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Credit: Universal Pictures

Inside the groundbreaking, very not-steampunk Mortal Engines design and visual effects

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Dec 14, 2018, 5:30 PM EST (Updated)

This weekend's quasi-dystopian blockbuster Mortal Engines went through a very unusual development process, a start-stop-go-go-go course that made for a final product that utilizes the latest in visual effects that contain the whispers of influences hatched over a decade ago.

Peter Jackson first scooped up the rights to Philip Reeve's quartet of books about a world shattered by nuclear war and reassembled piecemeal around great mobile cities that rumble across the plains, trying to consume one another. With his Oscar-winning WETA visual effects studio at his disposal, Jackson began pre-production on the first adaptation in 2006. The team came up with all kinds of concept art based on the book's steampunk aesthetic, pumping out ideas that they'd later produce with the software that had just scooped up Academy Awards for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the previs got cut short by Jackson's attachment to The Hobbit adaptations, and Mortal Engines went largely untouched for about a decade.

Then, Jackson decided to pick the project back up — and hand it off to his longtime collaborator, Christian Rivers, who would make it his directorial debut. It was a mad dash to the studio — within five months of getting the green light, the movie was in production. That made for a design team that had to work overtime to create new designs for the wrecked future Earth and the migrant municipal colossuses, which would be rendered with great help from CGI, whether in full shots or set extensions.

The movie has received middling reviews but universal praise for its massive visual effects and design. SYFY WIRE spoke with WETA's Kevin McGaugh and Dennis Yu and Rivers himself about crafting the look of the movie.

It's not steampunk, OK?

McGaugh: There was definitely a desire to keep steampunk a part of that, but at the same time they realized through development that a steampunk aesthetic wouldn't scale up to the size that these towns need to be. It'd make it harder to make it believable. It also cements a certain Victorian era to something which is 1000 years in the future.

Mortal Engines london

Credit: Universal Pictures

Rivers: We knew we didn't want steampunk, because this needed to be in our future. Steampunk is very fun, very craft-based, but it's an alternative reality. It's a future as if the Victorian technology took another route. It just didn't feel truthful to a future from where we are now. So then we sort of went, well what is it? What is our film, then? You know, what is aesthetic of our film? And we didn't know.

We knew we wanted to kind of carry over some of the charm of the older fashioned descriptions in the book. But we also wanted to give it a new sort of technological sort of edge. And something that felt like it would exist in the future, but would echo us and our past. And so, I mean, you know, and the studio were asking us when we were sort of shopping it around, like well, what is it? What does it look like?

I drew a triangle on a piece of paper, and the three points of the triangle were Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Mad Max. It is in our future after an apocalypse. But we don't want it to be all rusty, and f***ing grim and bleak. We wanted to have a technology and a scale that sort of could be Star Wars-esque. But we also wanted it to have a sort of a charm and a sort of cultural character to it that could be like the Harry Potter films.

McGaugh: Christian was very, very keen that London represents basically a snapshot of what the architecture and the style of the world was at the point at which the apocalyptic 60-minute war happened, which is our future. So there not only needed to be some Victorian and old-fashioned London aesthetics, there needed to be contemporary aesthetics in there and some futuristic elements.

Fortunately, London is characterized by its juxtaposition of contrasting architectural styles. In some ways that made our job a lot easier. It meant that we could take an old Victorian building and we could take a contemporary glass and steel building and literally just place them right next to each other and it suited London.

Rivers: We built 70 sets. For the different sets in London… We had the Wheelhouse in London. We had Incomer's Station. We like little sort of LEGO set pieces of set for the chase, for Tom and Hester. We had the gantry that Hester jumps into the waste chute. We just had that little outcrop, the rest of it's all digital.

We had the London Museum. We had a little bit of an exterior St. Paul's, that was mostly green screen. We had a giant St. Paul's set with MEDUSA. We had the Whispering Gallery, where the fight between Anna and Valentine takes place, that was a separate set. We had what was called Netherboro Station, the tube station where Tom and Katherine get off and then walk through the streets. And then we repurposed that several times for when Katherine and Bevis are moving around. We had a bridge for them to be on, too.

Mortal Engines London 2

Credit: Universal Studios

While the giant future London was a true hybrid of practical sets and CGI, the vast outside world, with its giant city track marks carving up a wrecked planet in the midst of a regeneration, was just about impossible to create in the real world.

McGaugh: It had to be just alien enough to not be filmed, is also the same reason it's very difficult to come up with. It's one thing to make a completely alien environment, but it did have to have echoes back to the earth that people are familiar with. The added complexity for the great hunting ground was that it needed to look like the whole environment was shaped by these giant cities, so we had to avoid any kind of rounded, organic, eroded shapes and have our angles be a lot harder in the train, more hard-edged cliffs.

The high shots always had to have distinctive tracks going across them. The foliage needed to look like it had responded to these cities going over it so that the higher levels, which were least touches or the longest time since being touched, always had much more mature foliage. Down at the bottom of the trenches, they're just as green but more with marshy wetlands. So finding that look was really hard, because it's not like we can go somewhere and just say, "This is what it's meant to look like."

When viewed from the outside, it was clear that the cities were moving at extreme speeds — up to 300 MPH. The challenge there was depicting the transit from the exterior while cheating the real-world physics that would make standing on the deck of the city absolutely impossible.

Rivers: We started out having everything shaking. It just looked like the actors were sort of having a seizure or something. They'd be sitting there talking to each other and their arms would be shaking and their voice would be wobbling. That didn't work. So we just had to sort of find a balance, really.

McGaugh: It's a little bit like Inception in the layers of movement we had to do. It's one thing that we have to add movement to the set. The set's on an environment that's moving, and you have layers behind it moving differently. So we have other parts of London moving, and then beyond that, you have all of them together moving. We had to design this thing called a hierarchical layout puppet system. They allowed our animators to work with the cities like they were vehicles, but we could apply our traditional environment building and dressing workflows on top of it.

They also found story-related reasons to reduce the appearance of the bumpy ride.

Rivers: They're shock-absorbed up at the top. It's like society now. They're isolated and cushioned from all the nasty stuff that goes on.

Mortal Engines Shrike

Credit: Universal Pictures

One of the other visual feats of the film is the animation of the cyborg character Shrike, who spends much of the movie hunting down Hester in pursuit of revenge. In a movie set so far in the future, the heartless robo-human looks decidedly old school, especially with its off-kilter movement. To the audience, he almost seems like a practical effect, and in some ways, he was hand-animated

Yu: If you think about a single frame, there are 24 frames in a second in film. You have to remember that keyframing is one pose, or one frame, or one key literally in a timeline. So there'd be 24 keys within that one second. So we create a pose, then the timeline moves on and we change that pose. Shrike just needed to be keyframed for all those different poses, rather than having some data that's imported from motion capture.

McGaugh: It's like the computerized equivalent stop-motion animation. I think most people have seen behind the scene stop motion, but it's an animator posing the model on every frame. It's analogous to that but on the computer, so it's a very manual process.

Mortal Engines is now in theaters.