Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

Creating an alien invasion from scratch takes amazing design skills. Good thing TyRuben Ellingson, the designer who's worked on Avatar, Hellboy and several other movies, was on the case. Ellingson talked to us about creating an overwhelming alien strike force.

Ellingson worked on Battle: Los Angeles as a conceptual designer, and he mostly designed the aliens' hardware — but he was part of the design process of creating every aspect of this extraterrestrial onslaught. Learn about the kind of world the aliens come from, and how the aliens feel about being bogged down in a war against the Earthlings. Also, Ellingson talked to us about his work on the post-apocalyptic vampire movie Priest — including one crazy vehicle.

We've also rustled up a ton of concept art from the film, by various artists. Minor spoilers below...

We've read that a lot of the movie's design concepts originally came from the artwork of Paul Gerrard, which director Jonathan Liebesman found online. Are there any images in particular which proved especially influential on the alien designs? What was it about Gerrard's art that appealed to you guys?

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

Paul's work really connected with something deep inside Jonathan, and sparked his imagination in a manner that actually took me a good bit of time to wrap my head around.

The potency of Paul's work is more about what it provokes in the viewers mind than what is actually there on the page (or on the computer monitor). The impression one gets from his work is truly more than the sum of its parts, so it was very complicated and in many ways difficult to reproduce in the real wold what was exciting about Paul's paintings.

That said, this was the directors mandate, and he never let go of what he saw in the work. We took it a step at a time, worked with a number of talented artists and sculptors, some people over at Spectral Motion, Hiroshi Katagiri comes to mind, and slowly the pieces fell into place — the facets of what worked in the Paul Gerrard artwork showed themselves and it was all pulled together.

I read somewhere that you worked on the alien ships and weaponry in Battle: Los Angeles. How closely did you have to work with the designers who worked on the actual aliens, to make sure that their bodies would fit with the environments and controls you were designing for them?

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

When Jonathan (the director) first contacted me, he had already been working for a good amount of time with Paul Gerrard, and had personally shot and digitally manipulated a series of conceptual test shots that "hinted at" his vision of the larger film. When I came onboard, he had already shared these tests with the Studio and everyone was enthusiastic about where he wanted to go with the project; myself included.

All this as it was, the test shots and the artwork Paul had created were in many meaningful ways mysterious — they contained the essence of what Jonathan wanted, but it was all still largely conceptual.

Paul's work is potent and inventive — however, it is also very moody. Most of his alien designs existed in a kind of smoky void, rather then the streets of Los Angeles.

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

Therefore, the first thing I attempted to do when I joined the show was to dissect what was there in the artwork and the tests shots that grew from them and help move the strong conceptual elements into the larger real world of the film — I endeavored to translate the essence of what was already successfully hinted at into something more understandable and/or concrete.

While this exercise was underway, ideas about the the weapons and alien technology grew out of the process — they were always interconnected. As a matter of fact, much of the back story of the aliens evolved from this design curve. We had conversations about the hows and whys of the aliens and their war machines all the time, and I often sat in on story meetings to share my thoughts and embellish ideas that found their way onto the table. It was a very organic process.

The aliens seem like they have a very H.R. Giger vibe to them, even though they're totally different than the Xenomorphs in Ridley Scott's Alien. Is that intentional?

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

In my twenty odd years of doing design work in Hollywood, I've never been in a meeting about aliens, or creatures for that matter, where Giger's alien did not come up at least once, if not multiple times. Of course this is not at all a surprise as it is such an iconic design, and in many meaningful ways, it just owns so much turf — so much visual real-estate. If it is shiny and in the dark, it can't help to speak of the Giger alien.

This as it is, we did want the aliens in B:LA to have a different vibe, and though you can see some echo of Giger in Paul's work, I don't think that's the impression one will get from the film.

There's been a lot of talk about how Battle: LA is a war movie with aliens. Did that factor into the process of designing the alien hardware? Did you aim for a grittier feel than some other projects you've worked on?

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

From day one, Jonathan talked about wanting this picture to be about real war and grounded in human conflict. We often looked at video from embedded reporters in the field and footage of real world weapons being used in combat.

He referenced the films of Paul Greengrass, and of course Black Hawk Down. It was always about soldiers under pressure in tough and very real situations, gritty, confusing, dangerous, rough and relentless. Only the enemy was different.

All of these concepts greatly effected the design of the alien technology. There needed to be some parity in the regards to the potency of the fighting forces, human vs. alien. The aliens have advantages, but the margins are not as great as in other films like War Of The Worlds.

The alien forces are working and waging war under the same kinds of duress as the human forces — it's hard work to wage war.

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

The alien war craft and weapons are not brand new out-of-the-box machines, they've been deployed before, repaired and had parts swapped out. I tried to bring that kind of sensibility to the work, and keep the functionality real — explosive weapons, chemicals, fire, heat, fuel, simple working parts, violence, arrogance, destruction.

How deep did you get into figuring out what the aliens' home planet was like? Did you think about their architecture, or the way they used appliances at home?

These things were talked about a great deal, but at the end of the day, the themes and ideas uncovered in such confabs provided a conceptual foundation for us internally, rather then having a big impact on what shows up on screen.

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

What became very clear to us is that wherever these alien forces are from, it is a place of chaos. They are a desperate power who is here under high stakes circumstances, the exact nature of these themes is left a great deal to the audience's imagination.

From the trailers, it looks like there are a number of different types of attack vehicles that the aliens use in their attacks, including aerial vehicles, land vehicles and undersea vehicles. How many different types are there, and how did you distinguish them?

I can't speak with authority about this until I actually see the final cut of the film, as we designed a great number of vehicles. Last I spoke with the director, some of the more innovative land craft we came up with did not make it in, but this may have changed. I can tell you we really had some interesting things designed.

You also worked on the upcoming movie Priest. In that case, how closely did you feel you needed to stick to the comic book source material?

I have personally never looked at the graphic novel. The director, Scott Stewart, provided me his thoughts and a list of tasks, and then asked me to really run with the ball in a manner that I felt was interesting and inventive. Scott, as was the case with Jonathan, was a fan of my work well before we met, so really wanted my take on the designs — a real compliment which I greatly appreciate.

Was there a lot more freedom in designing a post-apocalyptic world, where our world had been torn down completely?

My take on the work I did for Priest was that it needed to reflect the style articulated by Scott, it needed to support his vision. This as it is, as I described, I felt empowered to do what I thought was cool, as long as I took into account the direction the larger vision of the film was heading. As with B:LA I was brought in very early, so in some regards helped shape or refine some of what was going on with the look of the overall film, but again, this was more of a conceptual process, me sharing thoughts and ideas with the director rather then the creation of specific designs.

One element I had a big hand in creating is a Vampire Train engine, which was designed to be the embodiment of power and aggression in this alternate reality vampire world. It was a real blast, it's a real crazy beast of a machine.

What's next for you? What are you working on now?

As of late, I've been working with Neill Blomkamp, doing a bit of design work for his Elysium project, exciting stuff. Beyond that, it's a bit premature to say, but it's looking like it will be a interesting year, I'm inspired and excited about what's on the horizon. Life is good.

Inside the fiendish designs of Battle: Los Angeles' alien war machines

At left: Artwork from one of Ellingson's personal projects, The Wire Witch.

Battle: Los Angeles concept art via Paul Gerrard, Movie Viral and Its Art Mag