According to Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford, the film's unique "bubble ship" was inspired by many real life machines, vehicles, and technology. One thing it wasn't based on was the male anatomy, the accusation that many Internet commenters have been making.
"I've been reading some of the reviews, so I cringe when I hear that," Gilford says with a laugh. He has a sense of humor about how some unique minds may have perceived his latest creation. "There was one review that said 'white testicles' and I went 'UGH.'"
Oblivion is Gilford's second collaboration with director Joseph Kosinski, a former architect whose penchant for meticulous design helped realize the vivid world of Tron: Legacy. Kosinski is a rare case, a filmmaker who brings all walks of life to the table when he's developing a movie, and whose background pushes him to treat his science fiction like science. "I think he's got a good balance between that and the artistic style," Gilford says. "The science definitely has to be grounded for Joe. It's got to be based in reality."
From the get go, Kosinski had a clear vision for how he wanted the world of Oblivion to appear. It was all about juxtaposition. "We wanted to have a really high contrast between the world above and the world below," Gilford says. "The world above needs to be a healthy, sterile, clean, clinical environment." With that in mind, Gilford set out to translate images initially drawn by Swedish graphic artist Andree Wallin into functional, fully-realized sets and vehicles. Oblivion started its life as a comic book so Kosinski could show off the concept to studios. Gilford knew those ideas would have to be pushed further for the movie version.
"Those very basic shapes and forms were the point of departure," he explains. "They all kind of came together when we developed looks and illustrations and we knew they had to be in the same family, in the same world." Gilford suggests that there wasn't a singular point of conception. Everything was designed simultaneously. Kosinski created a design mantra and it informed each moment of the movie. "When we started developing the sky tower, early on he said, 'I don't want any distortion,'" Gilford says. "'I want it to feel very anamorphic in an architectural style. I want the verticals to be true to the edges of frame.' That goes back to his eye for architecture and eye for photography."
Gilford says that even in the early comic book drafts, Tom Cruise's "Jack" traveled across the post-apocalyptic landscapes in a "bubble ship," inspired by Kosinski's love for old Bell 47 helicopters. "[It had a] big glass ball and a very dragon fly shape and it's got a tental structure on the back of it," Gilford says. "He always loved that for the visibility that bubble offered." Riffing on the design of the Bell also allowed Gilford's team to create something that suited their star's tastes. "Knowing that [Cruise] was a pilot and wanting him to be comfortable and in control, we did a lot of research in helicopters, the controls of a real helicopter. The collective, the throttle, how those elements work off the right and left hand. It goes back to what the Tet would have researched."
The Tet, the hovering pyramid that oversees Jack's work on planet Earth, also influenced the bubble ship's look. Again, Gilford wanted contrast. "The Tet is a triangle shape and the cockpit which was a sphere. It was very geometric." According to Gilford, Wallin's first sketches of the bubble ship had the engines as canisters, but the finished product went spherical. For the production designer, it's all about simplicity. "We always like to keep our designs based in clean, geometric shapes. Not getting too crazy organic or too liquid or too sculptural." Gilford's goals and influences revolve around the most basic shapes, because we perceive them accurately. "That was definitely the influence — not the phallic shape!"
Besides finding the bubble ship aesthetically pleasing, Gilford acknowledges that the script for Oblivion demanded the basic approach. "We needed to be 60 years in the future," he says. "The interior is influenced by the tradition of helicopters. Not the one from the floor, but from the console. The landing gear, all traditional helicopters. So the audience connects. The engines have a F14 fighter engine look. How they adjust and flaps direct the thrust — it's all based on influences that the audience is somewhat familiar with. We didn't want to go too far out of that."
Oblivion has a number of twists and turns as Jack falls down the rabbit hole and, in turn, Gilford's line of thinking for the bubble ship design had its own mindbending logic to grapple with. Beware, spoilers!
"The big reveal is that the futuristic aesthetic is a human projected evolution of what the aliens, the Tet, could gather from the human research," he says. Since Jack is being given directives from the invading aliens, not actual humans, the technology needed to feel as though it was interpreted by an outside perspective. "The fun part of that was that we could blur the lines in the beginning of the story. You want to think it's a human evolution of technology and design, but ultimately it's an alien design. The design aspect freed us up in that sense. We had to play in both sides of the story."
So really, blame any suggestive imagery on the aliens.
Oblivion is currently in theaters.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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The end of the world as we know it is marked by a number of familiar tropes. When surveying an endless wasteland, one often encounters the same remnants of our once-thriving civilization. Certain types of structures always seem to endure the cataclysm and sometimes even serve as refuge for the last pockets of humanity. We also typically catch glimpses of the ruins of iconic landmarks both foreign and domestic. Such staples are certainly alive and well in Joseph Kosinski’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner Oblivion.
But is it realistic? Which buildings, installations, and monuments, if any, had the best change of actually weathering Armageddon?
John Blood, Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and an a previous collaborator of Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford, burst the bubble. Picture the grand old libraries that always seem to survive the nuclear fallout or world-ending natural event relatively unscathed. Is there something about these old book depositories that make them ideal havens?
“From a purely physical point of view, they aren’t that much different from other buildings,” he says. “Maybe they are designed a bit more stoutly; books are heavy so there’s a little bit more robust structure to them. However the forces of the disaster will do the same thing to libraries as they would to any other structure.”
Architect Mark Reynolds emphasized that proximity to nuclear strikes must be accounted for. “In the small towns situated tens of miles away from major metropolitan areas, there would likely be minimal property destruction and we would still find city halls, libraries, schools, etc.,” he notes. Reynolds further argued that thematic effect trumps accuracy in this regard.
“In my opinion, the reason they use nice old libraries in these movies is they are trying to contrast our high level of accomplishment and civilization against our advanced ability to destroy these accomplishments.”
In Oblivion, we see the charred, but very much still standing remains of the arena in which the last Super Bowl was played. Were these temples to athletic glory built to last? Blood cries foul, stating, “If anything, they’re just more exposed to the elements.”
Another remnant of the past Oblivion that Blood believes would remain are our bridges. It’s common in post-apocalyptic cinema to see the towers of great suspension bridges protruding out of the scorched Earth, or sometimes the sea. Once again, these function as signposts for humanity’s long-obliterated dominance of the planet. Blood suggests the likelihood of bridges surviving nuclear fallout in some form isn’t that outlandish.
“Certain bridges are meant to be simultaneously light and graceful and symbolic, and last a good long while, but they’re made out of steel and stone just like anything else.”
Suddenly, Blood pulls up a poster for Oblivion that features Tom Cruise standing before the remains of what appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge. He immediately spots an architectural inaccuracy.
“I can’t look at this thing without thinking it looks wrong,” he says. Blood points out the various cables, big and small, and the way that they’re positioned. The massive cable stands out. “It’s called a catenary, you just hold a string at two ends and that’s the shape a cable makes. But that cable is not going downward. In other words, those cables should all be sloping to the right. They should go down to the center of the Earth instead of back to how they were when it was an upright bridge. It’s just wrong. So we don’t have gravity in the future? The gravity on the cables is based on when the bridge was upright, they did not correct it for when they tilted it.”
Finally we came to the subject of those obligatory fallen landmarks. By this point, Blood’s curiosity was piqued. As we discussed the structural durability of national monuments, he was watching an Oblivion trailer.
“If anything they’d be more fragile,” he says. “The Statue of Liberty keeps cropping up everywhere, doesn’t it? It’s in Planet of the Apes, and one of the asteroids just happened to hit it in Armageddon. But yeah, they would be more fragile. There’s a thin layer of copper [in the Statue of Liberty] that is about the thickness of a penny. That thing particularly would not last.”
Blood then came to a particular scene in the trailer that had him totally puzzled, and one that further casts doubt on the staying power of national monuments post-annihilation. After the cataclysmic events prior to the action of the film, the Washington Monument and The Capitol remain.
“That’s just silly,” Blood says. “What happened to the rest of the city of Washington D.C.? There is nothing stouter about those two landmarks than any other structure in that town.”
Reynolds also stresses the dubious nature of these landmarks withstanding the apocalypse. He points out that “reinforced concrete buildings can withstand the blast in the peripheral areas, but most of our major buildings, stadiums, and monuments are concentrated at the ‘bulls eye’ and therefore, most buildings would be destroyed.”
Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford says any inaccuracy is done for the sake of the audience. Watching Tom Cruise run past a unrecognizable skyscraper simply wouldn’t be interesting.
“I think you've got to play to the cinematic icons,” Gilford says. “I think if it was a generic building that could have been anywhere, I don't think it would have been as impactful.” He says the existence of Independence Day and Planet of the Apes are proof. There's something that resonates with an audience when they can see an iconic piece of architecture that they relate to that's obviously been put in a situation that's alien to their typical expectations or memories.”
So where would our architects of destruction seek shelter in the event of doom and calamity? Their congruent responses should sum up the faith we should all place in any building withstanding any sort of apocalypse.
“Underground. Unless it was a flood or tsunami, but if it’s anything that has any kind of dynamic action going on, I would prefer to be in a hole underground,” Blood confesses. Reynolds adds, “Underground or earth covered structures are the best shelters in the event of an apocalypse, however, if 23,000 nukes were set off, the air, water, and food sources would be irradiated and very few people would survive.”
Additional Reporting by Matt Patches
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