There have been many groundbreaking film productions over the last few years but Inception is described as one of the few that has been designed entirely in-house. This means from the early stages of concept right through to post production. I looked at the company of Double Negative who took on the massive job of creating dream states in which streets fold in on themselves, huge cities crumble into the sea and scenes where the physical fabric of the universe appears warped and illusionary.
My main task with looking at Inception was to pin down what the production designer does when such a vast amount of visual effects are used. The answer was surprisingly quite a lot in terms of previz.
I looked at the company itself, the articles written and many videos that flesh out different aspects of the production process.
The research is broken down into:-
The design overview
The Production Designer and some of the processes
Double Negative, CGI departments and software (pre-viz to post production)
Director:- Christopher Nolan
Designer:- Guy Hendrix Dyas
Budget:- $160,000,000 (estimated) (sourced from http://www.imdb.com on 28/06/2014)
Production Designer Guy Dyas and his art department team gathered an extensive library of architectural reference, which the vfx team then built upon through post production to develop a strong language of structure and style that drew heavily upon the history of modern architecture throughout the 20th century, especially for the climactic scenes in Limbo. (DESOWITZ, B. 2010)
In terms of building blocks, the Production Designer was involved from the start. It was important to have coherence throughout. Dyas’s team had provided concepts of what various cities were to look like such as the dream state Paris, how it would look when it was folded but no images of how it would go from normal to folded. This was worked out through collaboration. What was groundbreaking at the time was the daylight photo realism of the buildings as a lot of the scenes were filmed during the day. It had to look real, and the visual research that the art department contributed to that. Dneg team raised the bar in terms of realistic architectural lighting in CG. Many of the dream states were designed from locations and through the art departments concepts. Limbo city itself ended up being designed in CG because of the complexity of how it would be achieved, using CG 3D software such as Maya and Houdini and was inspired by collapsing glaciers.
VFX were used to design certain elements of the film due to the surreal nature of some of the scenes.
What was surprising were the number of traditional techniques used alongside CG.
“As with his previous films, Chris got as much in camera as possible and previs became extremely important in technically demanding moments like the Penrose steps: the impossible, ‘endless staircase’ made famous in the drawings of M.C. Escher,” Franklin relates. “For the high angle shot of the looping staircase and the subsequent reveal of the forced-perspective trick, the camera had to be placed in precisely the right position above a carefully designed set. We carefully mapped the distortion patterns of all of the camera department’s lenses and the Aleks Pejic team used them to work out the exact shape and dimensions of the set and what kind of shot would be achievable within the limitations of the location and the available camera setup. The camera, mounted on a 50-foot telescopic crane, had to swing down through a 45-foot arc. At the apex of the move, it had no more than two inches of clearance with the ceiling, so Dneg’s previs had to be spot on.” (FRANKLIN,P., Cited, 2010)
Many of the explosions were made using locations and traditional special effects techniques The three videos I found via YouTube go into more detail about how this was done for various scenes.
There were many cases of actual sets being built and only a small amount of CGI work done. One example was the Penrose Steps scene in which stairs were built in such a way to create an illusion. This needed to be precise to work and is another example of how the Production Designer works with the Director at pre-viz stage in science fiction. If they can do it as a set instead of digital matte/animation, then they would do it. Sometimes it’s the preference of the Director.
Dyas also pointed out a telling sign of Nolan’s directorial philosophy: if you look at the accompanying image, you will see scaffolding supporting the stairs. Most other directors would use a green screen to create the effect: Nolan wanted the stairs built, and then used visual effects only to remove the scaffolding and complete the illusion. “Only about 5 percent of the scenes in this film actually use green screen,” Dyas says. “You’re talking about a film that has real rotating corridors, elevator shafts that were built sideways in warehouses so that it would appear 300 feet long. We have tilting bars, real trains smashing into cars.” (LOPEZ, J., 2011)
The Penrose Steps:- Inception. Available at:- http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2011/01/inception (photo by Stephen Vaughan)
It’s clear that it takes a collaborative approach to produce a film like Inception. It had to look real, which meant the best available photorealistic software combined with traditional methods that the art department could provide like scale models and actual built sets. It’s about using the best tools for the job. Sometimes VFX works for some design as the artists possess the skills to animate a difficult scene, other times it’s better to use a set designed and built by the Production Designer and art department, using CG to paint in or remove support structures.
DESOWITZ, B., VFX from Inception. Available at http://www.awn.com/vfxworld/vfx-inception [sourced on 13/05/2014] 2010.
LOPEZ, J., Inception Production Designer Guy Dyas: “Only 5 Percent of Our Scenes Used Green Screen” . Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2011/01/inception [sourced on 28/06/2014] Vanity Fair, 2011.
[All sourced on 13/05/2014]