Oblivion - Creating the Futuristic Visual Effects for Joseph Kosinski's Latest Film

July 27, 2013 1:24 pm

Tags: Adobe, After Effects, C4D, Cinema 4D, Film, Maxon

When Joseph Kosinski asked Bradley “Gmunk” Munkowitz (http://work.gmunk.com/OBLIVION-GFX) to create futuristic user interfaces (FUI) for Oblivion, his latest feature from Universal Pictures, Munkowitz quickly brought together many of the same artists/friends he called upon for Tron: Legacy. This time around, though, their job was completely different. Unlike Tron, where the effects were done during post-production after everything had been shot, the effects for Oblivion were primarily in-camera. “It was exciting because not a single frame had been shot yet,” recalls lead graphics animator David “dlew” Lewandowski (http://dlew.me). “It was new territory for us because we had more control and more foresight on the project, so we were able to do some things to help set the tone for the graphics done later in post.”


Vika’s light table took on a life of its own in Oblivion.


The team, which also included lead graphics animator Navarro Parker (http://www.navarroparker.com) and lead graphic designers Joseph “Chanimal” Chan (http://www.josephychan.com/Oblivion) and Jake Sargeant (http://www.mn8studio.com), relied primarily on Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Adobe’s After Effects to produce a long list of assets, including Vika’s (Andrea Riseborough) light table, which took on a life of its own in the film. They also created cockpit elements for the “bubbleship,” a helicopter-like vehicle that Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) uses to travel to and from Earth and HUD (head-up display) elements for the many futuristic weapons and machines in the film.


The light table detects and decodes a Morse code signal from Jack. 


Cinema 4D’s speed and MoGraph features helped the team establish a consistent graphic language using Kosinski’s creative briefs, which stressed functionality and minimalism. He also wanted a bright, unified color palette that would read well on a black or white background. The most challenging part of the project was making the user interfaces they designed functional, since the characters needed to be able to interact with them in real time.


At the Sky Tower, Jack performs a pre-flight check of the Bubbleship before heading out on patrol.


“Joe always gave us clear direction on how to support his story, so that part wasn't as challenging as we always knew what had to happen,” he explains. “But to create something that satisfies our needs for the ornate while also being clearly functional and real world is always the most challenging part of UI design.”

Team Work

Munkowitz says he’s proud of the work his team created for the film. And he attributes the results to the artists’ friendship and talents, as well as Kosinski, himself. In addition to being actual friends outside of work, which makes working together more fun, every member of the team is immensely talented, he says. “Collectively, we raise the bar for each other every day because we sincerely care about, inspire and look after one another.”


While searching for Jack, a drone detects the bio-trail of two different DNA strands in the area. 


As for Kosinski, Munkowitz has always enjoyed working with him. In addition to having “really great taste,” the director, who is known for his CGI work, possesses the ability to give artists the freedom they need to do their best. “His concepts allowed the team to really push out some solid work, and I cherish the trust he has in our skills,” Munkowitz explains. It helped, he says, that rather than working at a large post-production house like they normally do, the team gathered primarily at Kosinski’s small studio, Crater Lake Productions. “It was a very intimate experience with the film as the audio guys, editors, producers and the director were all working in very close proximity to one another.”

Graphics Help Tell the Story

As they always do, Munkowitz and his team started work by amassing a vast array of reference images. After sketching out the foundation of their design ideas, they brought the animators into the process and started discussing how everything could work. Many of the HUDS were inspired by real-life flight simulation systems. And the idea was to give the interfaces and equipment used by Jack and Vika a similar look while making sure graphics and animations for the alien scavengers (Scavs)—that still prowl the Earth after nearly destroying it years earlier—looked much different.


Drone ship holograms were one of the many things David Lewandowski created for the film.


In the film, Vika’s light table, which included four large screens, takes up the bulk of a glass-walled room in the skytower she and Jack live in thousands of feet above the Earth. In addition to enabling her communication with their commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), on the mothership, Vika used the light table to remotely monitor Jack’s whereabouts and physical condition as he carried out his job of extracting Earth’s last-remaining resources. And she tracked weather conditions and monitored the fuel and ammunition status of machines such as drones, as well. All of the animations for the table were shot in-camera, allowing the actors to interact much more realistically with the controls.


Working with the director, Bradley Munkowitz designed the light table’s elaborate interface. 


Because so much of the story was told using the table, it was important to ensure that the graphics were versatile and attractive enough to be an integral part of every scene, recalls Lewandowski. Using Munkowitz’s design, he was able to get everything they wanted across in one giant, futuristic touchscreen interface. “We were worried initially that our blacks would end up being bright gray because of all of the glass in the skytower, but it was shot beautifully and everything read correctly.”


The Bubbleship’s HUD when in space mode. 


The bubbleship was the most impressive vehicle used by Jack in the film. Basing their designs on real-life flight simulators and combat helicopter interfaces, Munkowitz and the team gave the bubbleship graphics a futuristic aesthetic with believable functionality. UI appeared as a hologram that was embedded in the ship’s spherical, glass cockpit.

Working Out the Details

In addition to creating graphics and animations for gadgetry and equipment, Lewandowski also worked on more nuanced effects like the rogue signal. The animated, 3D waveform indicated the presence of aliens in the film and its look was dreamed up by Lewandowski after Kosinski told him that Vika was going to need to decode a signal and he needed to figure out what it would look like.

Staying late one night, Lewandowski says he decided to do what he thought was “instinctively” right. “I thought it needed to look like an equalizer, but one we’d never seen before, so I did about 40 tests and made a ton of Quicktimes to show Bradley.”




The rogue signal was designed completely in Cinema 4D. 


After Munkowitz chose his favorites, Lewandowski proceeded to make a signal consisting of a collision of planes run through a cloner and animated using MoGraph effectors. “I just tried to break the MoGraph cloner object a few different ways to make something cool,” he explains. “I’m always interested in breaking a tool to see if that does something interesting, or at least I can understand why its breaking.”

Parker liked Lewandowski’s rogue signal so much, he used C4D to modify it to create the look of the Morse code sequence Jack uses to let Vika know he’s safe. Jack taps out his message using two wires, giving the equalizer effect of the rogue signal a more sporadic feel. Parker also created the DNA sequence that Vika uses to track Jack’s location. “It was a perfect use of Cinema’s MoGraph tools because I was able to quickly animate many individual molecules as they assembled into a DNA helix,” he explains.




A drone detects a particle of DNA on the ground and relays a scan to Vika. Using her light table, she is able to reassemble the fragments to verify that Jack is in the area.


Once the initial DNA sequence was animated, it was easy to make variations for Kosinski to choose from and comment on. “The clients that understand how to trust their talent and collaborate with them efficiently are the ones you want to work with,” Munkowitz says. “Every time I’ve worked with Joe I’ve had this sense of freedom that’s very refreshing and fun. It’s nice to be trusted by your boss.”

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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Contact her at her website: www.slowdog.com




July 29, 2013

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