Inside Oblivion

Sixty years after an alien invasion that has destroyed the moon and left Earth in ruins, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) remain on the planet as ‘drone maintenance’. Here they ensure the work of hydro rigs, which extract resources from what is left of Earth, is completed before they can travel off-world. But all is not what it seems in Joseph Kosinski’s new film Oblivion, his follow-up to TRON: Legacy.

In this article, we talk to Kosinki’s cinematography and visual effects collaborators DOP Claudio Miranda, ASC and VFX supervisors Eric Barba from Digital Domain and Bjorn Mayer from Pixomondo. We go behind the scenes of several key scenes from the film and showcase DD breakdowns.

***Warning: this article contains spoilers***

Watch a breakdown of a scene from Oblivion with visual effects by Digital Domain, who shared duties with Pixomondo on the show.

Crafting Oblivion

Oblivion is Kosinski’s second feature film collaboration with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, after Legacy. The DOP won an Oscar this year for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Miranda chose the Sony F65 for Oblivion, shooting in Louisiana and Iceland with Master Primes and Fuji Premier zooms. “There was something about capturing Iceland in that kind of resolution that I thought it would be really beneficial,” says Miranda of the F65. “We liked that idea and I’ve worked with this director on the Sony F35 and Joe liked that sensibility of what that camera could do for this movie. I feel like every camera has their movie. I felt like the F65 was perfect for this one.”

Director Joseph Kosinski and DOP Claudio Miranda, ASC on the set of Oblivion.
Director Joseph Kosinski and DOP Claudio Miranda, ASC on the set of Oblivion.

Although the futuristic setting of course required extensive CG creations, Miranda pushed for as many scenes as possible to be realized in camera (see the sky tower discussion below) and capitalize on the features of the F65. In one lowlit scene, where Jack meets Beech (Morgan Freeman), the F65 proved incredibly useful to show Jack lit up in Beech’s glasses as he lights a cigar.

“Some people might think it’s post on that shot,” says Miranda, “but you’ll see Tom in the reflection of his glasses, and that’s real. I think I called Tom the most expensive bounce card I’ve ever used. It was a joke, but he laughed! We ended up pushing him closer to Morgan Freeman in order for him to have this interaction of light off of Tom and just giving him that factional light reflected onto Morgan.”

Watch part of the interrogation scene.

Helping to flesh out the look and feel of Oblivion were production designer Darren Gilford and supervising art director Kevin Ishioka. The Third Floor delivered previs, postvis and techvis work, also working hand-in-hand with the art department in imagining assets, since some were built in 3D and could more easily be translated into previs. “In the end, we touched around 25 scenes in the film for previs and the majority of scenes in the film for postvis,” says previsualization supervisor Nick Markel. “For techvis, we helped in two major areas: programming the gimbal rig that simulates the hero vehicle in the movie.  Ultimately this work was canned for a real-time approach, but we did lay some groundwork. And secondly, we helped in a system for projecting the backgrounds onto screen to have digital backgrounds in camera.”

Previs for the sky tower and bubbleship by The Third Floor.
Previs for the sky tower and bubbleship by The Third Floor. See the final shot from the film below.

The sky tower

A significant portion of the film takes place inside sky tower 49, where Jack and Victoria report back to military commander Sally stationed inside the Earth-orbiting Tet. Since the tower rose to the level of the clouds and was almost completely made of glass and reflective materials, a major challenge arose of just how to film scenes with the actors for different times of day and without every shot requiring bluescreen.

Andrea Riseborough as Victoria in Oblivion.
Andrea Riseborough as Victoria in Oblivion.

The answer came in using in-camera projections from a multi-cam shoot – an idea embraced by the director, DOP, production design and visual effects teams who would all collaborate on the final result. “I got a test model of the sky tower from production designer Darren Gilford,” says Barba, “and I was trying to figure out how would you put a process screen up to work with all these surfaces. Darren loves glass and all these things. I showed Joe and he said, ‘I want to project it and do as much as possible in-camera.’ And I loved that idea!”

The effect may have been achieved in-camera but visual effects remained crucial in making the projections possible. Pixomondo visual effects supervisor Bjorn Mayer had had experience with a multi-camera rig previously on Fast Five to shoot backgrounds and reflections for the cars. “That was three cameras rigged together which gave a 140 degree field of view angle,” he says. “We modified that rig for three EPIC cameras on it so that we had three times a 5K resolution to start with.”

In this Oblivion featurette, the filmmakers discuss the use of projectors to light and provide backdrops for the sky tower.

To acquire the necessary backgrounds, Mayer traveled to a Hawaiian mountain in January 2012. “We went up in the early morning, about 3am to a volcano and waited for the sun to come up, and then we shot four days of clouds up in the mountains.” The ultimate result were plates that could be stitched together in Nuke, with some edge clean-up and additional CG elements such as the destroyed moon, to 13K wide and 2K high images running as 20 minute clips.

This was then projected 500 foot wide by 42 foot with 21 PRG projectors on set. “We came up with a system that produced 13 HD clips, so every setup is 13 clips,” explains Mayer. “The projection is portrait, not landscape, so we had 13 of these next to each other – seamlessly playing five minutes of cloud footage. We had 10 settings. Joe wanted 10 different variations based on clouds, rainy, sunny – so he had something to choose from on set. These 10 times 13 clips were uploaded to PRG and we put it on their machines and project it on set and movie it around.”

A wide view of the sky tower.
A wide view of the sky tower.

Miranda, in particular, was able to use the projections to light his actors and produce real reflections in their eyes and interaction with their environment. He shot at 800 ASA at T1.3-2.0 split. “Tom was like, ‘I love being in here, no bluescreen, I’m really in my environment.’,” says Miranda. “You walk on set and the sun’s out and the clouds are out and it’s all moving. To have 500 feet of screen at 15K resolution is pretty outstanding. Just imagine yourself in that whole thing. You’re in a glass tower up in the sky and all the glass reflections are real, all the human skin sub-surface is real. That is something that I think is so unique to this movie. It was a big install, a big commitment.”

Mayer says that with so many reflective surfaces on the sky tower set, “if we had done this bluescreen we probably would still have been trying to key it! The set was already very impressive but when we switched on the projection for the first time we could see it so clearly. Joe was loving it and Tom Cruise and the actors were very impressed – it helped them a lot in terms of not having to only act in front of a greenscreen.”

Jack walks across a bridge on the sky tower to the bubbleship.
Jack walks across a bridge on the sky tower to the bubbleship.

Filmed as a set in Baton Rouge, the sky tower and its interiors were also modeled in CG by Pixomondo for shots of the bubbleship flying to and from the structure. An establishing shot of Jack walking over a bridge to his bubble ship made use of a digi-double and face projections.

Sky tower interfaces

The interface screens used by Victoria on the light table were designed by Bradley G Munkowitz, who had previously collaborated with Kosinski while at Digital Domain on TRON: Legacy graphics. Munkowitz oversaw a team of artists on the project, who also completed bubbleship UI and HUD graphics, using Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects. He notes that the “briefing for the Graphic Language stressed functionality and minimalism while sitting a bright, unified color palette that would appear equally well on both a dark or bright backdrop. The function was to reflect the modern sensibilities of the TET Mainframe computer and would assist the characters with the key components of their duties on earth.”

01 - OBLVN Light Table UI_03_3_905
A light table display designed by Munkowitz and his team.

For the sky tower light table, in particular, artists crafted four screens – a main map, a drone monitor, hydro rig monitor and a weather screen. A further map diagnostic screen on a breakfast table and a few standalone window graphics were also created. The table graphics were either played as practical on-set animations on plasma screens embedded into the table, or added in by Pixomondo for scenes of Victoria interacting with the graphics or observing footage of Sally.

– Above: watch a montage of the graphics work.


The bubbleship – Jack’s means of transport – was conceptualized by Daniel Simon, and a practical ship for use on set (both on sound stages and in Iceland) built by concept car company Wild Factory out of mostly aluminum. Flying scenes were filmed against bluescreen on a gimbal that could rotate around 720 degrees. When planned gimbal moves based on previs proved impractical, a library of pre-defined moves drove the on-set filming. “Joe could then choose on the day how much turbulence he wants, how much banking,” says Mayer.

The bubbleship and sky tower.
The bubbleship and sky tower.

The Third Floor was responsible for previs’ing the bubbleship and a sequence in which drones attack it. “Initially,” says previsualization supervisor Nick Markel, “we started with boards and cut them together in an animatic with sound. From there the sequence developed as we started to fill in the previs. Joe would often sit with me to block out angles; he was very hands on. The notion of how the drones follow Jack and are taken out continued to develop even into postvis since most all the shots are 100% digital.”

Watch this featurette on the bubbleship.

Pixomondo built the bubbleship as a CG asset (rendered in V-Ray), using CAD data, a LIDAR scan of the mock-up and extensive photo reference. “It is a very artificial looking ship,” notes Mayer. “The finish was a like a white car, perhaps a little dirtier. We rigged it to fly with landing gear, opening doors and flaps. We used a lot of HDRs for the base, but in our full digi shots there was nothing to match to so we would compared them to the Iceland and the cave environment.” The model was also used by Digital Domain in several of their shots.

Jack and Julia in the bubbleship cockpit.
Jack and Julia in the bubbleship cockpit.

Pixomondo integrated live action cockpit shots into the scenes with a mix of reflection passes, bubbleship UI navigation overlays from Munkowitz and other enhancements. “While working on Red Tails I gained a lot of experience on the look and feel of cockpit glass,” explains Mayer. “Joe wanted the camera to be outside most of the time to get the plane to plane shooting look. The lighting change on the actors were done on set with large light rigs left, right and top of the gimbal – sometimes we needed to enhance that, but in most cases it was enough. We added a lot of reflections, scratches and smudges to the glass to make it really feel present.”

Watch a breakdown of a DD flying shot featuring the new Earth environment and bubbleship.


Robotic drones, controlled by the central TET, protect the hydro rigs and also seek to eliminate Scavs on Earth. Like the bubbleship, a practical drone had been built for on-set filming. The CG version was built by Digital Domain based on CAD data and photo reference, with final rendering done in V-Ray. Propulsion was realized via an exhaust system that emits from vents around the drones – a solution DD came up with to permit the stable flight of the round drone vehicles.

A breakdown of DD’s drone visual effects.

The drones play in many scenes throughout the film (in shots rendered by both DD and Pixomondo). In one early scene, Jack discovers the dilapidated Jets stadium where he repairs a downed drone. Digital Domain added weathered and broken stadium seating and the drone, which was augmented with heat haze from its exhaust and a laser scanner effect.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Another scene featured a drone assisting Jack as he explores the remains of the New York Public Library, where Digital Domain also extended a live-action set and created CG Scavs and other effects. Another scene has drones attacking the Scavs’ base camp. One fully CG 500 frame fly-through of the inside of the camp involved the digital drone as well as digi-doubles, laser blasts and explosions.

Watch a breakdown of Digital Domain’s fully digital shot in Raven’s Rock.

Hydro rigs

Jack and Victoria’s main objective is to ensure that hydro rigs and the drones that protect them are maintained. The hydro rigs are giant mechanical structures that remove portions of the oceans that they think are intended to ensure human survival elsewhere. “The challenge with the Hydro Rigs was scale,” says Barba. “We’ve never seen a platform like this over an ocean. We certainly haven’t seen drones flying around. How do we make them look real and otherworldly and put them in these backdrops that was post-apocalyptic.” Digital Domain created one sequence in which a hydro rig is destroyed by the Savs, requiring fire and destruction simulations.

See the hydro rigs in this ‘The World of Oblivion’ featurette.

Odyssey crash site

Jack investigates the site of a crashed NASA ship – the Odyssey – and happens upon survivors, including a woman he has been dreaming about, and later discovers is his former wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko). Before rescuing her, drones fire on and kill the other survivors.

Watch DD’s breakdown of Jack piloting the bubbleship to the Odyssey crash site.

Digital Domain digitally extended a real plate of Jack’s bubbleship approach to the crash site, filmed at a partially dressed location. Then, the camera follows Jack as he exits the bubbleship in a 1,000 frame shot enhanced with CG smoke and fire. “Joe had designed the crash site shot with The Third Floor,” explains Barba. “When I saw the previs I thought it was a beautiful shot. I had my on-set team put out LED markers on poles. They put out what the could, because really we’re talking about a bunch of smoke, embers. There’s a ton of roto that had to be done. I love the practical stuff because it really grounds everybody.”

See a clip of Jack exploring the crash site.

Jack fights himself

Faced with the reality of his existence on Earth, Jack travels into what he had previously known as a radiation zone – in fact an area revealed to be inhabited by Jack and Victoria clones monitoring hydro rigs from their own sky tower and bubbleship. Jack from zone 49 confronts Jack from zone 52, and the two fight. Barba, Miranda and Kosinski considered several ways in which to convincingly complete the sequence.

“On this film, it wasn’t our initial intention to have to do head replacement because of the time involved,” says Barba. “We wanted to come up with a solution that was clever, but so we didn’t have to shoot it motion control – especially the environment we were shooting in, and to keep the fight visceral. I had some other kinds of fights where people fight each other, such as the movie Moon. I thought in most shots we could get away with a lot more than others.”

Watch this ‘on the set’ featurette showing shooting in Iceland.

“Once it was choreographed by the stunt co-ordinator – he did a great job and went and shot it with the stunt crew and cut together and showed Joe and made notes,” adds Barba. “So we had the bones essentially that fight. I went in and broke it down into splitscreen with camera moves added afterwards, or for this shot if you shoot over the shoulders it’s up to a point, then face replacement, then face painting. We brought in the department heads and Tom and the stunt guys on a couple of weekends and rehearsed it.” For the face replacement shots, Cruise undertook an ICT Light Stage scanning session. This was then used as a basis for a CG face to be tracked and comp’d onto the body double.

Ice canyon chase

In a climatic sequence, Jack and Julia inside the bubbleship are pursued by drones through an electrical lighting storm. Mayer worked with the film’s aerial unit in Iceland to acquire F65 background plates that served for portions of the chase. Pixomondo created the clouds, storm and illumination mostly using Terragen. “It was very helpful to get the boiling and swirling of the clouds to the right menacing amount,” says Mayer. “We added some closeup volumetrics and simulated rain drops for the immediate foreground. The lightning itself was a CG and comp trick.”

Drone chase previs by The Third Floor.
Drone chase previs by The Third Floor.
A still from the ice canyon chase.
A final still from the ice canyon chase.

The drone chase continues into an ice canyon – ultimately an environment created entirely digitally by Pixomondo. Some of the challenges within the ice canyon were ensuring proper reflections of muzzle flashes, the drones and bubbleship against the ice walls, along with waterfalls, explosions and crashing ice sections. “The idea is that a lava stream was eating through a glacier and left a cave and a canyon behind and this is where they fly through and chase each other,” explains Mayer. “To generate the canyon, we did a fluid sim and froze it at some point and then baked it out as an object which was then textured. This was a mixture of Houdini and 3ds Max.”


Jack travels in the bubbleship to the TET.
Jack travels in the bubbleship to the TET.

Once Jack discovers the true nature of the inverted-pyramid-shaped space station circling the Earth – the TET – he embarks on a mission to end the deception. The 30 mile long TET was an all-CG build from Digital Domain. Inside, a small stage piece allowed for plates with Cruise to be shot, with DD filling out the cavernous interiors.

That end sequence, which fxguide has tried not to spoil (for now), represents some of the most beautifully and complex imagery created by the visual effects teams. In all, Oblivion features 804 shots split between Pixomondo and Digital Domain. Despite the high use of digital imagery, the films is marked by a surprisingly large number of in-camera shots, such as the projections, and clearly an apocalyptic feel informed from principal photography in Iceland. “We tried to use as much of the key pieces in the plate – atmosphere, water scale – we had amazing vistas from Iceland,” says Eric Barba. “If you see them you think, ‘Wow, that almost seems unrealistic because it’s so beautiful and clear.’ We had Tom perched up on a rock and it almost feels like a bluescreen shot – the plates were unreal and the F65 is unreal in terms of the clarity and sharpness.”

All images and clips copyright © 2013 Universal Pictures.

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