Director's Chair: Neill Blomkamp - 'Elysium'
Issue: September 1, 2013

Director's Chair: Neill Blomkamp - 'Elysium'

HOLLYWOOD — South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp charged onto the international scene with his 2009 directorial debut District 9, the indie sci-fi thriller and thinly-disguised social commentary about apartheid. Made for just $30 million, it became a global hit, grossing over $210 million and earning four Oscar nominations, including those for Best Picture, Best Visual Effects and Best Editing.

The 33-year-old Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium, is another sci-fi thriller with a social conscience. Set in 2159, it depicts a world starkly divided: the wealthy elite live in a disease-free environment called Elysium that orbits the Earth, which is now a polluted, third-world slum. When worker bee Max (Matt Damon) gets a toxic dose of radiation at his factory job and is told he has just days left to live, he decides to team up with some rebels intent on making Elysium and its hi-tech medical equipment — which can save Max — open to everyone.

Co-starring Jodie Foster and District 9’s Sharlto Copley, the big-budget (reportedly $100 million) Sony release also reunites Blomkamp with District 9 DP Trent Opaloch, editor Julian Clarke, who teams with Lee Smith (The Dark Knight Rises) and visual effects supervisor Peter Muyzers.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Blomkamp talks about making the film, the challenges involved and his love of post.

POST: This is a big studio movie. Did you have any trepidation taking this on?
NEILL BLOMKAMP: “Yes, at the start. I actually wrote a cheaper version, but it didn’t matter as the core concept of the Torus — the orbiting ring — was so expensive that at a certain point, it just didn’t work unless you did it properly. So that tells you how trepidacious I was about spending $100 million. The good news is, it wasn’t nearly as constraining as I expected.”

POST: Did you feel a lot of pressure to top the last film? 
BLOMKAMP: “No, and I didn’t think about all that during filming. I think it’s because I’m young enough or early enough in my career and have done so little. I don’t have a big body of work to compare it with. I’ve seen some artists with extensive credits who start to measure everything against what they’ve already done, and then they’re afraid to take risks.” 

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make this time? 
BLOMKAMP: “I hate writing — it’s the worst! So while writing this I used Weta Workshop to do concept art of the scenes or of ideas that weren’t in the script, since images are so much more helpful to me. So I’d look at that and if I liked it, I’d incorporate it into the script. So when I finished the script, I had this big book of all these images, and I recently looked at it again for the first time in months, and it’s remarkably similar to the film, which for me combines action and sci-fi and social commentary about the haves and have-nots.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
BLOMKAMP: “Some of the logistics shooting around Mexico City, which doubles for LA in the future, were very difficult — things like getting the right helicopters in and out. We also did toxicology reports and it wasn’t sanitary enough to shoot at the huge dump, for instance, so we had to spend a lot to clean it up — which is a pretty weird concept. But the most difficult thing of all was creating the space station and getting the visual effects right for it.” 

POST: How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot to pull this off?
BLOMKAMP: “Very early. Image Engine in Vancouver, who did all the aliens in District 9, did all the VFX for Elysium, although I didn’t do much previs with them. I don’t really like previs, but what we did do was start to build all the assets — even before we began shooting — as the sheer volume was unbelievable. It was exponentially greater than District 9 — an insane amount of data.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
BLOMKAMP: “I love it. What’s weird is, I used to hate shooting too, but now I like production. So everything’s great except writing, which is strange, as my favorite part of the whole process is conceptualization, but you can only really do that once the script’s in a good enough form.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
BLOMKAMP: “All in Vancouver where I live. Image Engine was by far the main house, and their visual effects supervisor Peter Muyzers, who did District 9, was also the supervisor of all the other houses who helped out, including The Embassy, Whisky Tree, Method, ILM, MPC, BOT VFX and a couple more. 

“We edited in our own temporary post offices near my own office, and near Image Engine, so the feel’s like Soho in London, where you have all the post places within walking distance, which is great.”

POST: The film was edited by Julian Clarke and Lee Smith. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked. Were they on-set?
BLOMKAMP: “No, and Lee came in way later. The way it worked with Julian was very similar to District 9, as he was there in production. He always gets taken to these third- world countries and put in a small editing suite somewhere, and I’ll meet him after shooting and go over stuff. So he assembled the previous day’s footage every day in his temporary suite in Mexico City and then later in one on the stages in Vancouver. Then we began real post and set up our offices, and Lee came on along with Pietro Scalia, who won Oscars for Black Hawk Down and JFK. And each one worked on separate scenes.”

POST: There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, and what was your approach to dealing with them?
BLOMKAMP: “There’s 870 which is a lot, but not that much compared to Pacific Rim or The Hobbit or Avatar, where you’re talking thousands of VFX. That’s a whole other level. As for approach, Image Engine, because of District 9 and the aliens, are so good at integrating characters over live-action performance. So in that film, you’d have an actor play the alien. It’s not automated motion capture. It’s rotomation, so the animators copy the essence of the actor, and then do the background restoration where they paint him out, and then you have the alien in there. 

“So in this, with all the robots and droids, the process is exactly the same — just with robots instead of aliens. So it was very easy for Image Engine. The big difference, that was mind-bendingly difficult, was creating the Torus. With both my films I have a very particular way in which the VFX work, which is that I try to give the VFX artists as much of a leg up as I can — meaning very clear light direction with sunlight, everything is embedded in the camera, the actor is there for reference so you can replace him. 

“With Elysium, most of the film is like that, but then suddenly you’re cutting to a 100 percent digital render of the manicured inside of the space station, and that was very challenging to do.”

POST: What was the most difficult VFX sequence to do and why?
BLOMKAMP: “Definitely the space station. That generation of a complete image from zero, that has to look totally photoreal, was a huge step up from anything we’d done in District 9. We ended up spending a whole year just on the Torus to get it right, but it was worth it.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
BLOMKAMP: “It’s all vital to complement the visuals, and sound designer Dave Whitehead, who did all the alien sounds for District 9 at Park Road Post in New Zealand, flew to Vancouver and created a library of sounds after watching rough cuts for all the weapons, the Torus, the vehicles and so on. But not to picture. He just assembled a library, took it back to New Zealand, and supervising sound editor Craig Berkey came on and started working on tracks.

“So we began creating sounds way earlier than most movies, and it was the same with music. I got composer Ryan Amon to write maybe 80 tracks prior to shooting, so we had this huge library of ideas, and gradually we’d start to pick out stuff and themes. Then in the edit — even during the rough assembly — Julian could pull from those and start to build tracks. So that made the post process very comfortable since we had already done so much work. We did the mix at Sharp Sound in North Vancouver.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 
BLOMKAMP: “We did it at DFC, Digital Film Central, in Vancouver, and I was there a lot. But I wasn’t using lots of Power Windows. It was more a case of dealing with balancing the overall color palette, because in this genre I want the audience to believe it’s as real as if I took a camera to a space station and shot the scenes there. So I feel if I start isolating bits of a frame in Power Windows, it manipulates the image too much, and the audience innately feels that it’s too synthetic. 

“My whole DI approach was ‘keep it honest.’ And the camera technology all changed between scenes on Earth and in space. Space was all Technocranes, Steadicam and dollies, while Earth was only handheld. So I actively tried to separate them, and it was the same with sound and, to a certain extent, the DI.”

POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
BLOMKAMP: “Not right now. I don’t like 3D.”

POST: What’s next? 
BLOMKAMP: “I’m about to do this new film Chappie, which also has a lot of VFX, but the mental load compared to Elysium is child’s play. It’s meant to be a big secret, but I can say it’s totally different from my other films, although it’s in the same genre. It’s mostly sci-fi, about sentience, and we’re starting soon. 

“I wrote Elysium by myself, but I re-teamed with Terri Tatchell [his screenwriter wife], who wrote District 9 with me. I’m good at ideas, but bad at writing them, so Terry and I wrote Chappie in two weeks, in the middle of doing Elysium, as the idea was so fully-formed. And it’s a smaller film, so it’s ready to go and we’re shooting in Johannesburg, and then we’ll do all the post in Vancouver as usual.”