The aesthetic for Elysium was intended to resemble luxuriant travel photography. An oceanfront mansion in west Vancouver served as the location for Rhodes’ home, and it is shown off in a long Steadicam shot during a party scene. The shot follows Foster from one side of the house, where she meets some guests, down through multiple levels and to a rear pool area. Opaloch explains, “We had an extensive bluescreen behind the pool, and it was one of the more challenging bluescreens Finn and his guys did because they had to build all the truss work and anchor the screen so we could shoot it at both high and low tide. They had to install a ballast system to keep it all secure. The bluescreen also happened to be right on top of our actors, so we worked out the angles to get maximum sun exposure. We needed extensive scaffolding to keep it stable. The problem with that location was that we were looking down into the ocean, so we were getting all these specular reflections coming back into the scene that wouldn’t make sense in the final composition, once all the CG terrain was added in the background.”
Another challenge at the location was building up the interior ambience to match the exterior sunlight. This was accomplished by squeezing two 2.4K HMI lighting balloons tight into the ceiling inside, and by “cheating with iris pulls,” says Opaloch. Outside, Foster was placed in open shade from overheads and hit with a large, soft key; this was initially a 20'x20' UltraBounce return from the sun, and then, as natural light faded, an 18K Fresnel double diffused through full silk.
Almost all interiors were shot onstage in Vancouver. “When we had the room, we would shoot through 20-bys of diffused light right up to the mattebox to really wrap the light around the subjects,” says Opaloch. Most Elysium exteriors were filmed in west Vancouver in the southlands, by the airport and by a large golf course. “Vancouver in the summer is so lush and green, it’s like our version of Hawaii,” says Opaloch.
Perhaps the trickiest lighting challenge rested within a soundstage in the massive Elysium control room, where Rhodes oversees innumerable diagnostic screens and technicians from a perch high above the floor. The filmmakers put multiple cameras into play in the set and, in an unusual move for them, employed a Technocrane with a Libra Head. “I have an aversion to big sweeping crane shots,” Opaloch says, “but sometimes a 50-foot Techno was the only way to get the camera into position.”
Blomkamp wanted feedback from all the screens and monitors to reflect upon all the actors and the set. High-powered Christie 14K DLP projectors perched on scissor lifts served this purpose. “The catch was that the set had been given a semigloss treatment,” notes Opaloch. “We had three cameras on it, and when we changed angles, A camera looked great, B camera didn’t see the projector effect at all because of the angle of approach, and C camera looked so over-the-top it was almost like a music video. A better way to shoot that set would have been with a single camera, covering all the angles and setting the projectors to that. We ended up using two different projectors that were in sync but offset for the camera angles.
“Compounding the problem was that there were different facets kicking off at crazy angles,” he continues. “It was a challenge to get lights where we needed them to light the different facets and the environment so the actors didn’t look like floating heads! The biggest problem was, for example, a medium shot of Jodie up in the bird’s nest. She’s at the top of this space looking down on everybody, and her surroundings have all these upward-angled facets that are kicking up. Because it was just specular reflection that we were using, I had to have a highlight at the exact angle to see that facet, which was against a black background as well. We used little channels of LED tape, which wound up being our go-to detail light for the Elysium environment.”
Principal photography occurred about two years before LED lighting really took off, but Rumak managed to track down spools of dimmable LED tape lighting in Warm White and Cool White. The filmmakers opted for the latter because it suited their science-fiction lighting scheme better. “It was a little green,” Rumak points out, “but on camera it just blew out behind Plexiglas when incorporated into the set build, and we didn’t light actors with it. We only used it to light reflections and kicks on walls.” (Over the course of production, Rumak used about 5,000' of the Cool White LED tape.)
The control room’s main light sources were two 20'x30' articulating truss frames packed with Kino Flo daylight Image 85s hanging overhead and layered with double diffusion and Light Tools soft directional grid. Double Bobbinet was used to reduce the curse of white reflective values while helping to create an even softer source. “It was gimbaled, and when we got into Jodie’s coverage, we could bring it down and play it as a big soft source for her close-ups. It was the softest, creamiest, wrappiest source we could get. We had two of them, key and fill. For the wider shots, we’d move it up into the roof and use it as toplight.”
Tucked away throughout the set to enhance its architecture were dimmable 4-bank daylight Kino Flo Tegras and dimmable Color Kinetics IW Blasts, daylight-balanced LED sources from Phillips. Opaloch, who had almost 200 of the fixtures on hand, used the extremely bright sources as a colored flashing backlight on various actors. “We also found that by stringing 12 of them together, we were able to create a realistic-looking decay of an explosion,” notes Rumak.
With so many sources on the set, Rumak had everything wired through DMX and controlled through a lighting console; there were as many as 450 looks and 200 separate lighting effects. “We needed a DMX-controlled set to get through all the script pages we had,” says Opaloch. “The challenge was getting the light where we needed it without limiting the scope of the other cameras. We could just dial the background up or down, and that capability got us out of a lot of trouble.”
Another unique Elysium set is the scanner room, which is bathed in ultraviolet light. That’s where Rhodes and John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the head of ArmorDyne, discuss details pertaining to a potential coup without fear of surveillance. “Raw UV light is really tough to work with — it illuminates stuff you can’t see with the naked eye, and it’s not at all aesthetically pleasing,” remarks Opaloch. “The directive from Neill was a UV look. He likes extreme close-ups with long lenses — bottom lip to eyebrow — and that can be tough to pull off if you can’t get a soft wrap in there. In shooting tests, we found a balance that gave us a UV look without threatening to destroy these actors’ careers. We had blue light mixed with a little colored light and actual UV light, which gave us just enough of a pop with the white of the actors’ eyes and teeth.”
On Earth, the lighting was more of a mixed bag. Opaloch tried to minimize incandescent sources, figuring incandescent technology will have been phased out by 2154. Overhead fluorescents served as the “older” lights, and the “newer” lights were LED-based. “On Elysium, we played the LEDs as on-camera sources, and that worked very well in those environments,” says Opaloch. “But on Earth, we tucked them away and only used them off camera.”