Those giant glowing spheres that trash Manhattan in the Day The Earth Stood Still remake took painstaking work — on everything from color schemes to the way they looked reflected in people's hazmat suit visors. We talked to production designer David Brisbin about reinventing a science fiction legend, and he explained why the new film is such a visual departure from the 1950s version.
Apart from the look of the trusty robot Gort, this film has left the 1950s design sensibility far behind, and Brisbin says that's a deliberate choice.
[Director] Scott Derrickson was very clear that the look of this remake had to be very different from the original. I agreed 100%. In 1951, no one had been to outer space. Today, EVERYONE has been to outer space – with Kubrick, with Lucas, with Neil Armstrong, with Spock. (Not to mention with the original Gort and Klaatu.) The audience innocent of outer space doesn't exist any more. For Scott, the key emotional marks to hit in this new version were FEAR and WONDERMENT. Everything we aimed for was about delivering those sensations in a 21st century context for a 21st century audience.
The most striking part of the new film are those huge glowing spheres, which you see dissolving everything.
Brisbin says everyone involved with the movie worked hard to get those right:
The colour and texture of the spheres was absolutely central for me in the overall palette and 'design mood' of the movie. Scott Derrickson made the final calls on precisely where we landed — but getting there was an intensely collaborative process; all the visual players in production, our producers, and the key creative heads in the studio were genuinely engaged with getting the spheres right. The sphere concept was one of the most radical departures from the 1951 movie, and we were all committed to orchestrating something that was viscerally sublime and technically graceful. Scott's basic emotional directives of FEAR and WONDERMENT were our 'guiding lights.'
I had strong feelings about the ideal colour zone for the spheres and we did hundreds of sphere studies in the art department. Our visual effects supervisor, Jeff Okun, brought critical insight to the table on how surface movement could contribute, and some great studies were done by pre-viz artists on his team. Our DP, David Tattersall, was concerned about how the coloured sphere light would interact with the actors' faces and hazmat helmets and did careful tests on that front. Obviously, a right answer could only come from an integration of design, CG and lighting concerns. In the end, I think we all felt confident that this dynamic surface, with the ability to change colour but rooted somewhere in the aqua realm, would hit all the essential marks.
The new TDTES includes scenes of New York getting trashed by Klaatu's spheres. So I asked Brisbin if he feels like movies like I Am Legend and Cloverfield have erased the post-9/11 taboo on destroying New York.
The decision over whether to set in New York (because the UN is there — a story point) or in Washington DC (as in the original) was very carefully and respectfully worked out between Scott Derrickson and the studio. The choice of NY was not taken lightly. But it felt like a right call to me for story reasons. As for taboos — in my personal opinion — time does not (and should not) erase historical tragedies; but Western story telling (right back to the Greeks) has always included the effort to find some solace by veering close to hard realities. That said, it does seem better not to be the first revive the traditional role of NY as a stand in for civilization, with all the hard story knocks that entails.
One thing that jumped out at me from the trailers was the fact that the humans take the alien Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) to a very sterile-looking facility, maybe underscoring how far away humans have gotten from nature. (Which plays into Klaatu's message that we're wrecking the planet.)
But Brisbin says he wasn't thinking in terms of making the Army facility look unnatural. Instead, he wanted to create a look that captured what present-day humans would consider advanced, so he could juxtapose that against the much more advanced human tech. "In some parts of the story, this pointed to clinical. In other parts of the story, it pointed to chaotic. When the story hits full burn, clinical and chaotic are both in play."
The one topic Brisbin couldn't really talk about was the design of the new Gort, which reportedly went through several different ideas before arriving at the fairly traditional version you've seen in the trailers. Brisbin says, "Can't talk about this one until the release except to say that it was an intense process and was taken very seriously by all involved!"
When not working on projects like Earth Stood Still, Brisbin has directed his own documentary about the role of hats in Cambodian culture, Nice Hat!. He's spent a lot of time in Asia, and sees his documentary as part of a focus on bringing people to places they've never been. I asked him if he thinks Asian futurism will become more influential in the 21st century. He says, "I think the West is already quite saturated with Asian influence (both futuristic and anachronistic) more than we tend to realize. I have no doubt that this will continue, along with all the rest of the global cross-pollination that engulfs us. The goal, surely, is sharing without making everything generic."
The Day The Earth Stood Still hits theaters next Friday, December 12.