The secret to "Tomorrowland" for Brad Bird is that it’s more about the journey than the destination, which explains why it’s such a subversive Disney fantasy/adventure, despite the pedigree and star power of George Clooney. Because once we get there, it’s not at all what it seems and there are no simple answers. Yet Bird and producer/co-writer Damon Lindelof still consider it more of a fun popcorn movie than a preachy, good-for-the-soul tonic.
"We also hope that if our popcorn sticks to the ribs, that’s a good thing," Bird said. "Underneath it all, we want to be heading toward a positive place. And we were trying to make a fable about just that."
But getting there is nerve-racking for Casey (Britt Robertson), which is why her so-called "Pin Experience" is so brilliantly executed. The eternally optimistic teen is like Dorothy in search of Oz, and with the touch of a special pin she gets tantalizingly close but can’t quite gain entrance.
There are actually three iterations of Tomorrowland: the 1964 version that’s under construction and tied to the New York World’s Fair, where Walt Disney premiered "It’s a Small World," "The Carousel of Progress," the animatronic Mr. Lincoln, and "The PeopleMover"; the complete 1984 version that Casey glimpses, with glistening architecture and cool hover rails, jetpacks and space ships; and the dystopian version, where the amazing dream has turned incredibly wrong.
"Damon and I were wondering: When did a dark vision of the future be seen as the only realistic version of the future? What does that do? We shape the future every day and if everyone is throwing in the towel, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
For Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Life of Pi"), it was about being naturalistic if slightly pushed for dramatic effect, while relying on real-world points of reference. The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, was utilized, along with a massive set the size of a football field with a functioning monorail.
"Initially Brad wanted to shoot 65mm film," Miranda recalled. "He also considered shooting Tomorrowland digitally and the real world would be film. We discussed using five different cameras but I think you handcuff yourself doing things like that. So I did the test of all tests: I strapped seven cameras on a piece of truss and put it on a shot maker. After running them side by side, we decided on the Sony F65."
Miranda particularly enjoyed shooting the "Pin Experience," which was also one of the most challenging sequences.
"She’s walking around this space but she’s not really in Tomorrowland," he continued. "It’s a strange reality because she’s able to board trains and go through tunnels and there’s stuff happening around her. There’s a lot of pulsing of light and moving around to make it feel like she’s really moving and in motion—there’s nothing stagnant.
"It goes from stage to exterior lot to Spain. The subway car she rides is on a stage with blue screen and moving, interactive lights to emulate the sun. As a technical thing, we were trying to bridge all of these pieces shot months away from each other. There was a lot of future predicting, so I had to forecast the sun positioning with charts. And we had to be shooting this scene between 10:00 am and 12:00 pm at this location and hope to God there’s sun because I’m making sun on stage.
"Later, when they’re on a platform looking at the world, we built an interactive LED panel that surrounds them (60 feet in diameter with a ceiling). And I basically played the media so what’s lighting them is true media and I wanted that to be the only key light. And we had it projection-mapped so it hit all these circles. George said it felt like he’d been through this on ‘Gravity.’ I created a similar LED lightbox for him as well but I made it more cylindrical. It was a little bit larger because I had more people to deal with."
"Even getting lit up at an early age and getting the chance to participate in a rare experience," added Bird, who interned at Disney as a teen under the tutelage of the great Milt Kahl before returning for a bittersweet stint as an animator with John Lasseter and Tim Burton after graduating from CalArts. "I connect with that as well. My relationship with Disney is good and it’s had its bumps but I think that’s what the movie is about: the future is a constantly moving thing and any time you look at it as something that’s set absolutely, then you’re taking part in a way in killing it."
The interesting thing about Bird is that his animated movies are as smart as any live-action features and his live-action movies are as animated as the best ‘toons. It’s all a matter of finding the right storytelling fit. Good thing for all of us that he’s returning to Pixar with "The Incredibles 2," which he’s in the throes of writing, trying to get back ahead of the superhero curve.
Meanwhile, Bird has nothing but praise for Pete Docter’s new Pixar gem, "Inside Out."
"I enjoyed it very much," he offered. "I was there five years ago when Pete first pitched the idea and everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be really hard to do.’ But it’s such a great idea. I think it’s a very bold film and I’m very excited for Pete. Not knowing what’s coming next! That’s good for the movies!"
"Tomorrowland" is in theaters today.