In an unimposing building in San Rafael, digital artists sit in a dimly lit room behind oversized computer screens creating worlds only traversed by movie stars. Employees of Whiskytree, a visual effects studio, have been working for six months on a digital space station known as Elysium -- the namesake of a movie opening in theaters Thursday night.
"Elysium," which stars actor Matt Damon and actress Jodie Foster, is the story of an ordinary man named Max Da Costa who takes on a dangerous mission to bring about equality for mankind in the year 2154. While the wealthiest people live on a man-made space station called Elysium, the rest live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth.
Creating the Elysium world and making it look realistic was Whiskytree's job. The six-year-old studio was brought on by Image Engine Design in Canada to transform the designs of a small art team into a digital environment.
Jonathan Harb, Whiskytree CEO and creative director, said he and his team are well-known for their work on digital environments, such as those seen in "Thor," "Rango," "Iron Man 2" and "Tron: Legacy." He said it's always challenging to make a computer-rendered scene look real.
"We make things up that could never exist, or couldn't exist for another 50 years or so," Harb said. "The toughest thing was making Elysium feasible and convincing the audience that it exists."
Much of that work fell to Whiskytree employees, who come from a variety of different backgrounds, including animation, illustration, visual effects, architecture and computer science. The studio typically employs about 20 people, but can surge to as many as 50 depending on the project.
Joe Ceballos, Whiskytree art director, said a lot of what the studio team does is look at the imagery they've created and evaluate it. He said their work is a lot like building a model train set with all the details.
"We're building all these little parts, like housing and trees," Ceballos said.
When the film's 'droids and space ships fly over Elysium, the view below is much like that from an airplane -- and all the little buildings and trees had to be digitally created by Whiskytree's team.
Brian Meanley, Whiskytree assistant technical director, has created his fair share of trees, but said everyone at the studio took turns developing different parts of the space station world. Instead of having one person dedicated to just focusing on scene lighting or making lamp posts, the staff collaborated on each shot -- a good tactic given the movie's complex scenery.
"It's always fun to be challenged with something new," Meanley said.
"This is probably one of the most technically challenging projects we've done," he said.
Making sure the clouds, water and crowds of people in each scene move and give off the right look are some of the details David Shirk, Whiskytree animation supervisor, said keeps the employees busy and keeps their jobs from becoming mundane.
"Sometimes we'd spend a whole day troubleshooting why a shot didn't look right," Shirk said.
The studio's attention to detail, collaborative spirit and realistic work are some of the traits Harb said keeps winning them new contracts. In what he describes as a small industry, Harb said they get business mostly by word-of-mouth and don't even have a sign on their Mission Avenue building.
He said their low-profile existence in San Rafael doesn't hurt business as most communication with clients is done by phone, email and video conferencing. In some ways, he said it's better for the studio to be low on Marin County residents' radar as they're oftentimes working on new releases months before they hit theaters. Visitors to the studio are required to sign a waiver stating they won't release confidential information.
Harb and the other Whiskytree employees planned to travel to San Francisco on Friday to see their latest published work at the Metreon IMAX theater. Harb said it will be an exciting experience.
"We've seen large parts of the movie from working on it, but it'll largely be a surprise," Harb said. "We're excited about it."
©2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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