Passengers‘ VFX Supervisor on Creating Zero Gravity Mayhem

A serene, unusual spacecraft drifts through space. The Avalon is on a 120 year course, carrying 5000+ passengers to a new colony, plant-like and twinkling on its exterior, silent and gleaming on the inside. Its well-stocked and highly-designed but empty chambers are reminiscent of another era’s grand hotel, devoid of guests, ready to close for the season, And then a hibernation pod malfunctions, and passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years early. He will grow old and die before anyone else on the ship awakes, and long before the Avalon reaches its' destination.

Morten Tyldum’s sci-fi blockbuster morphs into a romance when Jim makes the extremely suspect choice to get himself some company by waking up a pretty blonde writer, Aurora Lane [Jennifer Lawrence]. They share dates, and then danger, and finally the truth, in their unique and gorgeous home, while more and more goes awry and the Avalon becomes a ship of terror.

Alongside its few human occupants, the spacecraft becomes a leading player. We chatted with Passengers’ visual effects supervisor, Erik Nordby, about the Avalon’s creation, scaling while floating through space, and working with the film’s Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum.

Can you describe the process that went into each of the final exterior and interior designs of the ship?

During pre-production it became clear that the ship was playing a huge part in the movie. So the production designer, before I was even involved, started playing with some designs. We probably went through 20 to 25 variants. We went through the history of big spacecraft in cinema and then got really inspired by design in nature, and ended up going with a leaf-like, or petal-like, design for the blades, that really resonated and also gave us a lot of leverage, story-wise, to allow us to get across the ship, to view one side of the ship from another.

From there we focused on scale. It was important that [the Avalon] really felt like it was the proper scale. In order to sell that scale, we needed to figure out what we could rely on, given that we didn’t have the ability to be close to planets, other ships, or celestial objects. So it was a lot of adding geometry to the surface. Each blade of the ship serves a purpose: entertainment, habitation, cargo, and the cargo blade became very advantageous because it was one we could cover with a lot of deep geometry that allowed us to tell the story of scale.

We’re curious about the aesthetic inspiration for the spacecraft, since we haven’t seen much like it — particularly its exterior.

The one thing that we latched onto early, which Morten felt really strongly about, was this unique happy accident, I guess you could say: when you look at the ship from the front, it looks like your prototypical space station, which is why we start the movie the way we do, You see it and it looks like a space station, until the view shifts to the side and it breaks that silhouette.

How did you conceive of and create the pool scene during which the Avalon’s gravity fails? It’s probably one of the most talked-about aspects of the movie.

When you read the script, that scene just stands out as one of the biggest challenges of the film for us. We spent about 3.5 months just wrapping our heads around the scene itself. What became clear from Morten is that he desired something that had this clear juxtaposition, that was terrifying yet also quite beautiful. For us, jumping into that, the biggest challenge was less physical, because we’ve broken the back of CG water over the last ten years or so in cinema.

We did what we do a lot in visual effects, which is that we stick to the physics simulation as much as we can, and then we introduce elements that the audience can at least subconsciously point to as being real. In 2016, audiences are used to seeing slow motion effects, and slow motion water. The aerated bubbles, the bigger bubbles [in the scene], would kind of break down the gelatinous feel, and we had to push and pull it until it didn’t seem so odd that it would pull people out of the movie.

The biggest thing we discovered as we went through the sequence was that it’s very difficult for the water not to feel like it’s a water monster, that it had a will of its own. It was very important for Morten to identify it as doing what water would do, that it had no desire to suffocate [Lawrence’s character]. He really wanted the ship to never feel like it was out to get them. The mechanics of it, other than that, were the next massive challenge.

A lot goes into that, and the special effects advisor was a big ally in wrapping our heads around how were going to do it. We had multiple tanks and the actual swimming pool set was something we built. We would start shooting there. A goal we had in visual effects was to use as much real footage as we could. [Lawrence] was extremely professional — it’s not a fun thing to do, being held under the water, and she’s her own worst critic, so she’d pop up, look at the take, and if she didn’t like it she’d go back down and do it again.

In terms of coming up with the look of the effects, how much was working on Passengers influenced by some of your other action-oriented work?

It’s such a weird job. There’s a huge saying, every time we start a new movie, it’s like we’ve gone back to square one because the technology changes so quickly. I was a cinematographer before visual effects, and understanding the way photography works is something I constantly go back to. In this movie specifically, making them not stand out is a big goal. This wasn’t a visual effects film, this was an intimate movie that happened to have a very epic setting.

In achieving that balance, how was working with Tyldum?

He had not done a visual effects movie of this scale, and I absolutely loved Headhunters [a 2011 Tyldum film], he has such a good voice in that movie. At the end of the day it was a game of trust, so you build that over the course of pre-production, so he could say what he desired and leave it up to us to make that happen. He had other battles to fight, so I wanted to make sure we weren’t one of those. It was a very challenging movie on every level. It was two years in the making, and I’m proud of the work. There were a lot of people involved.


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.