Environment Design Supervision

Elysium, 2012
Director: Niel Blomkamp
Production Designer: Philip Ivey
Image Engine VFX
VFX Supervisor: Peter Muyzers
Design Team: Mitchell Stuart, Ravi Bansal, Ron Turner
2016 VES finalist Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project

I led the team at Image Engine that designed the Ring and environments of Elysium. Quite an experience.

The core team members on the design effort were myself, Mitchell Stuart, Ravi Bansal and Ron Turner. We designed believable physical environments for several distinct & vastly different areas of an entirely imagined world in incredible detail, exploring along the way ideas in physics, structural engineering, meteorology and history.

The environments we designed ranged from a gigantic orbital Ring structure and the various physical aspects of the thing such as what made it mechanically possible and how it was held together & reinforced & supported, to how it would be inhabited & populated, and what kept it functioning. There were designs for internal factories and external support structures, hangar bays, buildings, and for the topography and city plans of the Ring surface. On Earth we designed a Los Angeles city broken by neglect and overpopulation and a factory setting that was Matt Damon's own personal hell.

To do this we used combinations of sketches, collage and 3d geometry that fed straight into production. The design process started very late in the game and continued during production. We had to ramp up incredibly fast and continue as production was clamoring for elements to get into shots. During all this Neil brought more work to us and has us redesign several elements that been created previously, specifically the robots and a couple of the space ships.

I'm incredibly proud we took a small team through a design process involving everything mentioned above and more, and its a testament to Neil's vision and precision that we were as successful as we were in doing so.

Below is a representative selection of highlights of the process.

The Ring

"The Ring" is a giant man-made structure orbiting the earth. The idea is that those who can afford it have left to live instead on this supposed paradise. Development on the environment for this started late in production
The image to the left is one of the only Syd Mead Studies made for Elysium, and was the base image for our designs and efforts. It combines ideas and concepts he's developed over many years, and to the right is one his early studies for NASA from the 1970's. It was these two images that formed the base for our design.
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart. This was the image that hit the right note for the layout and feel of the inner ring.
Design blocking model, with Dirk Mauche. The ring was developed as a fully 3d object before the details and look were explored.
Early scale and shape explorations
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart & Ravi Bansal
Ring Spoke designs by Mitchell Stuart

The Buildings

Keyart with Mitchell Stuart
Keyart by Ron Turner
Initial model by Neil Blomkamp, rebuilds by myself and Ron Turner.

The Hangar

Keyart by Ron Turner. The final design for the Elysium Main Hangar, used for main deportation scene from the opening of the film. The ship designs are by George Hull.
Model by Juan Pablo. This is is an indication of Neil's design sense and what we were always trying to hit, thats its very much about layering. When designing Elysium Neil always asked that although there be a beautiful 'skin' covering the environments there also always be hints of interior chaos and machinery visible - which is very much reflected in the characters who dominate the state of Elysium, they're very elegant & controlled on the surface but are capable of dark and horrific acts. But the first thing we see is the beautiful covering, and then we begin to wonder "what are those dark patches…". So the environment designs hopefully will communicate some sense of why this is.
Ron Turner. Studies for the walls and panelling.

The Lower levels

Underneath the beautiful and natural upper layer of the Ring is lower level of the factories and farms that keep it all running.
Keyart with Ron Turner

Los Angeles

On earth the idea is that overpopulation combined with gross depletion of natural resources has devastated cultures. Cities have grown into massively over-populated sprawls. We took our inspiration for Los Angeles from the mega cities of South America and combined a believable future with vertical favellas.
Keyart with Mitchell Stuart.
Though the world has broken down and is pretty much held together by patches & tape theres a sense that the chaos of life is everywhere and that humanity still has the seeds and capability to grow and change, because of this mash. Graffiti is evident everywhere in this environment and Neil was particularly precise about the style and types. The graffiti is used in this environment I think is an expression of humanity trying to break away past the confines and walls of an environment its been forced into, that the graffiti is an expression of creativity not destruction.
These two images were the model we used to determine how we'd be building Los Angeles. On the left is a representation of Los Angeles as it currently exists and the image on the right is Los Angeles with buildings added from the actual LA city plan over the next couple decades. The production designer had gotten the info from the LA city planning department and this was basis for how we began thinking about the future Los Angeles.

The Factory

The main layout for the Earth Factory, blocking in basic groups and areas.
A couple initial model layouts and a photo of the set.
In living colour.

The base idea of the film is contrasts - between the rich of Elysium and the poor of Earth, between the designed & developed Orbital Ring and the overgrown & rebuilt slums of Earth, and - most importantly - between the harsh or gentle natures of people, what they're capable of, what they're used to doing, what the world they live in forces them to be, and what they may have to do or become to break out of it. The most important thing to keep in mind in any design for an environment is how it relates to and supports the ideas being shown by the characters and story in the film.

What Neil has done in this film thats pretty interesting is to bring both of the ideas of a utopian and a dystopian future together in one vision and attempt to show us both possibilities. Whats shown in this film is both how good it can get, and how bad - both in the environment and also in our own nature - what he's trying to do with the story is to show that we're products of the world we live in but also that the choices we make along our journey through it affects & influences us and the world around us. All in one kick-ass cool package.

I hope the environments we designed have supported these ideas.