Digital Domain: The Making of Ender’s Game

Trevor Hogg chats with Gavin Hood and Matthew Butler about the creative challenges encountered while bringing Ender’s Game to the big screen….

When writing the screenplay for the cinematic adaptation of Ender’s Game by novelist Orson Scott Card, filmmaker Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) discovered creative inspiration from his own life.  “For me it wasn’t so much a particular scene but a particular feeling that it generated in me,” recalls Hood.  “I was drafted when I was 17 in the South African military in 1981, during the bad old days, and taken a thousand miles away from my home, and dropped into a basic training place where I was yelled and screamed at.  I was set in an environment that was very different from my experience in growing up where aspects of my personality, particularly the more aggressive side of one’s male personality, were being praised in ways that would have been unthinkable by your mother.”

“I read the book only five years ago,” states Hood.  “It was sent to me by my agent and I said, ‘Wow.  This is a sci-fi movie and it’s about this kid.  Why am I relating to these strong internal conflicts that happen inside this character?’  I was reading a book aimed at young people that didn’t in anyway talk down to them but recognized the complexity of our feelings and emotions, in particular our capacity for great compassion and also our equal capacity for incredible aggression.   The idea that most appealed to me about the book was here is a protagonist who is not a good kid taking on a bad guy, beating the bad guy, setting the world right and riding off into the sunset.  This is more complicated.  This is a story about a kid who is essentially is in a battle with himself to define his own morality and to choose his own life path.  Ender Wiggin is not a perfect kid; he is highly intelligent but is capable of both terrible violence and great compassion.  Ender is trying to figure out where he will settle as an adult.”

“The internal struggle is where the author can spend many paragraphs describing beautifully what a character is thinking and feeling but the author of course doesn’t have living breathing actors,” observes Gavin Hood.  “What I tried to do in adapting the script was to write scenes that would generate a feeling and the ability for the actor to respond in such a way that the audience would intuitively understand what that actor is feeling emotionally.  Sometimes you can achieve that with a really good actor in a reaction shot which is just a second long whereas that reaction you’re seeing the screen might take a novelist a whole paragraph to describe.  There are pros and cons to both mediums.  Imagine Ender Wiggin lives outside of the book; he’s a real living breathing character.  The author has described him beautifully in a novel form and my job is to film him beautifully; both of us need to capture his essence in these different mediums.”

“The biggest challenge was finding the right actor to pull off a character who is on the verge of becoming a man,” reveals Hood.  “In the script I decided to write it with this kid in every scene in the movie because I felt that was the only way we as the audience would bond with the young person who sometimes does things we don’t feel comfortable with.  If you never leave him and feel his own struggle with what he’s doing you will hopefully go on the journey with him.  Once you commit to put a 12 year old in virtually every scene of the movie except for a couple with Graff and Anderson you have to find a brilliant young actor to pull that off.  We were lucky to find Asa Butterfield [Hugo].”

“One of the ideas in Ender’s Game is to try to get the best out of the people you work with because someone will be way smarter than you and putting the best ideas from all of these people who are experts in all of these different fields will hopefully result in a better product than you can come up by yourself,” notes Gavin Hood who recruited Oscar-nominee Matthew Butler (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) to be his visual effects supervisor.  “I understandably went to Matthew early on and said, ‘I’m a screenwriter not an engineer.  You’re a Masters Degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a MIT graduate.  ‘Can you take a look at it and talk about anything that comes off to you as being scientifically inaccurate?’   Matthew started to do previs and I worked with my editor editing the animated sequences.  Matthew was a stickler for getting the zero-G right and working out the mathematics for what velocity they’d be moving at and how they’d turn.  Having your team involved from an early stage means when you’re on-set shooting where time is precious and money is being spent at rapid rate with such a big crew you can focus on collecting exactly what you need.”

“I learned about Ender’s Game [2013] through the script and in my mind that is the movie,” states Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Matthew Butler who became quick friends with filmmaker Gavin Hood over the course of producing the cinematic adaptation. “Luckily Gavin was already on board with his Art Department team which was Ben Procter and Sean Haworth [The Thing] who shared the responsibility of production designers on this movie; they and their team were creating artwork quite prolifically so those were visual tools to accompany our use of words.  Because Digital Domain is a producer of this movie we had the team resident here in Venice, California before making the move to New Orleans.  We employed two or three storyboard artists here which we then took with us to New Orleans.”  The principle photography involved a less than convenient process.  “In the perfect world you have art direction and pictures, make storyboards, do previs, and then go out and shoot it.  We didn’t quite reach that utopic level. We were shooting before we had finished previs and started certain storyboards.  To a certain extent we paid a price for that but that’s the reality of moviemaking.”

“Prior to this joint production methodology Digital Domain would be more predominantly a service company providing visual effects,” observes Matthew Butler.  “There are obvious disadvantages to that where you can only charge what you can for that service and don’t get a piece of the gate but you also have some benefits.  You get a certain protection from a system that has been in place for many years. You would assess the level of work the best you can in the beginning and from that break it down, create a budget schedule, and follow it through with the producers involved.  The point where things get simpler or more complex is when you put your hand in the air and go, ‘Hang on a second.  We hadn’t planned on that.’   People, who worry about money more than I, get together and scramble to change orders that are in place to commensurate with the level of complexity.  Things grow providing that we have enough people and time available.  You charge more money and get it done.   With the new situation we were part producers and held hands around the table in the beginning and said, ‘We’re going to making this movie for this much money and time.   These are our assets, and this is a closed system.’  That’s all well and good as long as everyone plays ball.  What tends to happen is you slip back into what you’re used to with shooting.  When you’re on-set you have the assistant director whose priority responsibility is making their day not whether or not things are being changed and my budget is getting affected.  We needed to let things change because this is an artistic environment but always see there are ramifications to that and how we faced them was tricky; having said that we achieved it.”

“What happened for various production reasons our starting date got accelerated by two months,” explains Gavin Hood.  “We had really previs the Battle Room Sequences down to the minute detail and that part of the shoot was incredibly smooth as a result. The Simulation Battles we hadn’t completed all of our previs when we had to shoot. There were issues of actor availability and we had to go.  That was harder but we achieved the result.  I knew what I needed in my head but it was more exhausting because I was waving around going, ‘Over here is giant battle ship that you can’t see but imagine it goes boom over here.’  It was more stressful because we had less references than the sections we had previs more carefully in the Battle Room Sequences.”  A lesson well learned.  “Matthew and I dug our heels in any time we were up against this and said, ‘Guys we will pay for it if we don’t get this portion of the prep done in detail.’” 

“I also brought early on Garrett Warren [Lincoln], the stunt coordinator, and he brought the Cirque du soleil performers,” remarks Gavin Hood.  “I put Matthew with Garrett so they knew what each other could do.  When do we transition from what Garrett can do physically and what Matthew has to takeover and do it in pure CG?  We broke the sequences down too. ‘This all we need to shoot of this performance.’   We needed to get that perfect.  We would hand that off to Matthew.  On-set while we were shooting Matthew, Garrett, and I were like this little triangle.  Obviously, I was helped out by my fantastic cinematographer but he is helping us to execute what we need to put the pieces together during post-production.  It was a great experience to have these people from different disciplines.”

“One of our big challenges on this film was emulating zero gravity,” states Matthew Butler.  “We started with putting actors as close as possible in a world that looked as close as possible to being zero gravity.”  The practical use of harnesses and wires looked good on-set.  “Sometimes it’s not until you isolate the content into the final shot where you go, ‘I see it [acting like a] pendulum or moving up and down.’”  The problem needed to be address to ensure believability.  “It’s a defence mechanism that we recognize motion accurately without going to school.”  A digital solution was needed.  “When you put a harness on someone the pivot point where he moves his limbs around is fixed to it.  We can come up with tools that can compute and move the image to where it should be but it requires a complicate re-projection and computer generation content to achieve it; that’s what we did.”  The visual effects supervisor recruited a unique contact for assistance.  “Greg Chamitoff was my roommate at MIT when we were studying aerodynamics; he went on to become an astronaut.  Greg is a lovely guy who flew out several times and educated the kids; it was important that he could let them know how they should behave and have to act in order to emulate zero gravity.  Greg talked with our stunt and animation crews; we got a lot of value out of that and it was cool that he was an astronaut too.”

“What is great for an actor is when you walk onto a physical set because you don’t have to imagine but you can sit down in a chair, look out and touch the walls,” states Gavin Hood.  “Really great production design helps an actor feel the space but when actors of any kind, never mind the young ones, walk into an entirely green screen environment it is tricky because everyone’s imagination is slightly different. The previs helps to illustrate what that environment looks like.”  Both green and blue screen was used.  “We did a full surround green screen for Ender and his commanders in the simulation cave though the piece that is set built is tiny,” remarks Matthew Butler.  “Once the lights go out and the Simulation Cave is on you don’t want anything else so it made sense to have a full surround green screen.  We did the same with the zero gravity Battle Room.  We did as much stunt performance and that made sense to shoot that in green screen in general.  There are times when there is zero value in having green screen there and we went with black or rotoscoping.  You do your best guess as to the procedure going in but that only works if you can execute what is planned.  Obviously, on the day it’s free-form jazz and you have to shoot from the hip.”

“In terms of the Battle Room and Simulation Cave this was an opportunity where the film can hopefully go a step further than the book,” states Gavin Hood.  “In the book you have the Battle Room in a black box.  I hope fans forgive me for taking the liberty of putting it into a huge glass sphere.  I broke that rule because I felt, ‘Why am I going out into space for to be in a black box?’  The truth is in space I can see much further.  I can see Earth and the Moon.  By placing it in this glass sphere I felt like I was achieving the best of both worlds.  The sphere allows it to be quite cinematic and to have some fun with light, imagery, and mood.  Then the simulation cave Ender plays the game on a computer and I was worried that this would be quite static.  I was at the planetarium with my kids and saw this huge projector.  Out comes all of these stars at 360 degrees and combining that with an orchestrate conductor at a Disney concert I thought, ‘Wow!  That conductor is picking up a sweat and he’s not even moving but he’s giving off all of this energy.’  If I put Ender in the middle of a simulation room and create a video game all around him that’s projected in virtual reality he can move his arms like a conductor.” 

“Someone comes to you and says, ‘We want it like no one has seen before.’  It’s one of those classic lines,” chuckles Matthew Butler when discussing a futuristic technology which regularly gets the cinematic treatment.  “The hologram had to serve a couple of purposes.  One is that it has to look cool.  The other thing is that it has to give the audience the belief that Ender is fully immersed in a believable photorealistic environment that he is really not in.” Butler observes, “I don’t know if anyone can really become fresh because we’re all thinking the same thing.”  Despite the creative impediment a novel approach was implemented during the space battle scenes.  “Ender changes his point of view of what we’re looking at and we tether that together with three dimensional graphics in a way I haven’t seen before.”  Computer graphics on televisions and tablets had to be designed.  “We made a big effort to make sure we were modern but not gratuitous.   There had to be an appropriate need for them.”

Serving as the warring adversary to International Fleet is an alien insect race.  “When Gavin first talked about his image of the Formics he showed some reference of termite mounds in Africa,” recalls Matthew Butler.  “Gavin talks in emotional storytelling manners and he’s thinking that the Formics have this hive mentality and work as a team.  There is communication from the Queen to everyone.  The idea was to have little ecosystems where departmental activities went on.  Civilizations were important to him.” A particular YouTube video was pointed out by the director.   “They poured concrete in this labyrinth termite mound, excavated to see what it looked underground and it was incredibly elaborate. This became the source of design that they are insect and hive-like. Gavin also loved the imagery of starlings that swarm in murmurations. It’s a good word.  It’s the name given to swarms of birds and how they flock.  It became a hybrid of this swarming organic behaviour of this flock together with a notion that they are somewhat termite-ant-like; there’s even a reference to that in the film.  Gavin worked with his Art Department team and they sketched out some designs.  You don’t see a single Formic in a living form until the end of the movie for deliberate reasons.”                                 

“The idea is that the Formic planet is in our nearest solar system about five light years away and therefore we have shipped our battle forces over to them a long time ago,” remarks Matthew Butler.  “In the meantime we’re training our young lad because even at light speed it takes many years to get there.  These vehicles which are on their way to cause harm are pristine at this point; they are vacuum-packed, Saran wrapped out of the bag.  We have four scenes where the first scene is Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley] showing Ender the playing field.  Here is the Formic planet and your arsenal.  At this point nothing is damaged.  There is a deliberate juxtaposition of animation made between the Formics and the I.F..  The I.F. military is regimented and computer controlled so is geometric in dynamics and animation.  We made a huge effort to show that distinct difference between them and that juxtaposition.  Of course, gloves come off at one point and its all fair game but you get the geometric pattern in the formation.”  Modifications were made to the concept art for the spaceships and vehicles.  “There is a lot of design that happens here regardless the amount of artwork that comes in which we were grateful for and was lovely.  But then you have to do it for real in three dimensions.  Because of the need for so many different vehicles we had to design ones that could be modulated from other things.  Then you have to cut them all up and explode in a dramatic and dynamic fashion.”

“I delivered 941 shots,” remarks Matthew Butler.  “We did about 700 at Digital Domain.  It was based on schedule and availability.  Because we were producers of this movie we were able to do this at cost without having mark-up so then Digital Domain becomes the most efficient company to work in general because they can afford to do it without their mark-up.  Other companies can do things cheaper because they have lower overhead.”  Other visual effects companies involved with Ender’s Game were Vectorsoul & Post 23, Method Studios, The Embassy, and Comen VFX while motion graphics were handled by G Creative Productions and Goldtooth Creative Agency.  “For the Mind Game, I met with a lovely company called Vectorsoul.  We worked with them on some assets because they hadn’t done a feature film before.  We had the tools they didn’t have and so did a hybrid with them.  We worked with companies in Vancouver because of tax benefits.  Everything was in the mix to make that decision.”

“I’m a big fan of the Mind Game,” states Matthew Butler.  “If you get into it it’s quite psychologically disturbing – the manipulation of children to fight wars.  It’s set in a way as being an r and r for the kids. ‘I’ve done my homework lets enter the Mind Game.’  But there is a sinister addition to it where we find out it’s a tool that is developed by the psychoanalyst to study the behaviour of these children.  We also find out that there is also a communication going on between the Queen and Ender. When I went to see the movie I want more of the Mind Game.  It makes me feel comfortable.  It’s also a departure from the photorealism.  I’ve been doing photorealism since I started here and I do think it’s the pinnacle of what we do but it is nice to delve into something else, into art and be creative and not to be bound by physical and optical reality.  It was a fun project to work on in the design and execution, and working with the company Vectorsoul which did a great job.  There is a lot of storytelling there and parallels that have to be adhered to.  We couldn’t go just trippy.  I found it to be refreshing and visually fun.”

“One of the problems with this movie is that we had so many different environments to create,” reveals Matthew Butler.  “It’s great if you can do a one trick pony.  If you have a movie where you have to make a floating iceberg and it appears in every shot that would be wonderful but here we have full one hundred per cent synthetic Formic dog fights and Earth in the daylight, and then you have the space station all that goes on there, and then you have the mind game which is completely different from everything else, the simulation cave, the cathedral, and the Queen.”  The leader of the Formics was an animation challenge.  “Creating a creature that hardly moves, is supposed to emote this compassion but yet be a badass, be frail but threatening and you don’t have eyes or hands or lips. I am thankful to my animation director.  I can explain what we wanted to achieve but I don’t know how to pull it off.  It’s amazing what these talented people did.”

Over 300,000 ships appear simultaneously requiring Digital Domain to process more than 27 billion polygons in order to complete the shot of the Final Battle.  “When the lights dim in the office and the coffee machine won’t work any more you know that someone is rendering something powerful,” notes Matthew Butler.  “Associate VFX Supervisor/DFX Supervisor David Hodgins [I, Robot] is the brains behind the digital side of us here and had to deal with all of that.  Just getting stuff to render is a huge challenge.  Long gone are the days where you would render out an image and that’s what goes in the movie.  You render out final pieces and this thing is in control of that and it’s dependent to this.  ‘When Dave smiled it meant that something rendered the night before.  We broke machines everywhere all the time.  It was the biggest technical achievement we have had at this company.  It involved a huge team of people including technical directors who were responsible for making sure that the pipeline was such that when somebody rendered it would actually go through.  They go in there and optimize shaders.  They speak code that you and I wouldn’t know.  You grab some software off the shelf and turn the bells and whistles on I guarantee it wouldn’t even render a teacup.  A lot of people were focused on that task of, ‘We have to get it done.’”

“The thing I am most proud of is that the Formic planet gets destroyed in the end and Ender is not aware that it wasn’t a simulation,” remarks Matthew Butler.   “We go back and study the planet in two forms.  We see it in an earlier scene where Mazer Rackham is saying, ‘Here’s their planet and the population density is rising.  Look at the amassing of the military.’   You see it in an epic shot.  You go, “Look at that!  We’re in trouble.’  In the end of the Final Battle you get to see the burning apocalypse.  It was done by a team of people.  FX Animation Artist Thomas Reppen [Maleficent] did the majority of it and is one of those horribly talent people who you can say, ‘You need to achieve this.’  I don’t know even how he did half of it.  It is outstanding in terms of volumetric effects of burning a planet.  ‘Here’s your task.  Go blow-up a planet and make it look cool.’  That’s not easy to do.  I’m proud of him and his team’s work on a handful of shots there.”  The writer-director responsible for Ender’s Game is proud of the end result.  “I want to give a huge amount of thanks to Matthew Butler,” states Gavin Hood.  “And don’t forget Ben Procter and Sean Haworth, the two production designers because they were designing those environments in order for Matthew to calculate how he was going to render them.   Between the production designers, visual effects supervisor, and stunt coordinator it was a real ballet; they’re all brilliant people.”

Images © Motion Picture Artwork ™ & © Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

Productions stills and VFX images courtesy of Lionsgate and Digital Domain.

Many thanks to Gavin Hood and Matthew Butler for taking the time to be interviewed.


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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