From Black Panther to Annihilation, the stories behind 5 blockbusters in the Oscars tech race
Eye-popping Oscar contenders stun below the line
While performative master classes in prestige dramas and musically tinged star births vault major acting contenders like Melissa McCarthy and Lady Gaga into the preliminary awards conversation, there's another race quietly brewing beneath the early stages of the celebrity-studded Oscar contest. Between now and the Academy's Jan. 22 nominations morning, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their craft. From the costumes of Black Panther and the sets of Tomb Raider to the eye-popping visual effects in Annihilation, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Ready Player One, click ahead for a deep dive into the work of artists who studied beetle shells, real-life volcanic eruptions, African tribes, and made-up languages to create five distinct aesthetics that fueled some of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
Gary Freeman: Tomb Raider production designer
Having assisted the art department on the first Tomb Raider movie in 2001, Gary Freeman knew he was working against colossal expectations when boarding the 2018 reboot. But director Roar Uthaug made one thing clear at the start of production on the video game adaptation: "It had to be physically possible," Freeman tells EW of constructing sets that a woman of star Alicia Vikander's physical stature could realistically navigate — that included shifting away from the exaggerated, fantastical nature of video game heroine Lara Croft's typical stomping grounds. "Alicia very much played a real character, so we had to make [everything] in tune with her character and very raw; we didn’t want to turn her into a superwoman."
Leveling up by scaling down the fantasy
Still, Freeman knew he "had to do amazing interiors" while conceiving massive interior sets that would impress both fans of the game and fresh moviegoers in Uthaug's tale of a young woman who travels to a fictional Japanese island Yamatai to complete the work of her missing explorer father, discovering her own inner strength in the process. "[It] was about trying to get that sense of jeopardy and scale that at any moment she might fall and die, which is very prevalent in the games."
Lara scales Japan, China, and Korea in a single bound
For the look of Croft's final, cavernous conquest, Freeman, who also did production design on Disney's lavish Maleficent, drew inspiration from ancient Japanese temples — many of which date back nearly 2,000 years, according to his research. "The biggest problem you have is: 2,000 years ago the Japanese culture was very much an assimilation of Korean and Chinese culture, [so] we actually looked to Chinese and Korean culture for aesthetic. We based the actual tomb on stone pyramids," he says of the film's climax, which takes place inside as opposed to the mostly natural, rocky, harsh terrain on location in South Africa.
Digging for treasure (and visual inspiration)
In a move that mimics the payoff gamers feel when discovering hidden, subterranean play spaces in the Tomb Raider game series, Freeman and Uthaug leave most of the film's impressive constructions for the final act, when Croft enters a titanic tomb guarded by a barrage of tricky puzzle traps — including a menacing door Freeman designed after viewing a piece of real-life excavation equipment.
"I saw a fantastic image of a huge tunneling machine that had these strange abstract images on it, and that was where I got the tomb entrance from," he says. "I wanted it to have scale and be abstract, and it’s something you hopefully haven’t seen before. The premise for the door’s [construction] is it was like a fail safe, like an ejector door of an airplane. When you escape an airplane…the door doesn’t retract, it just blows [out]; there’s no shutting that door…. The technology wasn’t too advanced 2,000 years ago, so it was a simple idea there was a locking mechanism that released and it would fall [so Croft could enter]. Rather than some big huge mechanical contraption, we obviously stretched the technology a bit, but I didn’t want it to feel so incredible that you wouldn’t believe someone 2000 years ago wouldn’t have been able to [construct it too]."
The language of Lara doesn't exist
Freeman's work didn't stop at the physical level, either. He worked with a calligrapher to create an entirely new alphabet for the fictional Yamatai region. "Two thousand years ago, the Japanese language didn’t exist; it was [also] an assimilation of Chinese and Korean, so we invented our own Asian language," explains Freeman. "There’s nothing worse than trying to put Japanese on a set when we’re not Japanese; you can get lots of errors!"
Most of the text appears on temple walls, but mostly on a series of puzzles Croft solves to gain entry into the tomb.
"All those signs and symbols mean something. Over thousands of millennia, [the real language] turned into a symbol versus an image," he says. "We twisted it. That’s what we did on the opening of the door when she solves the puzzle."
Freeman got a little (okay, a lot) of help from his VFX-savvy friends
"The landscapes were very real. We didn’t go too magical in terms of landscapes, but as [we] go inside it becomes more mystical and imaginative," Freeman remembers of the collaborative effort. "The visual effects team gave [Yamatia] gravity, height, and scale, and that’s what the Lara Croft character required.... [We] started from reality and then twisted it to suit the drama and the action."
Ruth Carter: Black Panther costume designer
Having crafted stunning historical pieces for films like Malcolm X and Amistad, Ruth Carter not only brought her Oscar-nominated skills to Ryan Coogler's superhero epic, but also a knack for cultural research that gave Wakanda its distinct textile identity. "The research is applied to the design and in a way that infuses tribal customs, the artistry of Africa, materials, techniques, textures, color palettes — all kinds of things that create the symbolism you see in the costume design," Carter says of her work, which draws inspiration from dozens of regional tribes including the Ndebele, Dogon, Himba, Maasai, and Surma. "What [Marvel] has is a superhero model; what you infuse is the African culture that needs to tell the story of the time and place."
The queen has arrived
Carter's favorite piece — a regal design literally fit for a queen — encapsulates her vision for Wakanda as a futuristic society with deep ties to traditional African past. It also took six months to create from conception to completion via 3D printer.
"Ramonda [wears] the married woman’s hat. That’s a South African, traditional custom hat that has a cylindrical shape. My story was if Romanda is the queen and this is a forward-thinking nation and they’re more technologically advanced than the rest of the world, her crown would mirror that advancement, and she’d have the best qualified computer technicians building her crown. It’s perfectly round [and] we 3D-printed it because that was the best way to get a perfectly round, cylindrical piece," Carter says. "We also 3D-printed her collar piece, I call it her shoulder mantle. Its shape is very large and I loved it because I felt like we would unmistakably know her as the queen…she stands out amongst them as their queen. But it looked heavy, so I researched African lace and picked one that I liked and gave it to our computer designer, and he took the lace and manipulated it so that when we 3D-printed it, it felt like it was this beautiful crustacean, this beautiful piece that would have been carefully made by the best craftsman in Wakanda."
Past meets present (and future) in Carter's hands
"Wearable tech dates itself so quickly [but] fusing African style with modern dress is something that will never go out of style," Carter adds, noting that the technology she used to create some of the film's clothing is more timeless because of its resistance to flashier, more obvious futuristic embellishments. She also looked to designers like Gareth Pugh, Stella McCartney, and Issey Miyake. "It was clear if I used Issey Miyake and a lot of forward-thinking Japanese fashion designers and fused a little African culture in there, I’d have Wakanda’s style."
Carter thinks you should see color, because she did while making Black Panther's clothing
"The red color of the Himba tribe was an inspiration for the Dora Milaje. The level of the red of the Maasai was [also] the inspiration for the Dora because we needed to feel this vibrant, imposing color from this high-ranking female-fighting force that protected the king," Carter notes. "There weren’t very many of them, so when you saw one it needed to feel very imposing, and their numbers [needed to] feel bigger than they actually were."
Carter even created a "base suit" for each fighter that included tights that had supplemental printing to mimic scarification, often considered a symbol of beauty in some African tribes.
"The leather calf skins they wear on their skirts stretch like the Himba women stretch their leather calf-skin skirts to create a ruffling effect that they stud and put little ringlets on," she continues. "So there’s this balling of ideas that come about based on the sort of parameters set forth by Ryan Coogler."
Carter says the blue of the Border tribe — who also wear some 150 imported Lesotho blankets which she stamped with foil to replicate the fictional sheen of Vibranium — came to represent the police, as these Wakandans were the "first line of defense" for the kingdom, while the brown wood of the Jabari gave them a more natural feel.
Carter left her signature in details you might not see on first glance
Carter says working with Marvel on a pre-established superhero tentpole "is a practice in the art of collaboration," within which "you are given a framework" to work with. "Some of that framework includes the designs that they have been developing for some time before you come in," she says. Case in point? The Black Panther suit, which Carter says she was able to personalize in small but meaningful ways.
"There was a lot of screen printing...more print work than I’ve ever done [that] carries across every character throughout the whole film, and I’m proud of that," she states. "From Black Panther and the little triangles on his suit to Ramonda, who has gold symbols stamped on her dress, every character has some kind of texture that we added to them, and I love that aspect because it’s kind of like signing the film in a way, when you come up with different ways of showing patterns and textures on things that may have existed already."
David Vickery: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom visual effects supervisor
Of the many complicated, visual effects-heavy shots in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, David Vickery says the volcanic eruption that likely registered as the only time you've ever cried at a dinosaur death (RIP, long-necked beauty on the dock!) is the "most complex and challenging sequence in the film," which incorporated the work of more than 100 artists combining computer and practical effects.
"There’s the level of interaction between humans and practical location with digital effects that becomes huge and very complex, so when we started planning it was really important that we grounded as much of that as we could in reality [and to] be based in the real world," Vickery says. "We worked with our special effects teams to rig dozens of explosive mortars in the ground in Kualoa Ranch where we filmed, so while Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Justice Smith run through the environment, there were physical explosions and mortars going off around them simulating where lava bombs were going off in the ground."
An eruption of creative inspiration from around the world
To achieve a realistic-looking volcanic effect, Vickery and his team spent hours watching real-life volcanic eruptions, including footage from the Batu Tara eruption in 2015 and the 1994 activity on Mount Tavurvur in Papua New Guinea, while director J.A. Bayona consulted with volcanologists to ensure accuracy. They just had to condense the explosive timeline to fit within the world of the film. And enhancing the location shoot's physical atmosphere to feel more like the site of a real volcanic catastrophe in the moment made a world of difference.
"It’s not the easiest way to do things. In many respects, certainly for physical production, the easy option is just to kick it into post and say ‘We can do that in visual effects,’ but I think the more successful and rewarding approach is to try to collaborate with the special effects team, the stunts department, and the creature effects department," says Vickery. "We’re engaging all of those amazingly skilled technicians, and they’re bringing their ideas into the mix and you’re getting a huge collaboration of many talented artists rather than solely relying on visual effects to solve a problem. The actors, the director, and the camera operators have something physical in their environment to work with. They’re not standing on a green screen, they’re in a real space and challenged by the environment, and you get a more visceral and real experience as a viewer and a filmmaker, and that’s what brings life to the process."
Rain or shine: Vickery and co. made it all happen
"One of the biggest challenges about Hawaii is that I was expecting it would be blue skies every day, but that’s not the case. It’d be blue skies in the morning and then by 12 it’s raining, and by three it’s sunny again, so we were battling the elements. [We] essentially created our own weather by laying down hundreds of meters of smoke tubes in the environment, hiding them in the trees and the hedge rows and bushes, and we also [used] flame bars so that we could diffuse the light in the environment with huge columns of smoke," he explains. "That meant we controlled the weather in many ways. We augmented our physical environment with practical smoke elements to diffuse the light and create a consistent look throughout the sequence. It gave us a good basis for us to build our visual effects on."
Objects in mirror are closer (and more nostalgic) than they appear
One of the most joyful elements of working on Fallen Kingdom, Vickery admits, was feeling the nostalgia of the collaborators around him. The sequence includes a nod to the first Jurassic Park film when the fleeing trio seeks refuge from the dinosaur stampede behind a log that's similar to the one Dr. Grant, Lex, and Tim use for protection from a herd of galloping Gallimimus.
"The log was definitely a callback to Jurassic Park. J.A. wanted to put a twist on it. He doesn’t want to just copy," Vickery explains, adding that Bayona infused the scene with a Buster Keaton-inspired physical gag as passing dinosaurs hack the timber down as they run past. "We deliberately put a number of Gallimimus at the leading edge of the dinosaur stampede because we wanted to see them jumping over the log the way they do in Jurassic Park. And that was great fun because one of our animation supervisors, Glen McIntosh, is perhaps the biggest dinosaur fan ever, and he loved to look at those old films and reference the animation specifically, and he actually matched animations specifically [from Jurassic Park] and put them into our new film."
Andrew Whitehurst: Annihilation visual effects supervisor
Andrew Whitehurst headed into production on Annihilation with a visual effects Oscar for his work on Alex Garland's Ex Machina in hand, but noted that everyone — particularly Garland — wanted to step up their game for the bonkers sci-fi thriller starring Natalie Portman as a cellular biology professor investigating the appearance of a mysterious iridescent field. That meant changing and adapting their perspective as often as the film's wild, alienesque setting.
The biggest change occurred near the end of the film, when he and Garland made the decision to replace a forest of crystallized, body-shaped figures with distorted laser scans of trees.
"When Lena steps out onto the beach before getting to the lighthouse, she walks through a small cluster of crystal trees, and the original plan was for there to be these human sculptures bursting out of the beach. We’d even gotten as far as working with the art department to build partial sections of those sculptures that were physically there on the beach when we shot," he says. "In the edit, we realized it wasn’t right and didn’t tie into the rest of the film enough, so it felt disjointed. [Earlier] we’d laser-scanned trees that are in the real forest Lena walks through before getting to the beach. And one of the things that happens with laser scanners is they’re not very good at scanning things that have fine detail, like hair or leaves. They struggle with smaller stuff. They create these weird artifacts, these strange spikes and bizarre shapes, which have a certain beauty to them, and the corruption in them ties into a lot of the corruption of nature we see in the rest of the film."
All that shimmers is (potential Oscar) gold
"Once the characters get inside the Shimmer, the whole story is a journey [where] in each scene the tension and the strangeness has to ramp up by an appropriate amount," Whitehurst explains. "You can write that into a screenplay, but until you actually have sequences on a timeline in an edit, you don’t know whether the beats are working as you need them to. Throughout the entire post-production process we ended up making a lot of adjustments to a lot of sequences, sometimes completely redesigning the effects based on the fact that once we were looking at something in the edit, the impact it had was either too strong or not strong enough. That was the toughest overall challenge in the project, and once the fact that you’re inside the Shimmer, almost everything you see onscreen has to be designed because it is nature, but it’s nature that’s twisted and warped."
When nature and Natalie collide
Annihilation's trippy climax sees Lena engaged in a peculiar standoff with a humanoid figure seemingly comprised of a flowing metallic substance, perhaps the most breathtaking visual effects portion of the already masterful CGI-heavy epic.
"The confrontation with Lena is more of a dance than a fight, [so] you need to have a sense of threat and physicality to this character," Whitehurst says. "Having something that feels metallic helps with that. The reason the humanoid ended up having a lead, metallic surface is because the Mandelbulb form of the alien Lena meets in the chamber — that churning, fractal shape — when we conceived it, we thought perhaps it should have a smoky quality so it felt like it was always shifting shapes. The problem with that narratively is it felt slightly unsubstantial and lacked the possibility of threat, so maybe it needed to feel like it was a liquid metal that would give it a sense of weight and possible danger."
A constant amid chaos
Surprisingly enough, Whitehurst admits the humanoid changed the least from original conception to finished product.
"The thing that did change with the humanoid was that in the screenplay, as soon as Lena leaves the lighthouse, you didn’t see the humanoid again, you just saw the lighthouse ablaze," Whitehurst explains. "Literally on the afternoon of shooting those scenes, we thought it was a shame we didn’t have a sense of the demise of the humanoid. We improvised on set that afternoon...the movement of her crawling across the floor of the lighthouse and down into the tunnel, crawling and clamoring into the base of the chamber and rising up at the end as the flames engulf the chamber and it all blows out to white. That whole sequence was not originally scripted; the choreography and shooting of it was all made up on the day, and we had to roll with that and figure out how we were going to work the visual effects into it."
Venus of Willend-oh-no
If the humanoid sequence feels familiar yet alarmingly alien, Whitehurst says that's exactly the point.
"We looked at a lot of paleolithic art and the way that ancient cultures presented the human form. We looked at a lot of Cycladic, early Greek art with featureless faces. We took a lot of inspiration from the Italian sculptor [Alberto] Giacometti as well," he says. "It’s important for us to reference fine art and nature [to] draw a broader range of cultural influences into our work because that adds extra complexity and substance, [and] has an effect on the intellect and the soul as well as just being exiting to look at."
The Shimmer is abuzz with bugs!
"We [also] looked at metals and iridescent shells of beetles," Whitehurst says of crafting the rainbow-tinged glint of the environment's perimeter, which morphs and flows in the same vein as petrol spilled into water. "Alex was walking past a shop where he lives where they sell beetles mounted on boards. He bought one and gave it to us. We could take this physical object and move it around in the light to see how it behaved [to] incorporate some of those ideas into the surfacing qualities of the humanoid [and the Shimmer]."
Roger Guyett: Ready Player One visual effects supervisor
No one wants to go back to the Overlook, the pleasant-on-the-surface hotel where Jack Nicholson's character morphed into a homicidal maniac in Stanley Kubrick's chilling masterpiece The Shining. Except Roger Guyett, who helped focus Steven Spielberg's digital retread into the film's iconic locale for a key scene in Ready Player One.
"Trying to weave The Shining into the movie, we were literally doing exactly what the Oasis represented in Ready Player One, which was building this representation," Guyett says of the film's most impressive sequence that sees characters — in pursuit of a hidden key — entering a digital recreation of the Overlook while playing an immersive video game. "I wondered if we could actually use all the footage from the original movie in some way and try to construct the sequence around that. Unfortunately, the size of our characters and the way it was staged meant we had to build a version of every aspect of the Overlook; even the maze is completely constructed digitally!"
All work and no play makes...for a super impressive digital construct
Almost all of what viewers see in the Overlook sequence was created specifically for the film, including the hotel's corridors and sweeping main entrance, over a 15-month period. But, Guyett says the infamous bathroom scene (yes, that scene with the naked lady) is so memorable that they didn't want to disrupt its standing in viewers' minds.
"The woman who’s in the bath in the original is so iconic, [so] we actually took footage from the movie and put her back into the digital version of our bathroom," he recalls. "When you see her face, her body is real and completely from the original movie. We lifted the images from the original film. I believe there’s one shot of her pulling back the curtain and you see her face, and one shot of her walking toward H in the bathroom; those two elements are both lifted from the original movie. We didn’t want to do a digital representation of her if we could avoid it, so we staged those shots very much like the original moments in the movie. When we reverse on her [when she’s] walking toward H, that’s a double."
The only other physical setpieces made for the Ready Player One sequence were the elevator doors that, in the original film, burst open to spill blood across the hotel lobby. But the river of liquid that oozes out was created via a painstaking cross-checking process.
"In the original movie, the blood releases from the elevator and it’s just one shot, but we wanted to turn it into this river of blood that carries [the character] H down the corridor before he ends up in room 237," Guyett says. "When we actually did the simulation of blood coming out of the elevator, the guy who did it spent a long time matching the timing of the blood coming out, so our simulation of that blood completely matches the original flow of the blood coming out of the elevator [in the original film]. Likewise with the maze…all the snow on the shrubs in the maze was all fake [on the original set], so we actually matched the look of that snow on the shrubs and the trees."