In Oblivion, which is set in the year 2073, the Earth lies in ruins from an alien invasion that happened several decades earlier. The surviving humans have long since been evacuated, and robot drones patrol the planet, searching for any remaining resources that can help the human race. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) has been tasked with repairing the drones, and as his assignment draws to its close, he is shocked to stumble upon another human, a woman (Olga Kurylenko), in a downed spacecraft. Suddenly, he is attacked by a group of humans, the Scavs, and taken captive. Upon meeting the Scavs’ leader, Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), Harper discovers there is an entire city of people inhabiting a secret underworld on the planet.
Written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, Oblivion is based on the graphic novel Kosinski co-wrote with Arvid Nelson. It is the director’s second feature with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, ASC, a collaborator on Tron: Legacy (AC Jan. ’11).
Production began in March 2012, three months after Sony began shipping its F65 digital-cinema camera, and Oblivion became one of the first features to use it. “Every time I do a new project, I do tests with many cameras to find the one that’s best for that project, and we tested just about every camera out there for Oblivion,” says Miranda. “Sony cameras definitely have a particular look, one that’s a little cooler than, say, the Arri Alexa, and Joe really loves that look. He liked what the [Sony] F35 gave us on Tron, and he was really a fan of the F65 in our tests for Oblivion.
“So, we ended up being some of the first guinea pigs for the F65 in a production scenario,” he continues. “It gives you a fantastic image, but it’s a large camera, and the ergonomics aren’t necessarily the most user friendly. When we wanted to put body mounts on Tom Cruise or do quick Steadicam moves, we used Red Epics instead. But about 98 percent of the movie was shot with the F65.”
Miranda captured in 4K with the F65 and in 5K (at 3:1 compression) with the Epic-M and Epic-X, using Arri Master Primes and Fujinon Premiere PL zoom lenses. (The picture was finished in 2K and was cropped to 2.40:1 for standard theatrical exhibition and 1.90:1 for Imax.) “We considered shooting anamorphic, but I wanted to use faster lenses,” he explains. “We used the Master Primes for most of our work, but the Fujinon [Premier] zooms were very impressive, and we used them for crane work and helicopter work, just to make sure we had a good variety of focal lengths. When I did side-by-side lens tests in prep, I found the Fujinons are actually sharper than the Master Primes, which was hard to believe! We had all four of them: 14.5-45mm [T2], 18-85mm [T2], 24-180mm [T2.6] and 75-400 [T2.8]. A couple of shots called for a telescope point-of-view, and we put a doubler on the 75-400mm, giving me an 800mm. I couldn’t believe how sharp it was.”
Exteriors were shot in volcanic-rock terrain in Iceland, but the filmmakers built all their sets on stages in Baton Rouge, La. One of the main sets is Harper’s residence, a glass structure 2,000' above ground on a tower. It offers expansive views of the sky, which is colored by constantly moving clouds, the sun’s movement and atmospheric conditions. Miranda recalls that he and Kosinski began discussing the sky tower long before their official prep started. “We wanted to stay away from bluescreen and do as much in-camera as possible,” says the cinematographer. “Neither of us likes the limitations bluescreen composites put on a set. Harper’s place is supposed to look futuristic and polished, and we didn’t want to make all the surfaces dull to avoid blue [light] pollution. We didn’t want to end up in a situation where most of the set was made of CGI.”
Miranda suggested going “old school” in a very modern way. Using the concept of frontscreen projection, he proposed surrounding the set with projection screen and utilizing high-end video projectors to create the sky all around the set. Production Resources Group, a company that specializes in concert tours and other specialized events, brought in 21 Barco FLM-HD20 20,000-lumen 1080 HD projectors, along with 11 custom Mbox Extreme v3 media servers, to create a 270-degree projection around the entire set. It was 494' wide by 42' tall; more than 60 layers of video were combined to create a final blended image resolution of 18,288 x 1080 pixels.
“We sent a crew out to Hawaii to shoot sky and cloud plates with three Red Epics, and those were stitched together to create 15K motion plates for the projectors,” explains Miranda. “We had lots of different looks, including blue skies, fog and sunsets. All of the footage played back at about triple normal speed, so the clouds had a little extra dynamic energy to them. We loaded all the footage into the media servers, and then we could just press ‘Play.’
“With all the sequences loaded on the server, we had the ability to fully control the sky. If we wanted to change the sun direction, we simply called up a different clip, or borrowed one part of the scene from the other side of the projection. We could flip and flop cloud formations around [to achieve] the most dynamic looks, and we could get it all in-camera in real time.
“This meant our production designer, Darren Gilford, didn’t have to compromise in his design for the set — we could have all the glass and shiny surfaces we wanted!” continues Miranda. “And, if we had to have a bluescreen, we could just switch one or more projectors to blue, and that gave us an instant bluescreen anywhere we needed it. It was also liberating for Tom and the other actors because they weren’t acting in a blue void; they were experiencing the environment in a very real way.
“With this method, I always knew what the background would be and how to compose for it. I actually used the light from the projections for much of the lighting in the sky tower. It gave us a huge source that was very beautiful natural light. In some cases, we’d use some additional bounce to bring that light closer [to an actor], but that was it.”
By testing the projection rig extensively in prep, Miranda determined that each projector could only cover a 42'-wide area and still give him the brightness he needed for exposure. “I was calculating 1⁄3 under a T2 — that became my base mark,” he says. “Then, I knew we’d need a 4-to-6-foot overlap for each of the images to make the transitions as seamless as possible. We could deal with some distortion from time to time because we were projecting clouds, which are very forgiving, but if there were any visible seams, we were dead.”
Even a production as large as Oblivion has a finite budget, and the projection rig was a considerable expense. “I had to find the most economical yet effective way to cover the area we needed to cover,” says Miranda. “This meant that the projector was sometimes horizontal and sometimes vertical. I also figured I would lose about 1⁄3 of a stop from all the glass, so I planned to shoot everything at a T1.41⁄3. That was right on the hairy edge of where I was getting exposure, but if I wanted to increase that, we would have needed twice as many projectors, and that was out of the question.”