Thousands of years have passed since the end of the world as we know it. That’s where the movie “Mortal Engines” (Dec. 14) picks up, amid a new civilization that has risen from the ashes of one wiped out in a catastrophic war. But now cities, rather than phones, have gone mobile.
Based on the steampunk-inflected novel by Philip Reeve, the film sets much of its action in London, which has been rebuilt as a tiered city that is quite literally on the move. Like a giant R.V., London rolls across the countryside, gobbling resources along its path. (It also devours other, smaller “traction cities.”)
To bring this version to life, the effects team at Weta Digital blended pieces of well-known landmarks with new buildings, constructing a kind of FrankenLondon. Here is a closer look at elements of it, with commentary from the director, Christian Rivers, and the visual effects supervisor, Ken McGaugh.
Placing St. Paul’s at the Peak
Towering above London is St. Paul’s Cathedral, which the filmmakers used to set the scale of the rest of the city. To make sure they had enough room to include all the tiers of the city, they determined that its height, from its base to the apex of St. Paul’s dome, would be about 940 yards. The cathedral in the movie is a reconfigured version of the original. “We wanted to make St. Paul’s look like it was in the same condition as the Colosseum in Rome now,” Rivers said. In this imagined future, those who rebuilt the city would have found the cathedral in a semi-ruined state and used salvaged metal to fill in the broken parts and reconstruct it. The cathedral interior is used by the film’s antagonists not for worship, but for nefarious purposes.
Rising Through London Architecture
One of the defining characteristics of London is its dramatic blending of architectural styles. That can be seen in the facade of the roving city. “The design over all needed to be pyramidal in shape to reflect the social hierarchy of London, with it being more refined and affluent at the top and dirtier and poorer at the bottom,” McGaugh said. To start, concept artwork was made by Nick Keller, who included ideas that could seem functional if a giant mobile city were being built. Its lower level has a rusty industrial feel, with the Union Jack painted across the front (a suggestion by Peter Jackson, one of the film’s producers). The buildings atop it have a more gothic, Westminster Abbey style. Above that, the look pulls from more modern styles of chrome and glass, which are shaped to resemble a giant crest or shield.
A City Landmark Provides Inspiration
The large lions on the lower edges of the city are a recognizable callout to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square, but much larger in scale than the originals. A closer look shows that they’re constructed from quilts of metal plates. “There are structures inside the lions that are visible through the holes,” McGaugh said. Inside the head of each lion, with its open mouth, is actually a kind of deck. Below it is the movement system, which consists of large military-style treads. The filmmakers looked at Abrams Army tanks for inspiration. “It can go really fast and has a gimbaling [leveling] system that can go up and down over unsteady terrain, while the gun barrel stays perfectly level,” Rivers said. He also looked at giant strip-mining machines for reference but found them too slow. “They move at like an inch a second,” he said.
Buildings in Motion
To feel believable, a moving city requires a variety of moving parts and attention to detail. So the team from Weta, which included around 900 artists, McGaugh said, broke down the work into manageable chunks. “It was very key that London felt like it was self-supported,” McGaugh said, “and that it had a kind of suspension system that allowed for movement within London, not just all of London traveling monolithically across the terrain.” To give it this movement, the team created little islands within the tiers, which they called lily pads. They have clusters of buildings and neighborhoods on them. Each is held up by a complex suspension system that allows for subtle movement within the tiers. “For most of the shots, the movement comes across as subliminal, but we hoped it would help loosen up the environment so that it would feel in motion, rather than being perfectly static,” McGaugh said.
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