Monday, May 14, 2018




I'm a sucker for production design stories....

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is, in my estimation, a mess of a movie. But it has superb production design. It won the Art Directors Guild award in 2002 and was nominated for an AFI production design award. It was nominated for the Oscar for visual effects alongside the now-forgotten Pearl Harbor, but Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings rightfully took home that honor. It received no nomination Best Art Direction. The nominees that year were Amelie, Gosford Park, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Lord of the Rings, and the winner was Moulin Rouge!


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Director Stanley Kubrick was an avid reader, and openly or through associates purchased the film rights to thousands of projects. Among these was British sci fi author Brian Aldiss' short story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long", the rights to which Kubrick obtained in the late 1970s.

Way, way, way back in 1985, Kubrick asked Steven Spielberg to direct the film. Warner Bros. agreed to co-finance and distribute A.I. Kubrick hired Aldiss to write a treatment, but after more than a decade of work fired him and hired British sci fi author Ian Watson. Watson's draft treatments moved the film away from a gentle tale about loneliness and more toward an adult film about the meaning of intelligence and life.

Kubrick set A.I. aside about 1991, feeling computer graphics were not advanced enough to accommodate the film. But after the release of Jurassic Park, he realized he was wrong. Kubrick then hired special effects designer Dennis Muren and visual effects producer Ned Gorman to oversee the production design of the film. Kubrick was greatly displeased with their work, and balked when told he should hire Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) (at a cost of millions of dollars) to do the work.

Kubrick then turned to book cover artist Christopher "Fangorn" Baker, who was working with Kubrick as a concept artist on Eyes Wide Shut. As visual effects supervisor, Kubrick hired Chris Cunningham. Often credited as "Chris Halls", he'd cut his teeht as a model maker on the 1990 film Nightbreed, designed animated robots for the 1990 film Hardware, and designed and implemented creature effects for Alien 3 in 1992. He'd just completed work as a conceptual illustrator on Judge Dredd, and it is that work which really impressed Kubrick.

Baker first read Watson's final treatment several times. Kubrick, who had developed no visual ideas of his own, gave Baker free reign to develop the film's look. The two met several times in person, but never afterward. Baker faxed completed work to Kubrick, and the two then discussed the images on the telephone. Baker made adjustments based on these talks, and then faxed over new drafts. During the next five years, Baker came near to completing the look of the Swinton home, Flesh Fair, and Rouge City.

Baker not only did a large amount of concept art, but also thousands of storyboards. (Kubrick storyboarded all his films to the Nth degree.)


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Cunningham's work, which largely involved creating a robotic David, didn't turn out well at all. Kubrick finally gave up the project for good, and in 1995 asked Spielberg to take over. Spielberg, then at work on The Lost World and Amistad and beginning pre-production on Saving Private Ryan, declined.

Frustrated, Kubrick put A.I. on hold to begin production and principal photography on Eyes Wide Shut.

Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999. Christiane Kubrick (Stanley's wife) and Jan Harlan (Christiane's brother and Kubrick's long-time producing partner) asked Spielberg once more to direct A.I. He agreed.

Spielberg, long fascinated with the Pinocchio story, decided to write the screenplay himself, based on Watson's nearly decade-old treatment. Work on the script began in November 1999, with Spielberg removing the extensive sex scenes which Kubrick had added.


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Spielberg almost always works on two or three films at a time. While treatment and script work is occurring on one film, he'll be in pre-production on a second and engaged in photography and editing on a third.

Spielberg was under pressure from Sony Pictures to direct Memoirs of a Geisha, to which he had committed in 1997. He was also under pressure from 20th Century Fox to get moving on Minority Report, which he committed to in 1998 with Tom Cruise as the lead. Cruise's schedule was so tight, Spielberg had to be ready when Cruise was.

There was no way to begin pre-production work on A.I. and keep Sony and Fox happy. So Spielberg secretly assembled a unit to begin work on A.I. without anyone's knowledge. The unit came together in the late summer or early fall of 1999, even before Spielberg began work on the script.

Up-front, Spielberg committed to retaining Baker's concept designs and working from there. Jan Harlan organized all the concept design work into several volumes, all of them fully indexed, and turned them over to the design team. The team was led by Spielberg's long-time production designer, Rick Carter. Illustrator Warren Manser, who had worked on Evil Dead 2, Mortal Kombat, Twelve Monkeys, Lawnmower Man 2, and Speed Racer and with Spielberg on Men In Black, The Lost World, and Amistad, was hired to revise and finalized the concept designs. Modelmakers Glenn Urieta and Greg Aronowitz handled the initial model work.


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The "untitled project" unit was paid out of Amblin Entertainment's own pocket at first. The team spent about a month in a rented bungalow in Los Angeles pouring over the immense amount of concept, pre-viz, story boards, notes, research, and other design work that had already been done.

Spielberg knew that he wanted to work with Dennis Muren and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar, both now working for ILM. After the "untitled project" had reviewed the Kubrick work, Spielberg and Carter met with Muren and Farrar to discuss how to approach the visual effects, sets, and other production issues. From these early meetings, Murren and Farrer came up with the concept of a "virtual set" which would prove immensely innovative and lead to all-virtual films like Avatar and TV series like Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. Another early decision was to create miniatures of most buildings, rather than full-size or all-CGI sets.

Rouge City proved to be the most difficult and most satisfying work they did. The team loved Baker's Rouge City Toll Bridge, which featured a suspended roadway that ran through the open mouths of gigantic women's heads, was incorporated into the film almost unaltered. Baker and Kubrick's work on the rest of Rouge City, however, was almost surrealistic -- even over the top. Every single building was inspired by a breast or vagina, and Spielberg gave the team direct orders to scale it back.

In March 2000, Spielberg told the press that A.I. was going to be his next project, followed by Minority Report. The announcement was shocking to the design team. Unfortunately, shooting on Cruise's Mission Impossible had gone over and forced a delay on Minority Report, while Memoirs of a Geisha had run into extremely bad script problems.

Realizing the design team had to have help, Spielberg asked Chris Baker to help his team complete their work. Luckily, he was available and flew to Los Angeles to work with them at the bungalow.


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Wilson Tang was appointed the film's lead concept designer by ILM. Using Chris Baker's storyboards and concept art, Tang estimated the minimum number of buildings that needed to be designed to create the illusion of a large, dense city. He then hand-drew all the buildings.

Tang then used NewTek's Lightwave software to turn his hand-drawn buildings into wire-frame representations. Each building was then placed in a virtual 3D set. Using a controller, Tang could "walk" through the set, looking in all directions including up and down at any angle. These initial animatics showed Spielberg which buildings would be visible in various camera angles.

These 3D animatics helped drive which models the "untitled project" design team worked on. In part, they did so by winnowing down the number of buildings needed to the bare minimum needed. They also did so by identifying which buildings could be rendered in CG, and which needed to be miniatures or physical.

Because of the tight timeline for the film, a good amount of the design work had to move ahead to the model stage almost immediately. Generally, once design concepts are approved, drafters will move the design concept to an architectural design ("blueprints"), which will lay out the exact dimensions of the final model and its appearance. A "sketch model" is then made, usually in clay, which can then be modified as design problems are identified or changes are made. When a model is designed to be scanned for use in CGI, a "white model" is made. Literally white, this model is intended to be as near-perfect as possible so that the CGI team has less work to do correcting it.

The team simply didn't have time to do the usual process. So "grey models" were made. These were usually made of carved styrofoam, which could be easily cut down, modified, or even junked -- or which could move to a "white model" with only a little paint and resin.

Spielberg spent from four to six hours a day with the team, going over storyboards and providing feedback on models.

Some designs changed radically, and some designs were junked and re-started from scratch multiple times. Several hundred models were constructed, including several dozen large-format "presentation models" which covered eight-foot-long tables and laid out entire sets (such as Rouge City and the Flesh Fair).

Rouge City proved particularly difficult to design. The team would design buildings, even going to the "grey model" stage. Spielberg himself was the first gatekeeper. Afterward, he would show the building models to producer Kathleen Kennedy. If she expressed dismay over its too-sexual tone, Spielberg would innocently blame Kubrick's design and go back to his team with instructions to tone it down.

Once "grey models" were approved, Urieta and Aronowitz turned them into "white models" using clay, plaster, and plastic. These were shipped to ILM. Sometimes, the white models were enough, and would be scanned by Grant Imahara for turning into CGI sets. Other times, the models needed to be scaled up and detailed for direct filming.

Urieta and Aronowitz mostly worked from their own homes and studios. This allowed them to work 18 to 24 hours a day; they could begin work again just minutes after getting up, instead of having to drive for an hour to the Warner Bros. workshops.

ILM constructed more than 100 practical models and about another hundred 100 computer models for A.I. Chris Baker spent several weeks at ILM helping the visual effects staff realize the designs.


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Spielberg's original idea was to rent the Spruce Goose Dome in Long Beach (which no longer housed the famous wooden plane but had been turned into a soundstage). Half the budget would have been spent on physical sets. But after his discussions with Murren and Farrar, only about a quarter of the Rouge City physical set was built.

Murren and Farrar confronted two technical issues. The first was accurately matching the physical film to the CGI shot. This could be overcome by using traditional greenscreen "balls" that would allow the CGI programmer to anchor CGI elements to the physical set.

The second was a bigger problem, one that had never been tackled yet. When a cast is acting against greenscreen, the director doesn't know what he/she is getting. The director has to imagine what the CGI elements will look like, and hope that they match sort of kind of maybe well. The CGI programmers will then adjust the CGI elements so that eyesights line up with horizons and an actor's hand doesn't pass through a wall or something. It wasn't a perfect system, and sometimes problems emerge that required reshoots or which simply can't be fixed.

Murren and Farrar's groundbreaking solution was to adapt computer game technology to film-making.

To create the real-time 3D environment, Tang downloaded and customized the UNREAL game engine from the Internet. UNREAL was chosen because it was particularly good at managing outdoor scenes. Tang and his crew then extensively studied the physics of camera movement. (A big digital camera rolling down a dolly track doesn't stop on a dime.) Once the virtual camera was created, virtual lenses, aspect ratios, camera heights, and other elements were created to give Spielberg accurate views for any combination of film equipment he chose. (The lenses were created with ILM's proprietary Zeon software.)

Mike Sanders, ILM's set visualization engineer, attached more than 800 tags to the ceiling and background of the greenscreen set. Each tag was a disk printed with concentric circles (like a bullseye). The varying circle sizes told a SIG Onyx computer where the virtual camera was in the CG world.

Tang's 3D models had been imported into Brainstorm Multimedia's Studio software. A Radamec camera tracker and an Ultimate compositing system separated the live action from the greenscreen in real time, and composited them electronically. Video hardware in the Onyx computer synced and locked the Studio images with the Ultimate matte images, while the Brainstorm software rendered the CG elements. The two channels of data, shown simultaneously on a computer monitor, allowed Spielberg to see an approximation of the CG set as well as his actors.

If Spielberg wanted to see what he'd just shot from a different angle, Sanders could use the software to change the virtual camera's location and angle. He could also move the virtual city around the camera. Even the actors could see the virtual set, giving them a far greater sense of what they were acting against. (All of these moves were automatically recorded, so that CG programmers got unambiguous direction as to what Spielberg wanted.)

This system has never been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.


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The Rouge City physical set was built by set designer Jim Teegarden, under Rick Carter's supervision. It was erected on Soundstage 20 on the Warner Bros. lot, rather than at the Spruce Goose Dome, because the CG elements allowed the use of a much smaller set.

Only a handful of the City's elements were built to scale. However, these proved difficult to design and construct. That's because the script called for main characters David, Teddy, and Gigolo Joe to escape the city in an "amphibicopter". Their poor piloting of the airship wreaks havoc on Rouge City.

Mechanical effects designer Michael Lantieri and his crew designed a gigantic pulley system to lift and move the full-scale amphibicopter. The system had to be immensely precise, so that retakes could be made and the physical effect integrated well with the surrounding CGI.

The 3D virtual set worked so well that Spielberg threw out some storyboards of Rouge City and used the shots developed on the set using the UNREAL/Studio/Ultimate software system.

The 3D virtual set also helped the CG team realize that they did not need to build some structures. They would not have known that without the live system.


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Here are Chris Baker concept designs for Rouge City for the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence

FWIW, Wilson Tang at ILM claims he designed "most" of the buildings in Rouge City. I highly doubt it. His images are clearly drawn from Chris Baker's work. In some cases, they are nearly identical. Tang probably designed the layout of the city, placing buildings here and there. At least, to a more or less degree, I think that is what happened.









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Warren Manser concept designs for Rouge City for the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence






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Here are some Rouge City models and miniatures for the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence














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Here is some matte and miniature work for a shot of Rouge City for the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

On the left was the miniature photograph. Notice the fountain, the cardboard silhouettes of people sitting around the fountain, the lighted street signpost, the placard in front of the bar, the palm trees on either side of the entrance to the bar, and the placard under the lightpost to the right.

All these elements would be CGI'ed out, and many replaced with new images. The fountain, for example, becomes a stage with a holographic pole dancer. The palm tree on the right becomes a platform where Gigolo Joe stands with David. The vertical "Edwards" sign is now "Edweds", and a new "Fetish Fantasy" sign placed inside the bar (covering over the race results).

The Gate Casino and all the other background buildings were CG elements.

FYI, this isn't even the final shot from the movie.

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