Into Orbit With Jupiter Ascending

Duncan Evans talked to David Sheldon-Hicks of Territory Studio about working on the set of the Wachowskis sci-fi epic

By Duncan Evans

When legendary directors, the Wachowski's, wanted screen graphics and displays for their spaceships in Jupiter Ascending, their first port of call was London-based Territory Studio. It was a selection process made easier for everyone because cCreative Director, David Sheldon-Hicks, had already worked on the iconic futuristic sci-fi screens for Ridley Scott on Prometheus. Territory was duly hired to create user interfaces for screens that would feature as part of the navigation systems in a number of spacecraft scenes. Invisible forces such as gravity, wormholes and cloaking devices needed illustrating, with Jupiter Ascending Production Designer Hugh Bateup suggesting that 3D weather maps would be a good starting point. Then there was the concept art. An entire room of beautiful art with lifts, spacesuits, environments and spaceships. It had already been created and was to serve as inspiration for the visual look and feel of the film, even the bespoke typeface that Territory created for the film.

David and his team of five artists got to work investigating how best to use isometric lines, which are normally used to describe weather fronts, to represent 3D energy fields as animated organic forms. Most of the effects were generated in Cinema 4D using the Thinking Particles plug-in with XPresso being used to control them. The basic idea was to generate anything between 100 to1000 particles and then use effectors to move them around. This way, force fields like weather maps could be created, with morphing, to describe specific story points. Usually, this kind of animation creates chaotic elements but here the team tried to incorporate such effects. The real problems started with getting certain animations to loop. Senior Motion Designer, Nik Hill explained how they solved this issue, "Cinema 4D's MoGraph tracer and Hair shader settings were key to helping us figure out the looping issues with the swirly wormhole graphics."

The other problem was how to compensate for the irregularities of the physical screens in the spacecraft bridge environments. Unlike most VFX projects, the majority of these weren't added in post-production but, they were projected in real-time onto glass screens. This process was developed in partnership with partner Compuhire, the engineers behind getting the graphics on set.

The projectors were either in the floor or from above. This is where Territory's experience with creating the same kind of effects for Prometheus paid off. On the bridge of the spaceship there were five main consoles with glass sheets hung at slight angles. The graphics themselves had to be opaque enough to convey information yet have enough transparent areas so that the actors could be seen through them. David explained how it all worked out, "When you project onto glass it is specialized acetate with imperfections and it creates tiny refractive beams and bounces light back so you get light spill. Ridley Scott liked the light spill and used it in Prometheus."

On Jupiter Ascending they wanted the animated graphics to be placed perfectly, running along angled edges, but the screens were tilted so that they weren't perpendicular to the lens of each projector, essentially warping the projected image on the screen. Through trial and error they figured out a distortion within After Effects to compensate. David clarified the process: "We were inverting the distortion that was physically taking place on set and it worked really well. Some of the panels had geometric designs etched onto them as well so that our kinetic projections mingled with physical glass etchings. It turned out to be a clever merge of 3D set design and animated projections."

The advantage for the actors and directors was that they could physically see the screens, rather than having to imagine everything against a green screen. You also got reflections, light bleed and spill into the environment, making it all appear more real.

Before starting, the Wachowskis had assumed all graphics would be green screen and inserted in post, which is how they worked before. When they saw the tests they wanted the projected graphics on everything, which meant making changes and designing by the seat of their pants. David revealed, "The Wachowski's were a delight to work with and got really energized by working with us on-set. Motion designers Nik Hill and Ryan Hays would be perched with laptops designing, animating and rendering as Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum were being shot. Lana and Andy would take a look and then get us to make changes on-the-fly for the next take. It was a demanding way of working but a lot of fun and very satisfying to see it come together for the actors and directors."

A lot of this was only possible because Cinema 4D is so designer-friendly. It meant that Territory's team, which largely came from a design background, didn't have to get into the technicalities all the time. Cinema 4D tools are accessible so they could create the basic look quickly, get it approved by the director and then have a day or so to put in enough details to make the effects look polished and beautiful. David detailed how Cinema 4D made it all work, "The software is perfect for creating broad brushstrokes and then adding fine details. We do an awful lot of UI interface creation and there needs to be good handover processes between it and Adobe products like Illustrator and After Effects. We were swapping between Cinema 4D and After Effects with cameras going back and forth. With this constant overlap of software processes we can generate up to 30 - 40 screens for the next day of shooting. Normally you get into that position when you have spent a couple of weeks creating one or two hero screens. The director approves the look of those and then we roll out 40 screens based on them. It's not fun but you make quick decisions and find out what your limits are."

In the end, Territory spent four months working on Jupiter Ascending, rendering an estimated 20 minutes of visuals at 2k-resolution with its system of three Mac 3.5GHz six-core workstations. Nik concluded, "Cinema 4D is a great tool for getting good results quickly. By using the right blend of tools we managed to keep up with the high pace environment of film production. When the actors turn up you have to be ready to go and, thankfully, Cinema 4D is really robust, so you can do it."

Duncan Evans is the author of 'Digital Mayhem: 3D Machines,' recently published by Focal Press.

You can see more of the graphics from Jupiter Ascending here:

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