Building a Future
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 3: (May/Jun 2015)

Building a Future

“A place where the best and brightest people in the world came together…” says Frank Walker, George Clooney’s character in Disney’s sci-fi action/adventure/mystery Tomorrowland. Frank is describing the film’s fictional Tomorrowland, which draws from Disney’s three generations of theme parks and Walt Disney’s futuristic visions. 

But, “best and brightest” could as easily be said for the film’s production. Two-time Oscar-winner George Clooney, of course. Two-time Oscar-winner Writer/Director Brad Bird. Writer Damon Lindelof, who received an Emmy for “Lost.” Oscar-winning Composer Michael Giacchino. Oscar-winning Cinematographer Claudio Miranda. Emmy award-winning Production Designer Scott Chambliss. And, providing a majority of the visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, which has accumulated 16 Oscars and 33 Oscar nominations over the years. Craig Hammack and Eddie Pasquarello supervised ILM’s work.

In the film, Frank, a disillusioned, grumpy former boy genius, and Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright, optimistic teenager, take on a seemingly impossible mission: discover the secrets in a place called Tomorrowland, which exists who knows where in space and time.

Young Frank Jet-packs through a Tomorrowland under construction in 1964.

“The way Brad and Damon tell the story, it’s made of fun chunks that come together for an adventure,” Hammack says. “The city [of Tomorrowland] is the goal in the movie, but you don’t spend a ton of time inside any one development of the city. The film is made of many individual gags.”

Nor did the filmmakers spend time in any one place. In total, the film has more than 90 different combinations of sets and locations, including the It’s a Small World ride in Disneyland and the Carousel of Progress in Walt Disney World; a Bahamian beach; Paris; the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain; Cape Canaveral in Florida; a winter wheat farm in Pincher Creek, Alberta, Canada; and a cornfield in British Columbia. One practical set, the Bridgeway Plaza, which took six months to build, is half the size of a football field and features a fully functional monorail.

Even so, the majority of ILM’s work was in creating digital environments and set extensions, according to Pasquarello. 

Tomorrowland Times Three

“We visit Tomorrowland three times,” Pasquarello says. “When Frank was a child in 1964, again in 1984, and the third, when things go wrong.”

In the film, the 1964 Tomorrowland is under construction, the 1984 version is an idealized city seen in a vision, and the third is a dystopian version of Tomorrowland. Although Disney’s first Tomorrowland opened in 1955, it was Walt Disney’s vision of tomorrow for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair that captured the imagination of Tomorrowland Writer Lindelof and, soon, Writer/Director Bird. 

It began with a mystery box discovered accidentally in a Disney Studios closet. The box, labeled “1952,” contained models and blueprints, photographs, and letters related to the inception of Tomorrowland and the 1964 World’s Fair. Lindelof imagined that the contents were a guide to a secret story that nobody knew, and a place called Tomorrowland that was not a theme park but existed somewhere in the real world. 

So, the Tomorrowland writers send young Frank to the World’s Fair. He is carrying, in his backpack, a jet pack that he made from Electrolux vacuum cleaner parts. He visits the Carousel of Progress and sees a demo of the Probability Machine in the IBM pavilion. When he sits on a bench, a character named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives him a pin. Odd. Frank picks up his pack, moves on, and sneaks aboard a Small World boat. 

“We had to faithfully re-create Disney rides at the World’s Fair, true to what they looked like in 1964,” Pasquarello says. “We were able to use some things that they shot in Disney theme parks, and then did set extensions – the Pepsi booth, the Tower of the Four Winds. We used the water ride entrance at Disney and added a monorail.”

As the Small World boat nears the Eiffel Tower, a laser scans Frank’s new pin. The track drops, becomes a ramp, and shoots the boat downward. Frank is alone, underneath Small World, in a secret passage, and on his way to Tomorrowland. 

After Frank enters Tomorrowland, he finds his way to the top of an unfinished skyscraper.  From there, he sees builder robots hard at work, and he meets one named Goliath (see “Animating Giants,” page 10). When a series of events causes him to fall, he straps on his homemade jet pack, and, in an all-CG shot, takes us on a great fly-through of Tomorrowland under construction.

“The environment is all ours,” Pasquarello says. “Brad [Bird] wanted everything in an under-construction phase. The art director, Scott Chambliss, worked with a lot of people here for years.”
Thang Le, ILM’s visual effects art director, spent three years designing environments for the film with help from Concept Artist Brett Northcutt. The artists imagined buildings in their finished form and under construction.

“Although we were inspired by a retro future, a ’50s view of the future, we also looked at contemporary and green architects,” Northcutt says. “Zaha Hadid. Santiago Calatrava. The MAD architects in China.”

At top, the entrance to the 1964 World’s Fair created by artists at Industrial Light & Magic. At Bottom, ILM artists also built the 1984 Tomorrowland seen in a vision.

Northcutt pages through concept art on his monitor. U-shaped buildings. X-shaped buildings. Spirals. Buildings covered with plants.

“Brad pushed us to do sculptural and whimsical shapes,” Northcutt says. “Tomorrowland has technology that makes physics unnecessary, so we drew buildings inspired by fern fronds. Thang did tree-inspired buildings that are mostly gardens. There were six of us throwing out ideas as fast as possible.”

The team then created the city using buildings and aspects of buildings that Bird preferred. Le primarily worked in The Foundry’s Modo (formerly from Luxology) to create the buildings, flying cars, and other objects in Tomorrowland. Northcutt, who came from a digital matte-painting background, relied on Adobe’s Photoshop and Autodesk’s 3ds Max.

“Once the generalist [the digital matte-painting] group put the city together, we realized that some areas weren’t tall enough and the shapes looked too conventional,” Northcutt says. “So we went for more sculptural buildings. We moved buildings around to give the idea of a swooping landscape. We added a waterfall and Space Mountain from Disneyland. Then Thang [Le] spent time coming up with a final design.”

To show the futuristic buildings under construction, Le designed an extruder that 3D-printed a building made from rings. 

“The extruder fires up and makes non-concentric rings to form a helix,” Northcutt says.
Finally, to change the ideal world into one overcome by destruction, the artists chose not to add wear and tear to the buildings. Instead, they created the dystopian Tomorrowland using both lighting and mood. 

“Designing a city with all that detail was hard,” Northcutt says. “When you’re just designing individual buildings, you can pull from a lot of sources. But, getting them to sit in the environment with a sense of urban planning was daunting. We tied them together using a super tower in the background. Tomorrowland needed to look iconic from a distance.” 

The audience will first see that iconic look beneath the Disney logo in the opening of the film.

1984 All Over Again

It’s the teenage girl Casey, cast as a modern-day Frank, who visits the idealized 1984 Tomorrowland. The story takes place in 2014-2015, but when Casey receives a pin identical to the one Athena had given Frank 50 years earlier, the pin sends her back in time to 1984. 

“The only time we see Tomorrowland flourishing is in Casey’s pin experience, which is only a vision,” Pasquarello says. “She takes a five-minute walk through all of Tomorrowland and experiences the full Utopian vision.”

Although her walk plays as one continuous shot, several locations provided the setting. Compositors at ILM pieced together 15 individual parts shot on Steadicam in Canada (British Columbia and Alberta), Spain, and Florida, to create the fantasy world. 

The shot begins with Casey in a wheat field. 

“The gag is that she thinks she’s in Tomorrowland, but she’s in her current reality,” says Compositing Supervisor Francois Lambert. “Then she hits an invisible wall.”

On location, Casey – that is, Britt Robertson – mimed pressing her fingers against a window. ILM artists added white spots to make the pressure convincing and re-positioned her hands.
“She didn’t really lock her hands into place,” Lambert says. “We placed the geometry of the hands in 3D space and placed her hands over the geometry to see how much sliding she was doing. We warped her hands to match her performance to the 3D hands, articulated her arm to keep her hands in position, and reconstructed the wheat field.”

Then, the compositing action really began. Lambert points to the monitor and counts eight different moments – plates shot in eight different locations – that they needed to stitch together seamlessly.
“Basically, she’s experiencing life in Tomorrowland,” Lambert says. “In the big reveal, we have swimmers diving down from one floating pool to another. We needed to make that look realistic. For shots inside the monorail, we stitched two or three plates together: one shot on bluescreen in Vancouver and another shot in Valencia.”

When the pin starts to run out of time, Casey gradually moves from her visionary trip into Tomorrowland back into the real world.

“You see her starting to get wet, then she’s walking through water, and in 10 seconds, she’s inside a swamp in Florida,” Lambert says. “So, the shot starts with her in a wheat field, journeys through the city, and ends up in a swamp. It was the biggest work we had to do in terms of time and resources. And, it’s all in 4k HDR, which added to the complexity.”

Paris to the Moon

In addition to the Tomorrowland environments, ILM artists worked on a major sequence set in Paris.
“Casey and Frank try to get back to Tomorrowland physically,” Pasquarello says. “Not through the pin vision. They do that through the Eiffel Tower.”

An Eiffel tower created at ILM splits open as a rocket bursts from below ground.

Supposedly, so the story goes, a secret society called Plus Ultra (+U) – founded by Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Gustave Eiffel – created Tomorrowland. (Later members included Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Amelia Earhart, and Walt Disney, among others.) The goal was to build an advanced world without interference.

In 1889, the clandestine collaborators met for the first time in Eiffel’s private apartment at the top of the tower. 

“Plus Ultra built a rocket that could take our heroes to Tomorrowland, and they put it under the Eiffel Tower,” Pasquarello says. 

To re-create the Eiffel Tower in CG, Pasquarello took a crew to Paris to film the famous structure inside and out. 

“I was in secret stairways,” Pasquarello says. “In crevices behind walls. In workers’ passageways. In the center. At all times of day, doing a full-HDRI photo survey.”

During the film, the tower splits apart as if it were unzipping, and the rocket emerges. To create the shot, the compositors worked with plates shot in Paris and the CG tower built at ILM.

“We stitched the plates into a dome and put a camera inside,” Lambert says. “We stopped traffic in the images because people would stop and look. In a shot of the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower, they filmed a set for the top part and we added smoke. In another shot, the staircase is real, but it’s a set. Outside the set, the tower is CG and the city is a background plate. Some shots are full CG, and sometimes we painted out content in original plates and replaced it with CG. When the rocket lifts, we painted out the real Eiffel Tower and added our split tower. Then we painted the rocket and the split tower into the cell-phone screens held up by the crowds of people in the streets. It was a really fun sequence to work on, and it went really well.”

Abstract Effects

The three Tomorrowlands and Paris, even the rocket ship ripping through the Eiffel Tower, all needed to be grounded in reality. Other effects were more artistic. What, for example, does a portal effect that goes through a tachyon – a hypothetical particle that moves faster than light – look like?

ILM artists gave the builder robots Bad Goliath (at top) and Good Goliath (at bottom) camera lenses for eyes.

“We needed to send our hero back into Tomorrowland through a time portal,” Lambert says. “It was pretty challenging because it’s all up to interpretation. We had some designs, but when they moved into compositing, they needed to be animated. So, we had to come up with a look that matched the director’s vision. We did that with RGB passes as well as multiple effects passes. It was all done in compositing.”
Similarly, the compositing artists needed to create a time-bomb effect and gun blasts from concept art designs. “We must have done 50 different looks,” Lambert says. “The director said he wanted a look that was like television from the ’50s, that when you looked at the bubble, you’d see that static on old TVs. We did lots of rounds on how to interpret that. Even the gun blasts had a ’50s retro-futuristic look that we designed in compositing.”

One of the first sequences the ILM team worked on set the tone for the rest of the film. In that sequence, audio animatronics break into Frank’s house.

“We chop them into bits,” Pasquarello says. “Even the shapes left by their weapons. It played out like a comic book. It set the tone for Brad’s sensibility of action and fun.”

Most sci-fi films rely heavily on visual effects, and Tomorrowland is no exception, but the effects in this film are not typical because the story is so atypical. And because some of the best and brightest helped design and create them.

Animating Giants

At the peak of production, ILM had a crew of 18 animators working on Tomorrowland: 12 in San Francisco, five in Vancouver, and Animation Supervisor Maia Kayser, who spent most of her time in San Francisco.

“The thing I liked about this film was the variety of shots,” Kayser says. “We had digital doubles, robots, and needed a lot of different styles and techniques to meet the challenges.”

The main digital double was young Frank, particularly when he flew through Tomorrowland thanks to his jet pack. 

“We didn’t want to sacrifice the performance of the actor on wires, but he was in a harness,” Kayser says. “So we kept his performance from his waist to his head and gave him digital legs. Then, we animated the camera to fly with him, to have a more dramatic effect.”

Athena, the character that gives Frank the Tomorrowland pin, was a second digital double. 

“In one sequence, she’s running to jump into a truck and needed extraordinary speed,” Kayser says. “So we had her digital double run. For reference, we used the runner [Usain] Bolt, who can run 28 miles per hour, and [Director Brad Bird] had us speed her up more. Having her run so fast has a more dramatic and comedic impact. It was a brilliant idea.”

The animators also worked on CG characters – the construction robots. Goliath – good and bad – was the main character.

“I loved his design and look,” Kayser says. “He has this kind of retro design, which is charming. He has a big head. Big eyes. You would see the design and immediately want to animate him. He’s a construction bot, but we came up with different ideas and mannerisms to give him personality. The fun part was working on his eyes. We treated them like a camera lens with a mind of their own. When he focused, it would be like a blink.”

When young Frank first visits Tomorrowland, he meets good Goliath. Frank’s jet pack breaks. The big robot grabs it. Frank feels threatened. 

“But the good Goliath is a construction bot; that’s what he loves to do,” Kayser says. “So he fixes the jet pack and gives it back. There’s a cute interaction where Frank wants to walk away and Goliath puts a helmet on Frank.”

Bad Goliath has a similar design, but with different colors and features. 

“He’s as massive, and he’s more threatening,” Kayser says. “We played him more aggressive. He still has camera lenses for his eyes, but his body language is threatening.”

Kayser found that having an Oscar-winning animated feature director looking over her shoulder was simultaneously exciting and daunting.

“I was intimidated at first,” Kayser says. “[Brad Bird] is so talented; a giant in the world of animation. But it was an amazing experience. He’s down to earth, creative, funny. He has a vision. We’d meet him twice a week at Skywalker Ranch and talk about the shots. He really knew what he wanted, but he was open to ideas and fostered a collaborative working atmosphere. It was really exciting to work with him.”