With a looming summer season packed with post-apocalyptic sci-fi–from “After Earth” (May 31) and “World War Z” (June 21) to “Elysium” (August 9) — it’s a good thing that director Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion” is first out of the gate. This Tom Cruise-starrer about a blue collar drone repairman haunted by dreams of a woman he’s never met stands apart from the competition, mainly because architect and video game designer Kosinski’s follow-up to “Tron: Legacy” is a passion project he’s been developing for eight years that allows him to strut his visual stuff.
The philosophical “Oblivion” mines the depths of the genre with elements of thriller, mystery,
action, and romance, wrapped around a prevailing sense of melancholy countered by a brighter watercolor design aesthetic that recalls the works of illustrators Chris Foss and Peter Elson. While “Oblivion” also can’t escape riffing on such sci-fi faves as “La Jetee,” “Planet of the Apes,” “2001,” “The Omega Man,” “Silent Running,” and “Blade Runner,” it also offers a more vulnerable Cruise, which adds gravitas to his usual hot-shot heroics — along with pitting him against powerful antagonist Morgan Freeman.
“I loved the idea of fundamentally taking a small cast of characters and a drama that is very personal but then raising the stakes much, much larger than that,” Kosinski explains. “And asking really big questions about what is that makes us who we are and why are we here? For me, the greatest movies are the ones that ask those questions even if they don’t answer them all. I wanted the audience to walk away from this film and have something to discuss afterward.”
Shot in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Iceland, “Oblivion” is the antithesis of “Tron: Legacy.” After being confined inside a computer, Kosinski wanted to step out into the real world and shoot a sci-fi “Lawrence of Arabia” as much as possible in camera with its own desolate beauty. At the same time, he went up in the clouds in a gorgeous glass Sky Tower where Cruise lives with his seductive communications partner Andrea Riseborough, awaiting instructions from the Tet space station (a monolithic inverted pyramid) when they can join the rest of the survivors on Saturn’s Titan moon.
Unlike the “Tron” sequel, though, Kosinski cut down the use of CG and did something rather noteworthy in shooting the Sky Tower sequence totally in camera, which alleviated a reflective light problem with all the glass. Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”) developed an ultra high-resolution front projection system (500-foot wide and 42-foot tall with 21 projectors) that was overseen by PRG.
“We went to the Haleakala volcano in Maui for a week and, with three cameras strapped together, shot these panoramas of clouds and sunrises and sunsets,” Kosinski continues. “And then we reprojected that footage on the projectors around the set [in real-time] so that there is no blue screen in the background. Not only are you creating the background in the image but you’re also lighting the set with that projection so that it creates a very natural situation that you could never achieve with blue screen. It looks great [and the actors enjoyed being in a real environment].
“This movie, which would normally be 1,600 visual effects shots, had half the amount. And then the job of [VFX] was to place those elements in these landscapes we shot in Iceland and make it feel as grounded as possible. And I’m happy to say that we did most of this work in Los Angeles with Digital Domain and Pixomondo. With all the talk about outsourcing, this was fantastic.”
VFX supervisor Eric Barba and Digital Domain (who worked on “Tron: Legacy”) created CG models of the drones, the Tet, and the hydro rigs and were responsible for the stadium sequence, the Raven Rock attack, and the climax. Pixomondo (which won the Oscar for “Hugo”) stitched the Sky Tower footage together and created the CG Sky Tower and bubble ship that Cruise drives, as well as exterior cloud and storm environments under the supervision of Bjorn Mayer.
“Oblivion” was shot digitally at 4K using the new Sony F65, which provided great dynamic range, held the highlights, and shows off the textures really well in the Sky Tower sequence. Kosinski was also thrilled about the added detail that goes with the large-format IMAX presentation (reformatted at 1.89:1).
“Despite the technical challenges of ‘Tron,’ this felt like a real film,” adds Kosinski, who created an illustrated novel as a pitch tool with images of the Sky Tower, the bubble ship, and the Empire State Building, which then got into the hands of Cruise, who actually approached him to star in the movie. “I knew that to make an original film like this, I needed a big movie star at the center of it. I also knew that I needed an incredible actor to carry off the range of emotions. He’s in a relationship and dreaming of someone else, and she suddenly drops in his lap and it changes his world.”
What next? “Tron 3,” whose first draft was recently turned in by Jesse Wigutow? We already know that Kosinski’s exec-producing the upcoming “Ballistic City” series for AMC. “I’m not sure yet what my next movie will be. Science fiction is great but I might want to do something else. I’m reading all kinds of scripts and trying to find something I like.”
Passion projects are a hard act to follow.