By Charles Webb
“He knows what he wants – he says ’This is how we’re going to do the scene,’ and we’ll often just do it in one take.” Muyzer, whose VFX company has worked alongside Blomkamp since his feature debut, “District 9,” and spent four years developing the dystopian action film “Elyisum,” says this approach is “scary for the people behind the scenes,” but Blomkamp’s approach allows him to sidestep studio and screening notes: there are no backup shots or cuts, only what the director has put on the screen.
“Elysium,” which is out this week on home video, follows Matt Damon’s character Max, a factory worker who suffers a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and must get to the orbiting city of Elysium in order to be cured. Like “District 9,” “Elysium” sees the writer-director creating social commentary in a sci-fi action film – this time with plenty of robots, killer exoskeletons, and exotic, flesh-shredding guns, all courtesy of the Vancouver-based Imagine Engine.
The studio, which is working on the “Ninja Turtles” and “Child 44,” largely supports Blomkamp – they’re already moving on to the director’s next film, the Hugh Jackman-starring “Chappie.”
When asked what it’s like being a studio dedicated primarily to one filmmaker, Muyzers says “I think that working with Neil since ’District 9,’ we have developed a shorthand. I can just look at him and maybe see the look on his face and he wants to change something. Or he would send me video shot with his iPhone and it would say ’What the hell is this?’ And obviously, there would be a problem, and I would have to go investigate. But more often than not, I would know what he was after.”
Still, that doesn’t stop Blomkamp from throwing the occasional curveball. “The exploding droid shot in the film, where Matt’s character shoots these special bullets at the droid, I imagined it to be something where he fires the gun – boom, boom, boom – big explosion, and off it goes.”
Instead, Blomkamp wanted audiences to see the explosion in loving detail, with the droid shattering into a thousand tiny pieces before their eyes. In slow motion. “I said, ’Wait a minute: we’re going to see all of these big, shredded pieces, traveling through metal plates?’ We were not prepared for that, and at the time we had a lot of other work on our hands. I think that was one of those shots that was quite demanding.”
When asked about the look of “Elysium,” Muyzers says Blomkamp really wanted this film to evolve the gritty, in-your-face documentary of “District 9.” “For [Neil], it’s always important to feel like you’re there. Now ’Elysium’ was a little bit of a step away from that. The purpose was to create a film that felt less documentary-style and more epic. He wanted to create something that was perhaps a little more traditional for that.” You can see that switch in the steady shots of the floating community of Elysium (which took six months to create), which contrast with the bouncy, you-are-there camera work in the ruined future L.A.
“But his thoughts of immersiveness plays a secondary role to where he’s thinking, ’We could do a game of this film, or we could do this.'”
He couldn’t say whether we’d be seeing the HULC suit or the world of “Elysium” appearing in games anytime soon, but Muyzers says early in the process of shooting the film, “There was some kind of talk about using a games-type approach to some of the shots, but [Blompkamp] wanted it to feel overall like a feature film.”
To that end, the crew experimented with this aesthetic in throughout the shoot, going so far as to invent a new camera that evolved the “Bullet Time” aesthetic of the “Matrix” films (you can see it in the slow-mo mech explosion). “We created a new camera rig called the Arc Rig, which is an array of Canon 5D still cameras that all create video at the same time. So a little like [the “Matrix” films’] ’Bullet Time,’
Still, that specific visual only made its way into the earthbound gun battle/heist early in the film. “Out where we were shooting in Mexico, we would have a camera operator follow Matt around. And we would pretend that Matt’s back was attached to the camera.” To get the unique behind-the-back look, Muyzers says “We took the plates and stabilized them in post,” to avoid the queasy-making aesthetic of some handheld camera work.
While details are still scarce on 2015’s “Chappie” – which features a robot kidnapped at birth and raised by a dysfunctional family, Muyzers said it was a no-brainer that Imagine Engine would work on the film. Without spoiling what’s to come, Muyzers offered that “A lot of the artists working on Neil’s films always go back to ’District 9.’ I’m not sure, but the impression that I get is that ’Chappie’ could be more like ’District 9’ than ’Elysium.'”