Bridge Between worlds
We hear from Territory about their work on Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi blockbuster Ready Player One
If there was ever any doubt that Steven Spielberg could still deliver family entertainment at an epic scale, it was put to rest this year with the release of Ready Player One. Achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success, the sci-fi blockbuster based on Ernest Cline’s novel depicts a future in which people spend most of their days inside a VR game called OASIS, as an escape from the bleakness of real life.
Responsibility for 3D was divided neatly between two main vendors: Digital Domain dealt with the ‘real world’ and ILM with the VR world of the OASIS.
Some elements, however, needed to exist in both, including virtual reality HUDS, user interfaces and holographic elements. So as the sole post graphics vendor, Territory found itself having to bridge the gap between these two worlds. “Essentially, we were the jam in the sandwich between the real world and the OASIS,” explains creative director Andrew Popplestone. “For instance, we needed to ensure continuity between the graphics in the visors when we immediately cut to the same graphics in the HUDS. We also fleshed out the environments, creating user interfaces for wall screens, tablets and table displays in the real world, and HUDS, displays, signage and specific graphic devices that tied into complex story beats in the OASIS.”
Territory’s role on the film began when it was approached by production designer Adam Stockhausen, and item one on the agenda was nailing the overall look.
“Adam explained that although the story is set in the future, it references all this Eighties stuff, so it would be really cool to have this light, subtle nod to the retro gaming world,” recalls Popplestone. “But it needed to be super sophisticated and super futuristic too, so that was a really interesting and challenging balance to strike.
“Some of our early concepts explored that super-eighties look – very 8-bit, arcade game-based aesthetic – but we knew it had to look like technology from the future. So while it was okay to nod to the Eighties in terms of colour palettes and typography, if it started to look too retro, or too basic and unsophisticated, we knew that we had to pull it back.”
After presenting conceptual designs to Stockhausen, the team went on to work directly with VFX supervisor Matthew Butler of Digital Domain for the traditional 2D and 3D ‘real world’ graphics, and with VFX supervisor Roger guyett and grady Cofer at ILM for the interactive volumetric graphics for the full Cg world of the OASIS.
Territory also worked closely with the film’s production team working out of Amblin in Los Angeles; namely, coproducer/vfx producer Jennifer Meislohn and production supervisors Viet Luu, Jakris Smittant, Clint Spillers and greg Weiler.
“It was very collaborative,” explains Popplestone. “Occasionally Adam would come back in the fray a little bit, and sometimes the writer would jump on the phone as well, and we’d all have these big calls discussing the work.”
While Territory has been growing in scale and reputation in recent years, with credits on films like Blade Runner 2049 and
Ghost in the Shell, this was set to be their biggest project to date… not to mention the most complex.
“It was almost like working two shows concurrently,” says Sam Munnings, senior motion designer. “One with Digital Domain, which was a certain kind of work and a certain execution and delivery system. And the other, with ILM, was a different kind of work and different way of working. So it was extremely complicated logistically, not to mention creatively. At our biggest point we were somewhere between 15 and 20 artists.”
Setting up two distinct pipelines to deliver to Digital Domain and ILM’S requirements, Territory were tasked with concepting the creative language of the film. They had to solve the challenges of how to best marry the physical and virtual props like screens,
visors, HUDS, 3D and holographic devices with Cg content that tied into the story, as well as designing graphics on a per-shot basis. They then had to lay everything out in a 3D environment, projection mapping onto plates for the real world, animating and lighting full Cg graphics in the OASIS. Slap comps on plates were submitted for director review and approval before being shipped to Digital Domain and ILM for final comp.
But while working with industry titans like ILM meant the pressure was on, this was a supportive two-way collaboration. In simple terms, Territory’s graphics helped drive the VFX, and the VFX helped drive the graphics.
For example, ILM would change their animation based on Territory’s animation of the HUDS, while Territory would animate the HUDS based on the character movements and gestures of the ILM animation. “There was this lovely back and forth,” says Popplestone. “We’d send over an Alembic of a character doing something, but the animation might be completely off once we got our stuff in there. So we’d send it back and ILM would have to completely re-adjust their animation to fit our stuff. And Roger was so open with that, readily adapting to our work to improve the overall sequence. You might think it’s going to be intimidating, working with someone as big as ILM – but actually it was lovely.”
Spielberg got involved too. “We’d get receive notes from Steven about adding certain story point details into our graphics,” says Popplestone. “We were often told to go bigger, larger and more obvious, to give the audience a chance to read the story details within the graphics themselves. Plus shots were lengthened so the graphics had more time to play.”
These were not, as Popplestone emphasises, graphics that played in the background to add some additional detail – they were actually made to bring life to the overall film. “An example might be how characters’ visors show impact damage in red during the fight sequence, or reflect subtler story points such as heart rates during the dance sequence.”
Although Territory are past masters at HUDS, Ready Player One presented a new challenge, Munnings notes. “HUDS by their very nature are traditionally seen from a first-person point of view. But in
Ready Player One, the audience would also see them from a third-person POV. So that was one of the biggest challenges: what the hell does that look like? Another was that the actors’ eyes always needed to be visible through visors, screens, etc, so content layers had to be designed with that in mind.”
“HUDS are traditionally seen from a first-person point of view, BUT in the film, the audience also see them from a third-person pov. so that was one of the Biggest challenges” Sam Munnings, senior motion designer
Perhaps the biggest coup for Territory, though, was the boot-up sequence where main character Wade puts on his goggles for the first time, and enters the OASIS via a colourful tunnel of light.
“That was a big shot for us because it essentially evolved out of nothing,” says Andrew Popplestone. “It was going to be a much more simplified sequence, and it came about because we had a few ideas on the Ready Player One logo itself. We slightly cheekily sent them off and Steven really liked them. So he asked us to develop that, and we came up with this runway idea, which Steven loved too. He referenced the Space 2001 slit scan style and was like: ‘More, more, more! Make it longer, make it bigger!’ He’s just one of those people who when he likes something, he wants more of it… and no one’s going to argue with him. And what’s great is that boot-up sequence ended up on pretty much every trailer, so it kind of feels like it became symbolic of the film.”
Territory ended up delivering over 265 VFX shots and over 80 unique assets for
Ready Player One, essentially touching the majority of sequences in the film that feature interactive UI on monitors, visors, HUDS and 3D environmental signage. But it wasn’t until they saw the movie in the cinema that they could finally relax.
“The whole time we were designing these elements, we just had to imagine what the final shot was going to look like, because we weren’t seeing any final renders or comps from ILM,” explains Munnings. “When we did see them in the final shot, we were so happy with how it all looked because it just worked so well together.”
Looking back, Ready Player One was the perfect project for the studio’s distinctive skillset, concludes Popplestone. “We’ve done lots of design for films before, and we’ve done lots of 3D and holographic stuff, but this was the best example of combining the two disciplines. Creating graphic designs and executing them in a VFX world is a niche for us that I don’t think many other people are doing, and it was the perfect fit on this show.”
Motion graphics displayed in the visors serve to convey important story points through the narrative
Heads-up displays in the visors needed to be shown in both first-person and third-person view
left: spielberg loved the tunnel flythrough that territory devised for the oasis boot-up sequence below: even the tiniest textual details were carefully drawn from elements of the book and relevant story details Middle: Digital displays add colour and interest to the otherwise drab ‘real world’ of the movie