volcano on the island of Maui. Using 21 projectors, we projected that 15K imagery onto a giant cyc surrounding the sky tower set, which was actually lit by these huge projections.
How could you pull that off photographically? By rating the F65 at 800 ASA and shooting wide-open most of the time. All the reflective elements that can’t be readily used in a conventional keying process are allowed, and everything looks better because of the naturally occurring light interaction on those elements. You can see the view reflected in the eyes of the actors, so they’re really in that world without any need for post work. Claudio deserves an enormous amount of credit; he figured out how to make this complex technical system work for us.
It sounds like an approach that satisfied aesthetics and economics. There’s no compositing that can match lighting done for real on the day. That’s because there’s no faking that level of interactivity. And once people realize what we did and how it was done, they’ll see what it could mean for costs on the back end with visual effects. Our movie should have been a 1,500-plus VFX shot show, but instead we came in at a number closer to 800, plus you have footage that is just finished on the spot.
Based on the trailer it looks like you have some futuristic version of an aerial dogfight, with the star of Top Gun in the cockpit. [Laughs]. Tom is a licensed pilot who flies everything from helicopters to aerobatic planes, so having an actor who really knows aircraft is a big part of selling that aspect. Additionally, we gimbaled his ship, and Claudio built a lighting rig to address a variety of environments. All of this together helps build the idea that we’re flying along with our main character in this machine, almost as if you’re sitting there with him, which makes for a very visceral experience.
A lot of your early commercials were VFX-heavy, yet with Tron you built as much of the environment practically as possible – a trend you’re continuing here. The first spot Claudio and I did together was entirely green screen; there wasn’t a single physical set. So [Oblivion] is a full circle back toward Tron, where so much was done in-camera. In science fiction, you want to preserve the illusion as much as you can so people can lose themselves in the story. Being able to go on location in Iceland really helped Claudio and me to maximize the cinematic experience.
What are your plans for tackling The Black Hole? We’re working on that script at Disney now, and there are some very exciting ideas, as I love science and astronomy. I went to Space Camp back in the 80s when it was the thing to do – not the cool thing to do, but the thing to do. [Laughs.]
So it will be based on solid science? What actually happens in the area of space surrounding black holes sounds like science fiction but it’s not. And being able to depict such an environment, exploit that in the context of a movie – a real science-fiction movie that deals with the drama of manned spaceflight and time dilation issues in a realistic way – could be incredible. Lots of movies don’t go that far. 2001 is probably still the benchmark. Kubrick didn’t just hire concept illustrators; he hired NASA engineers to design a lot of that, which is why it still holds up, instead of playing like a Flash Gordon serial.
Why are you drawn to science fiction? It’s an inspiring genre, where stories can be told in different and exciting ways. There are times when I’m halfway through post, going through endless visual effects reviews, that I start telling myself to go shoot a movie that doesn’t need all this, get it in-camera without any effects at all. But when you actually finish and can see what everyone’s come up with, you realize there is no limit to what can be put on the screen, and that makes it all fun again. Ninety-nine percent of the time, making films is not glamorous; it’s just a whole lot of hard work, so it needs to inspire you every day. A big part of the reason I can be happy to get out of bed and go to work comes from the thought of getting to invite people along to some other world we’ve made for them. These kinds of stories do that for me.
Photo by David James