When "The Day the Earth Stood Still" invaded movie theaters 57 years ago, America was in the midst of the Cold War and paranoid about the Red Menace and the atomic bomb. Filmed in black and white, the Michael Rennie-Patricia Neal movie had primitive effects by today's standards. But it made some salient points about man's mistreatment of fellow man and planet Earth. Those themes are preserved, wrapped up in a spectacular visual effects-driven package in the new version starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, with Kathy Bates, Jon Cleese, Jon Hamm and Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith) in supporting roles.
"I loved the idea of being able to tell basically the same story but bring in the social issues that we have now, the interesting messes that we've gotten ourselves into now around the world," says director Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose"). A big fan of the original Robert Wise-directed film, Derrickson signed on in May 2007, when the screenplay was a work-in-progress -- before Keanu Reeves was attached and 20th Century Fox officially green-lit the movie. Derrickson spent several months planning and conceptualizing how he was going to preserve yet modernize the story.
"You'd better have a good reason to remake a classic film," he acknowledges. "But there's value in telling this story to a movie-going population who for the most part won't have seen the original and won't know that story. My approach was to try to respect the fan base and that it is a sacred movie to a lot of people."
No stranger to sci-fi cinema, Reeves says he was drawn to the "worthwhile story" and a chance to play an alien. Connelly was drawn to playing the astrobiologist who finds herself in the midst of a life-altering and world-shattering crisis. "She's strong, she's bright, she's a mother, she's fearless and I like that about her," says the actress, whose scientist colleague is played by Jon Hamm, star of cable hit "Mad Men." Coming aboard late in the game after wrapping season one of the series, Hamm "got off a plane, got fitted, and went onto the set, which was a little bit nerve-wracking," he admits. "But the opportunity to be involved in something like this is amazing for me," he says.
Fortunately for Derrickson, he had considerably more time to prepare to shoot the visually complicated film, something he considers crucial. "Sometimes you don't have it, and that can be the death of these kinds of movies," believes the director, who worked closely with visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun ("Fantastic Four," "Blood Diamond") to develop the CG sequences in the movie, as we'll detail next. //]]]]> ]]>
Creating the Visual Effects
Months of research, development and discussion went into the design of the main effects elements in the movie: the spaceship, alien Klaatu and the robot GORT (Genetically Organized Robot Technology). "I wanted to have those things as the key signature sci-fi elements in the movie, but I wanted them to feel like nothing we had here on Earth and wanted them to have some relationship to each other. It was a tough call," concedes Scott Derrickson.
He also set the parameter that the effects not detract from the story "and be done in a realistic, organic way," adds Jeff Okun, who met with future-scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere in an effort to "base the movie in some sort of reality." Pointing out that "Star Trek's" communicators now seem ho-hum to the smart-phone generation, he aimed to include "stuff that doesn't exist now but in 50 years it will," plus technology that's right around the corner.
Okun and his team visited Microsoft in Seattle and were shown an interactive touch-screen table called Surface that's already being used at Sheraton hotels and by media organizations (MSNBC used in its election coverage), and that they worked it into the movie.
Inspired by the "beautiful, eloquent, and organic" visual effects Dennis Muren created for "A.I.," Okun also approached "TDTESS" with "a sense of responsibility to build a world that we'd like to live in." He met with Derrickson, director of photography David Tattersall, production designer David Brisbin and producers often to strategize and figure out costs.
Eight visual effects houses shared the load, though WETA in New Zealand did the bulk of the work. Of the 507 visual effects shots in the movie, WETA did 227 of them, including the giant spheres, alien, destruction sequences and robot GORT.
Other vendors like Cinesite and Flash Filmworks supplied composites, sky replacement, wire removal, set extensions, crowd replications and burn-ins -- anything the characters see on monitor screens. Okun spent three and a half months working with computer artists at WETA to streamline the process.
Many of the movie's sequences were shot against a green screen so matte paintings and footage of actual location backgrounds could be added later. This was necessary in part because the story is set in New York City but was shot in Vancouver, Canada. "Everything we shot in Central Park is green screen with the exception of a few shots when the sphere is landing and there's a crowd there. We shot that in a park in Vancouver and dropped New York City in behind so we could get the scale and scope," says Okun, adding that most car driving scenes are green screen as well.
Of course, that 300-foot tall sphere is entirely CG, and creating it proved to be one of the biggest challenges for the filmmakers.
Spheres, Swarms, Klaatu and GORT
The original "The Day the Earth Stood Still" set the standard for cinematic spacecraft with a big, metallic flying saucer that evolved into the Millennium Falcon of "Star Wars" and every spaceship we've seen since. Scott Derrickson threw that idea out the window. "I loved the idea of an alien technology that came from a completely different tradition, the idea that this was a species that had developed a technology that was essentially more ecologically and biologically based," he says. Translating that theory to reality wasn't easy.
While Derrickson liked the idea of a giant sphere, not as a typical transportation mode but as a portal, getting it to work as an art concept and then a moving entity was difficult. "The tough thing was getting them to look like they had this atmosphere -- there's sort of a gas planet feel to them. But if you go too far one way, it's too much like a gas planet, and too far the other way, and it just feels like clouds."
Having worked on the 1998 sci-fi movie "Sphere," Okun was all too familiar with the problems associated with the shape. "A sphere is the worst shape to deal with because spheres have no perspective to them, no scale to them and nobody has any experience standing next to anything that shape that's 300 feet tall," he points out. Issues of distance and perspective came into play, and he was constantly reminding his colleagues to allow for the fact that an object that size would have a 150-foot overhang in every direction.
Although the sequence beginning with the sphere landing in Central Park challenged Derrickson most, Okun says the shot of the nano-bug swarm devouring a truck was the single most difficult to render. "We did 1,156 versions of it," he sighs. Demolishing Giants Stadium was almost as tricky. Helicopter cams shot aerial footage on location, but the rest of the destruction was entirely CG. "These things eat layer by layer, they don't consume it whole," he explains. "The level of complexity multiplies by a billion, because once you eat away at a wall you're exposing what's in the wall and the back of another wall and another structure, so it became very complex."
Before Klaatu adopts human physical characteristics so he can interact on Earth, he's seen briefly in alien form. "We came up with a CG creature essentially made up of light that becomes a guy in a bio-suit," a sort of gray skin incubator, says Okun. On set, special effects makeup designer Todd Masters and his team created a prosthetic alien suit using a mixture of thermal plastic and silicone. "It's really sticky and smells awful," comments Okun.
Designing Klaatu's giant companion -- and instrument of destruction -- GORT was an exercise in trial and error, "the first thing we started working on and the last thing we finished," Okun notes. At first, efforts were made to depart from the look of the humanoid robot in the original film. "So we spent a lot of time designing fantastic alien monster creature things that got increasingly ridiculous," says Derrickson, who remembers thinking some versions "looked like they should be in a park as a piece of modern art." The concept eventually came full circle. "We realized we needed to make it look and feel like the original, but have the impact, scale and magnitude that a modern audience would find satisfying."
According to Derrickson, the DVD release will include an extra demonstrating "some of the bad ideas we had for GORT, to show that sometimes we figure it out for ourselves that we're being stupid."
On the Set
"The biggest logistical challenge of this movie was shooting in Vancouver when it's set in New York," comments Derrickson, noting that the Canadian climate didn't help. "There were nights that were certainly freezing. Some of the exterior McDonald's shots got snowed out. It snowed for the first time that year when we were shooting those exteriors. We had to stop."
Another location had to be scrapped entirely. "We had a real location that I loved for the scene where Klaatu goes out on the water and activates the spheres, but the lake froze so we had to scrap the location and build the set."
A practical 9-foot tall version of a sphere, an illuminated Plexiglas ball, was built for that scene, but the actors had to use their imaginations for the giant sphere, and Okun did as much as he could to help them. "For actors who are stuck acting to blank walls and a bank of lights, we wanted it to seem real," he explains. "I spent a lot of time with them going through what it was, why it was and what it would feel like, and they were very open to receiving the information."
A second unit and visual effects crew went to New York to gather footage that could be composited into the movie in post-production. "There's a lot of real New York in the movie," points out Derrickson, noting that the shots of empty Manhattan streets "were taken at the crack of dawn at 5:30 in the morning. As soon as there's enough light, you roll."
In keeping with the save-the-Earth theme of the movie, the production was "green" as well. The makers employed bio-diesel fuel for generators, hybrid vehicles and eliminated the use of paper wherever possible. For Derrickson, that meant adjusting to digital storyboards. "There was no notebook to carry around, and that became confusing," he says.
Now that the film is finished, he's satisfied with the movie and the ideas it represents. While he didn't set out to make a message movie, he hopes the ending will make audiences think. "The messes that we've gotten ourselves into as Americans and a species and a human race -- the solutions to these will come at a price and we have to be willing to pay that price," Derrickson says. "I like the idea of putting it out there for people to decide what that price is and what the consequences would be."
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More Great Links
- Scott Derrickson, Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm interviewed December 6, 2008
- Jeff Okun interviewed December 7, 2008