Tons of futuristic books are being turned into movies, but there's still only one Ender's Game. When we visited the set during filming last year, we saw tons of signs of just how different this film is from all the other space adventures we've seen lately. Check out the complete lowdown on our Ender's Game set visit.
io9 was privy to one day of Ender's Game shooting, where we got to watch Harrison Ford get pissed off, play in the Salamander Dorm beds and futz around with flash guns. Here's what we saw, what we learned and why you should get excited about Ender's Game, THE MOVIE. (Full disclosure: The studio paid for io9's travel and hotel expenses during this set visit.)
NASA Helped Build the Battle School (kind of)
We all know that the Ender's Game kids get sent away to space school to learn how to deal with Zero G's and space oddities and whatnottery. BUT what we learned on set was that actual real life NASA spaceship bits were included on the Battle School set.
Ender's Game was filmed inside the giant NASA soundstage in Louisiana. A place where actual rocket ships have been built. Now the whole thing is kind of empty and houses a ton of rejected or defunct NASA bits. Cue a giant mob of NASA workers tossing out old parts, in front of the Ender's Game crew. Obviously the production designers flipped, and asked NASA if they could use any of these trash bits for the movie — and after checking with the higher ups NASA said yes. So if you look closely at the screws, bolts, door handles inside the dorm rooms of the Salamander Army you will be seeing actual rocket parts here and there.
Avatar Stunt Genius Garrett Warren Dreamed Up The Battle Room Scenes
How do you shoot in Zero G right scenes, starring CHILDREN, on Earth? This is probably the most discussed aspect to Ender's Game. If the Battle Room scenes suck, this movie will fail. It is really and truly the most important part of the book. There's lots to talk about here, so I'm going to hit the main points that stuck with me after the tour.
First, Garret Warren is involved. This man is the most talented inventor and innovator in the Hollywood stunt world. It's lucky Alex Proyas' Paradise Lost film was canned, because that freed Warren up for Ender's Game (plus he used a lot of the wirework technology he created for Paradise Lost on EG). Warren specifically invented a special "lollipop crane" for this movie and was given (what sounded like) an unlimited budget to make the Battle Room fight scenes a reality.
And YES there will be Zero G stunts where entire teams of actors will be flying in formation. Think The Mighty Ducks "Flying V" — but in SPACE! The crew accomplished this by building a giant cage and stringing up the kids like puppets. Warren explained, "We literally made a marionette cage above 13 people, and were able to go like this — and move people like they were little puppets and so forth, in this world — and [have them] able to grab each other. And so, the fun thing was that they’re all in and of themselves controlled by wires, but they’re all controlled within one big, huge cage, which was great."
Full disclosure, I personally did NOT get to see any finished footage of the kids in action in the Battle Room. However, I did get to see a very large chunk of test footage with the actors and the cast of Cirque du Soleil alums (specifically from the Vegas show Le Reve) in action. From that very early footage I could tell that the Zero G glide that audiences will be looking for is intact. It feels slow and deliberate like one would expect space weightlessness to appear. I'm exceedingly hopeful for these moments.
Devils In the Details
The devotion to detail in this movie is ABSURD.
- Everything that could be made with 3D printers, was. Because the future is now! Broken name tags (WITH BRAILLE) were recreated using the 3D printer, helmet bits were printed, gun flash gun handles were created, and more. If you look closely you can see that inside Ender's room is a 3D printer.
- Die hard fans might notice that the Battle School looks different in this movie version, and instead of having 5 rooms there's only one, but it's a bad ass one. Note that in the trailer the school rotates to maintain the gravity in the living quarters. But the Battle Room itself does not. Presto: Zero G! Also the school was turned clear because first, it looks better. And secondly, as an attempt to mimic Discovery One in from 2001.
- The flash guns were broken down into 10 bits so the kids would be forced to train with them (build them together, take them apart). This scene was added to the movie, because it looked cool.
- The battle board in the cafeteria will constantly have the outcome of various army battles on it. A constant reminder to the kids that this is why they're there.
- The flash guns are scripted to take second and a half to power up, and a half second in-between shots. The actual idea behind it is that it's a particle beam weapon. And when the film airs audiences will be able to see the circular parts and electro magnets inside the gun.
- Even the "dopp kits" are futuristic, with wacky toothbrushes and wet naps painted grey.
No More Dystopian Saturation
Thank god this isn't another YA adaptation about a dystopian Earth. We all desperately needed a break from the huddled, moaning masses living in a future dystopia. Ender's Game presents the exact opposite, and intentionally shows the beauty of our home planet. Greening up all the homeworld shots, production designers Sean Haworth & Ben Procter foreground the message that "Earth is a place worth fighting for."
Setting the future in a "post oil economy," the designers imagine the Wiggin household as a warm inviting place with just slight touches of futurism. Think the AI household but with more ivy and green plants. All of the humans are dressed in soft tones and comforting styles. Any outdoor shots were bathed in golden hour light, green hills or set by a lake side (where Ender and Valentine have their chats). This way, (they hope) audiences sympathize with the homesick kids who are jettisoned to the Battle School which was also described as a "steel coffin in space."
This Alien World is Gorgeous
Perhaps the most exciting, and surprising reveal was the care and detail Hood and company took into developing the Formic culture. Hood went into pre-production with an extensive Formic style guide, inspired by insect colonies and the intricate ways they live their lives. Everything was intended to feel organic, like the Formic spaceships. Buildings were erected right out of the dirt of their planet, but then molded and twisted with artistic intent. Just about every Formic creation has a resin-like quality to it. That was all intentional. But instead of looking like bug spit, the Formic walls we saw on set were twisted and curved and smooth. The walls were so gorgeous that I couldn't help myself and totally touched the hell out of this construction.
If you've read the book you know that part of the novel is set on Eros, a Formic planet eventually captured by the humans [EDIT this was originally an asteroid in the book, it's been expanded in the film in order to shorten the story]. Giant Formic "skyscrapers" jut out across this reddish planet. To create this look, designers Procter and Haworth studied how termite mounds work, and replicated the temperature-controlling spheres that are seen in nature on Eros. The whole idea was that while a few spheres would stick out from the planet's crust, they were just a tip of the iceberg.
Underneath is a world of twisting tunnels, where the humans set up camp. The crew recreated the human-polluted tunnels astoundingly well. The sandy chiseled walls with artistic grooves and gorgeous curves were blocked out with black human steel and florescent lights. The contrast was amazing and completely invasive and appalling when juxtaposed against the soft lines of the Formic culture. It felt like walking through an futuristic excavation of an ancient culture, only ridiculously invasive.
It was in these tunnels where I witnessed my first snippet of Ender's Game filming.
I must have watched this pan-in on Harrison Ford 300 times, but one can never get bored watching Han Solo emote whilst pretending to be on an alien planet. Casting Ford as Graff was a masterstroke — and by God, was he a gruff Graff. We watched a scene where Graff looks out his Formic bunker window and growled about the oncoming battle. I don't really remember what he was saying, but I remembered being absolutely terrified for anyone who had to walk into that room with him, because that's INDIANA JONES. Especially when he messed up his lines and got mad. That was awesome.
Look, of all the times I've seen an adult male stare out of a fake window with the fake weight of the world on his shoulders, Harrison Ford did it the best.
No Gratuitous Alien Shots
The light-handed Formic teasery is one of the great things about Ender's Game. There's no HOLY CRAP ALIEN tight shots with KY Jelly spewing mouths and "kill 'em all" war screams (no that there's anything wrong with that). This mysterious race was handled with a lot of smoke and mirrors in the novel.
Which is why I was very excited to hear that one scene, in particular, had been cut. While playing with the props, one crew member revealed that there was a whole Independence Day scene where a downed Formic ship was popped open, and the Formic alien was ripped out and killed. Thus exposing the Formic form fairly early on in the film. It didn't make the final cut — and actually, I don't even know if it was shot at all. Either way it was cut.
Instead the audience will deal with the slow burn only getting shots of Formic ships and structures at first. Will you get to eventually see a Formic, of course, but I'm not going to spoil it for you.
Praise the holy sky beast, the production company could simply not afford to shoot this in 3D. Thank you! Hood considered 3D, but went with the more "pure and honest" take of 2D. Whatever the reason, I'm just glad I don't have to put on another set of crappy theater glasses.
And here are some new shots the studio shared with us: