Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

Neill Blomkamp blew our minds with District 9, and now he's back with Elysium. We talked to concept artists and the movie's VFX producer to find out how they imagined a future space station, with the help of legendary designer Syd Mead. Here's our exclusive look inside the design of Neill Blomkamp's Elysium!

Top images: Aaron Beck/Weta. All images below via Titan Books, except where labeled.

Most of the images in this article are exclusive to io9 and come from Elysium: The Art of the Film by Mark Salisbury, which is a fantastic look inside the making of the film. It's jam-packed with horrifying concept art of Matt Damon having his skull ripped open and cybernetic implants placed inside, plus lovely views of the orbital space paradise. We also got a few images sent to us by Weta concept artist Aaron Beck.

The movie's villain was originally a robot

In early versions of the film, Kruger, the mercenary who goes after Matt Damon's Max, was a "police android," according to Weta's Christian Pearce. "A robot cop, if you will." Weta did a bunch of designs for the android Kruger, but then this got nixed and he was turned into a regular human.

In another version of the story, the human Kruger gets "wasted by Max in a battle," says Weta's Aaron Beck. And Kruger's brain gets "redeployed in a big badass robot, or in a synthetic bio-engineered prototype military creature." Weta came up with tons of concepts for this final version of Kruger as a cyborg or as a bioengineered weapon, before the idea was nixed.

Weta actually came on board this project very early, when the idea of a space station wasn't even part of the story. "The basic premise of a class struggle was there, but without any story specifics like the Elysium space station for example," says Beck. Blomkamp bounced lots of ideas off the Weta crew, who came up with designs for robots and weapons, allowing him to see which ideas would work and which wouldn't.

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

The exo-suit was originally way more brutal

According to Weta's Aaron Beck, the early versions of the "exo suit" that Matt Damon wears were downright horrifying:

Designing the exo-frames that Matt and Sharlto wear was a real highlight of the project for me. I've long been fascinated by the idea of exo-skeletal, 'bolt on brawn' concepts, and tapped into a lifetime of ideas and thinking when developing my designs. It was a pleasure to work with a director who had a similar concept in mind, in that the exo-frame should interface with the wearer, vastly supplementing their combined strength as one unit, as opposed to relegating the wearer to just being a pilot.

In my previous imaginings the bond was always nano-tech based with the exo-frame able to be put on and removed via near invisible ports in the wearers already augmented skin/body, but Neill was after something much more visceral. He wanted the installation surgery to be very brutal and at one stage involved the removal of Max's internal organs, which were replaced with a power cell, implanted in his torso. His bones and ligaments were also to be strengthened to take the strain of the powerful exo-frame which was to be bolted to them, leaving horrific scars all over his tattooed body. And the top of his skull was to be removed to gain access to the brain, for the control neural interface to be installed.

So yeah, the final result was somewhat scaled back.

In terms of the actual design of the exo-frame, I decided to use pistons and the idea of triangulation of the floating upper limb sections. The original concept had the base of each piston controlled in two axis, so that combined with the triangulation of the pistons in the way they connect the various floating pieces, would allow for a highly mobile exo-frame that looks unique.

The pistons would allow for an exciting visual element in the way they would extend and contract, allowing the actual physical prop to visibly showing power and articulation in a way that conventional servo motors like those seen in current military prototype exo skeletons do not.

Plus Neill loves pistons.

Creating a brand new space station

Elysium is the futuristic orbital habitat where the super-rich live, looking down on the Earth, like a more tropical and opulent version of West Beverly. And the design team broke the challenge of Elysium down to a "series of design challenges," including the superstructure, the spokes of the central hub, how it rotates and the layout of the luxury estates, according to Shawn Walsh, the movie's VFX producer and a producer at Image Engine Design in Vancouver.

A lot of the design of Elysium is based on discussions with the Jet Propulsion Lab, plus research into the idea of the Stanford Torus, says Walsh. The designers "tried to define what would actually have to happen to create an orbital habitat," and they "used these things as a jumping off point." They also looked at huge engineering projects like the Three Gorges Dam and Vancouver's BC Place Stadium, to make the engineering look as realistic as possible.

They tried various arrangements of the station's spokes, before settling on five spokes, which are clad in large fairings, like the shapes that appear on a Ducati or some other type of luxury car, says Walsh.

And the most important thing about creating this space station was to make it plausible according to physics, says Visual Effects Art Director Kent Matheson with Image Engine. They were creating a two-kilometer-wide space wheel, but it had to make sense of physics. Any time the design crew went too far into "gee whiz" territory, they were reined back in.

One important design imperative, says concept artist Mitchell Stuart with Image Engine: every single panel and part of Elysium had to look as though it could have been transported up separately from Earth and then assembled in orbit.

And the interesting thing about designing a space habitat like Elysium, says Matheson, is that "the atmospheric effects would be basically inverted from what we're used to.":

On Earth the continual increasing density of the atmosphere creates an effect called "aerial perspective" where visually things are more affected by the atmosphere the further they are away from us, getting more blue, less a saturated, disappearing, and this effect is always increasing the further objects move away from us because of the curvature of the Earth which is always down, away from us. On Elysium though the curvature is in the opposite direction, up, and while the atmosphere exists in a thin strip as it does on Earth because the curve is up the atmosphere stacks in density to a point but then begins to rise up through this to be visible above the ground. So one of the key cues we use to establish depth in visual effects was basically tossed away.

Syd Mead's design work

One of the most exciting things about Elysium is that legendary artist Syd Mead worked on the film. In Salisbury's book, Blomkamp talks about realizing that he could actually try and get "someone who was an icon of mine" to work on his movie. Blomkamp felt as though Mead is not just an important futurist, but also a master craftsman of the type that doesn't really exist any more, in the age of concept artists using Photoshop to crank out 300 images a day.

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

And Mead turned out to be a fan of District 9, especially the silhouette of the spaceship hanging in the air.

Mead came on board, and immediately changed the whole concept of how Elysium, the orbital habitat, would look. According to Salisbury's book, Mead took aerial photos of Beverly Hills and scaled them according to the size of the tennis courts — because tennis courts are always the same size — and then embedded a realistic Beverly Hills-style layout onto the torus. It was Mead who came up with the idea of adding lakes and rivers to Elysium to "balance the higher ring," because water will "find its own zero, it'll always balance out," as Blomkamp put it.

"There's a sense of proportion and elegance to what Syd designs," says Walsh. "In a lot of Syd's illustrations, you can't actually make out how something is fabricated, but for some reason you feel that it's totally plausible."

The crazy futuristic vehicles

Elysium has some really memorable flying vehicles, including the Raven, which is the sleek attack ship that Kruger (Sharlto Copley) flies. And the Immigrant Shuttle, the beat-up, destroyed-looking ship that the illegal immigrants use to try and get inside Elysium.

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

According to Weta's Pearce, the space shuttle flown by the rich factory owner Carlyle was originally conceived as a kind of humvee, a futuristic luxury APC. But Blomkamp kept pushing it more towards being "a Bugatti Veyron in space." Adds Pearce, "I did a heap more concepts, and Neill just kept pushing it closer and closer to a flying Veyron. I didn't realize he literally meant it was gonna be a Bugatti until I saw some art come through from their guys."

Meanwhile, Blomkamp hired legendary vehicle designer TyRuben Ellingson to work on the Raven, which Blomkamp described as a "bad ass" military vehicle which could move fast. Blomkamp mostly described the Raven in emotional terms, and once Ellingson turned in his designs, he gave some feedback like, "It needs to be leaner," or "bigger engines." In the end, Ellingson designed the shape of the Raven, while Christian Pearce did a paint and detail pass, coming up with the ship's camouflage, weathering and "cool grungy action," says Ellingson.

Filming vehicles that aren't there

Most of the vehicles in the film were purely computer-generated, but Blomkamp still wanted a "visceral" approach to filming them, according to Walsh. "He felt like those shots should be as real as if you're filming a real vehicle."

So the VFX team hired actual helicopters to perform the movements they wanted — like if the Raven was landing or taking off, they would film a helicopter landing or taking off. Then they'd remove the helicopter from the frame and insert their digital vehicles instead. That way, there would be a physical vehicle for the camera to respond to and frame up on.

There's only one actual physical model in the film — for a crash scene late in the movie, Turner Optical built a 1:6 scale model of one of the ships so they could film a physical ship crashing.

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

Not only that, but Walsh and his VFX team came up with a super-inventive way to film space sequences. Blomkamp wanted all of the CG space shots to look one of two ways: as though there's a camera operator in a space capsule, filming the action, so "as a vehicle whips by, you pan with it." Or else, as though there's a camera traveling along with a vehicle that's in motion. But the camera absolutely should not speed up or pull away from a spaceship, or any other sort of unrealistic camera move that you wouldn't see if you were filming some sort of vehicle on Earth.

So what Walsh's crew did, was to load an entire space scene into a motion capture volume, and then re-capture the scene using a virtual camera. They actually put a physical video camera inside a motion-capture rig, and then had it "virtually capturing the animation," Walsh explains. "So you're guiding the animation in the camera, and re-lensing it in the virtual camera, so it feels real."

The droids

You might be surprised to realize pretty much every droid in Elysium is digital, even though they look super-realistic and interact with the characters really well. "Any time a droid is moving, it's digital," says Walsh. The droid motion was captured from a performer in a gray suit — but this wasn't done at the time of filming, but afterwards on a soundstage.

The Weta designers experimented with making the droids look wildly different depending on their function, but Blomkamp kept wanting them to have the same basic chassis, says Pearce. Pretty much all of the robots in the film are the creations of Armadyne, the company where Max works, and "they cater to all levels of budget and functionality," says Pearce.

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

"For reference when designing things like this you just need to look at real world developments," Pearce adds. "The stuff from Honda, DARPA and Boston Dynamics, even down to production line robots — there's a never-ending supply of fully functional inspiration." But also, being at Weta Workshop, you're surrounded by cool machines that can provide a sense of inspiration.

Weta Workshop did initial designs for the droids in the movie, and built some partially assembled droids for some of the factory scenes. But Image Engine wound up adding a lot more details, trying to make the robots look as "lean and athletic and powerful" as possible, says Walsh. The droids were given a lot more gadgets and things they could do, including lights that could come on, spotlights that could shine on someone, laser targeting sights, and in one case the nose of a shotgun. These things gave the robots "a bit of business" they could do while interacting with people, says Walsh. Blomkamp wanted the sense that the security robots were constantly scrutinizing everything and maintaining total awareness of their surroundings.

And of course, all the droids on Earth had to look dirty and distressed, while all the droids on Elysium were shiny and perfect.

Turning Mexico City into Future Los Angeles

Most of the scenes of future L.A. were filmed in Mexico City, and according to Walsh they didn't require that many tweaks or alterations. "The vast majority of that photography was unaffected by VFX," says Walsh. They did add a few futuristic skyscrapers in the distance, and views of burning smokestacks, plus some power outages.

Blomkamp "wanted to be subtle" about making Mexico City look more futuristic, but they did add a fair bit of haze to some shots, along with "a general mucking-up of the frame," says Walsh.

According to Matheson, creating the future Los Angeles involved some real-life research, but also an amazing "what if" game:

Neill and the production designer Phil Ivey had done this amazing research where they had found the city planning documents showing what towers LA has actually approved to be built over the next 25 to 30 years and this was our starting point. We then created a model of exactly the buildings that currently exist in the city core and then had our modelers build out those designs of the towers that are planned and placed them where they they're going to be. So we had as a starting point this view of what Los Angeles is really going to look like in 30 to 50 years, with the correct styles and finishes. And then we broke it.

To break it, Neill had some very strict rules about how the city would develop, based on ideas about might happen if our infrastructures and resources were to be taken past sustainable levels but the population were to continue to expand. This was the basis of the favela concept applied to LA and the idea moving into these designs was that the towers, though built and developed in the current world, what would happen to them as the resources to maintain them were to disappear but more and more people were looking, desperately for places to live. We ended up with the idea of an LA core of towers that was essentially an aerial citystate unto itself, lived in and maintained by people who practically never left, creating this maze of bridges and extensions and levels.

And here's more of Aaron Beck's artwork, which he sent to us, plus one he posted on his website:

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS

Designing Elysium: All The Secrets of Neill Blomkamp's Stark FutureS