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