Inside Cinema
Monday, 05 August 2013 07:00

Oblivion: From Concept to the Screen

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What began as an idea in the Middle East transformed into a visual story on the big screen.  Oblivion took shape inside the mind of director Joe Kosinski, leaped onto the pages of a graphic novel and ended up as a science-fiction movie with Tom Cruise.


“It came at a time where I was having trouble getting my foot in the door in the commercial music video business,” said Kosinski.  Out of frustration, he wrote the story of a man digging into the past, our present, to find his humanity.  “I had this idea of what would it be like to be the last man on Earth, to be kind of the one looking back at the world we know,” he said. […]

It was during a trip in the Middle East that Kosinski was inspired to create the story of a man in search of his identity.  “I’ve been to Petra and Jordan a few years earlier and it was a really inspiring kind of trip to go on and I thought if you could see our world in the same state that Petra exist today, what would that be like?” he recalled.Director Joseph Kosinski

Growing up a fan of the classic television series Twilight Zone and films such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and Alien (1979), Kosinski earned an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University and then graduated with a Master’s degree in Architecture from Columbia University.  He lent his visual style to several commercials while working on the story of Oblivion.

Kosinski worked on the graphic novel laying down the foundation for the story and the characters populating the futuristic world.  At the time, he thought the idea could turn into a good first film.  “I thought it would be a small film,” he said, but then Tron Legacy came along, providing him with a great chance to make his first movie.  “But while I was on Tron, I kept playing with this idea of Oblivion.  The opportunity to bring the story of Jack Harper to life was too good to pass up after completing Tron Legacy,” Kosinski said. “I understand it’s a very unique opportunity to be able to make a movie like this, an original movie in the landscape of big movies… so I feel very lucky to have gotten that opportunity.”


What began as a small film developed into a much bigger product when Kosinski expanded the universe of Oblivion.  He didn’t anticipate the story becoming so big.  “It was always a small character driven story and it always had this small cast of three or four characters but I knew the ideas were big and I wanted the landscape and the world that surround these characters to be large,” he said.

The graphic novel was never published but served as a great source for the screenplay.  Kosinski said there are differences between what he put down on paper and what ended up on the screen.  There were darker aspects to the story, including the Scavs led by Morgan Freeman’s character, Malcolm Beech, being more desperate.  “I played with a couple of different endings way back when I was kind of formulating the story,” he said, “but fundamentally the themes and the story of Jack Harper (as played by Tom Cruise) remained true to the end.”

Kosinski continued to make little changes even after the movie was released.  “I got to revisit Oblivion in a way with the Blu-ray which was nice,” he said.  The director watched the movie with audiences around the world during promotional trips and made notes of some of the changes he wanted to make for the Blu-ray release.  “I see all these little things I wanted to fix and the Blu-ray is an opportunity to do that.  Little tweaks to the mix, tweaks to the dialogue track.”  These changes and the addition of deleted scenes help make Oblivion an even more complete project for Kosinski after years of working on the story.  “But most of all getting to include scenes that didn’t make it into the film for me is exciting, getting to kind of show how we made it,” he said. 

Cruise and Kosinski on the set

Another satisfying experience for Kosinski was getting M83 to do the score for Oblivion.  “The score only version of the film to me is really interesting,” he said. Kosinski had composer Joseph Trapanese work with M83’s front man Anthony Gonzalez for the score, just as he did bringing Trapanese to work with Daft Punk on Tron Legacy.  “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.  “I wanted to do on Tron.  We weren’t able to do it then, but on this one, I got my way.  The score only version of the movie is a really interesting way to experience it,” he said.


Costume designer Marlene Stewart used light colors for Harper and darker tones for the Scavs and then added complexity.  Kosinski wanted Harper to be in white, the traditional hero color.  Stewart ended up creating a grey version to make it look more lived in.  The costume also had to be practical given the time Cruise would spend in it.

He was the one primarily using all of this and it had to be comfortable for him, said Deidre Thieman, manager of production archives at NBC Universal.  “He’s wearing it through the whole film through all different climates.  He’s got cold weather and he’s got really hot weather so it had to be comfortable for him,” she explained.

Darker colors and a complex helmet comprised of four separate sections were utilized for the Scavs.  It took 30 minutes for the actors to put on the Scavs’ costumes.  “They’re quite a gear to put on,” said Thieman.


Kosinski designed the insect-looking helicopter type of spaceship known as the bubble ship.  Designer Daniel Simon was brought on board to refine the concept and make it practical for the movie to be shot.  Simon was a car designer who worked at Bugatti Automobiles and Volkswagen and a concept designer, as seen in his first book, Cosmic Motors, which features photorealistic fantasy vehicles.  He worked with Kosinski as a vehicle concept designer on Tron Legacy  and on Captain America: The First Avenger and Prometheus.

Designer Daniel Simon with the Bubble Ship

(photo by Mario Boucher)

Simon began working on Oblivion in 2009 drawing initial ideas based on Kosinski’s concept.  He spent at least a year, full-time, working on the bubble ship.  One of his biggest challenges was building a cockpit that has to rotate in a perfect sphere and keep two occupants comfortable.  “As a designer, you always look for this as the whole thing and if you have one favorite part that normally means that the whole thing is not so good,” he said.

Simon wasn’t too fond of the seatbelts “because I would think in the future you’d have something better than that.”  But the seatbelts had to be practical and there’s not much you can do design-wise, he said.


“This is a very rare job in the film design business that the vehicle plays such a big part in it and you see it all the time with the actor in it,” said Simon.  Once it became obvious that Tom Cruise would have to spend many hours sitting in the bubble ship seat, it had to be custom made for the actor.  “The seat has to be so comfortable that he can be in it eight hours and doesn’t get back pain especially for the next day.”

“So we had him come in a few times and prototype three or four seats for him and each time we would find something else that would be bothering because he needs to act in it,” said Simon.  For example, pushing the throttle down would do something to the shoulder clearance.  “You cannot just put a pillow behind his back because he would run out of the ship on camera,” he said.  There were all these little details not only to make the seat work for Cruise but also manufacturing constraints.

Kosinski on the set of Oblivion


Director Kosinski decided that Jack Harper needed something to connect the character with the past, our current times, after the devastation of Earth.  In the story, Harper collects things that remind him of humanity.  Kosinski told Simon the idea of a bobblehead would have to be part of the cockpit and at a specific spot.  “The cockpit was done and it looked all fine and we all liked it and then the script changed,” said Simon.  Now, Harper would drive around with this Elvis bobblehead in his cockpit, “but there was no dashboard to put it on,” said Simon.  “There was nothing there because we had this modern glass bubble.”  Simon redesigned the cockpit and added a dashboard to include the little Elvis on top of it.  He added dials to make it look logical for the story but none of it was functional.  “The only true reason is that Elvis could be exactly right where the director wanted it for eye level shots,” he said.

It was an unusual but very rewarding experience for Simon.  “It’s a boy’s dream (to work Oblivion),” he said.  “We all as kids drew something and here’s a big film studio behind it with one of the most famous actors and a very sophisticated director and they all pull on one string and make it happen.”  Seeing his drawings and his design modifications become real is already one of the biggest highlight of his career.  “I would call it a dream job,” he said.  Simon designs his own vehicles and is currently working on a book incorporating his designs with a story.


Oblivion features many visual highlights, including shots of the torch of the Statue of Liberty and the top of the Empire State building in a post-apocalyptic Earth.  Perhaps the biggest challenge was the seemingly floating station where Harper and his friend Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) reside high up in the clouds above the Earth’s surface.

Visual effects supervisors Bjorn Mayer and Eric Barba worked with their respected teams to bring Kosinski’s vision to the screen.  Mayer’s team at Pixomondo worked on the cloud work since many sequences had the main character flying around the planet.  Mayer said their biggest challenge was generating ice on the bubble ship.  Barba’s team at Digital Domain found the end sequence inside the massive space station the most difficult test.  “It was a challenge to make it work on screen,” said Barba.

Kosinski on the set of Oblivion

The 804 VFX shots for the movie were almost evenly split between the two FX companies.  Filmed on location in Iceland, Hawaii and Louisiana, 85% of Oblivion was shot live and 15% being all-CG shots.  Going on location scouting for the movie was very helpful to Mayer and Barba because they could take pictures and draw concepts, which makes a huge difference later on, said Mayer.  “You need to be there,” added Barba.

Digital Domain was responsible for Tom Cruise fighting himself.  Working with Kosinski, director of photography Claudio Miranda, the stunt team and Cruise, Barba and his team helped choreograph the shots when the actor is fighting a clone of himself.  When some of the shots didn’t match, Digital Domain replaced Cruise’s face with a fully CG version by capturing a 3D scan of the actor’s head on a light stage.

Universal's Oblivion on Blu-ray Disc


In fact, the Jack vs. Jack sequence is part of the behind the scenes featured on the Blu-ray.  Cruise and Kosinski provide a commentary for the film and several deleted scenes are added to the package.  Promise of a New World: The Making of Oblivion is a comprehensive five-part documentary: Destiny looks into the development and planning of the movie, Voyage explores the creation of the bubble ship, Combat goes into details about all the stunts, Illusion delves into the post-production work, and Harmony focuses on the score by M83.  The score itself is an isolated track you can listen to while watching the movie.

Oblivion is available on Blu-ray August 6.

- Mario Boucher


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