Behind The Scenes
Killer Cats In Space
In The Wings
From megabytes to megabucks, Wing Commander is coming your way as a big-screen blockbuster. Jim Swallow went on set in Luxembourg to see how the movie's shaping up.
Think of film locations for multi-million dollar SF epics and the last place that springs to mind is Luxembourg. As a suburban slice of Mittle Europ, the locale seems light years away from the fantastic worlds and faraway star systems of contemporary big budged crowd-pleasers - although you might be reminded of the drab exteriors from Fahrenheit 451... Despite this, it's in the industry-friendly Grand Dutchy, and not some much pricier soundstage in Los Angeles, that the $27 million dollar space war adventure flick Wing Commander is currently being put together, thanks to the combined efforts of cast and crew from a dozen countries.
If the movie's title doesn't ring any bells, then you're obviously not one of the lost generation of '90s commuter gamers whose free time was eviscerated by the landmark PC game of the same title. The original Wing Commander helped define the genre of space battle simulations (following in the illustrious footsteps of Elite, which brought the format into the home computer arena for the first time during the early '80s), and sired four sequels, the most recent, Wing Commander: Prophecy, being only a few months old.
The fourth release, Wing Commander IV: The Price Of Freedom, bridged the gap from game to "interactive movie" in 1996 by being the first to be shot on 35mm film. After such a movie, a big-screen Wing Commander feature all on its own, seemed a natural progression. And so, two years on, it's happening.
The shoot is taking place in an industrial estate in Wecker, inside a set of cavernous warehouses which used to contain a munitions factory. One warehouse forms a single entire set: the hangar bay of the carrier spacecraft Tiger Claw - hundreds of feet wide and three times as long, the interior will be optically "doubled" in post-production to make it appear even larger on screen. It certainly looks "authentic," reminiscent of the interior of a conventional sea-going aircraft carrier, with the walls and hanging gantries under a coat of gunmetal paint to take the effect.
Director Chris Roberts, originator of the Wing Commander game and the mastermind behind the movie, and producer Todd Moyer give production designer Peter Lamong and noted science fiction stylist Ron Cobb (he of Alien and Blade Runner fame) the task of making the feature's visual texture seem like some SF hybrid of Top gun and The Battle Of Midway.
Lamont, whose work on Titanic netted him an Oscar, has worked with Cobb before, on two other Cameron titles; True Lies and Aliens. Art director Mark Harris is also an Aliens veteran.
"Our team did a fabulous job aging-down [the sets] to bring it all together," says Lamont. "The Art department, the prop department and construction and paint departments really collectively did a great job."
One wall of the hangar has dozens of portholes apparently looking into the other sections of the Tiger Claw, but in reality they open into location offices, including a small CGI lab and a production design cubby-hole. Crans and camera dollies jostle for space with torpedo racks and mobile engineering platforms - and none of it looks out of place. Elsewhere can be seen a couple of bits of SF ephemera doing double-duty; in the main landing bay are a robot bulldozer and a fuel bowser converted from troop carriers last seen in Judge Dredd.
A story of fighter pilots engaged in a dogfighting war with the feline alien Kilrathi, Wing Commander is set at the beginning of the computer game's continuity, with hot young talents Freddie Prinze Jr (I Know What You Did Last Summer) as hero Christopher Blair (the role played by Mark Hamill in the games; see page 52); Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers) as his wingman Todd "Maniac" Marshall and Brit actresses Saffron Burrows (Circle of Friends, Cold Lazarus) as "Angel" Deverauz and Ginny HOlder (The Saint) as Rosie Forbes. Veteran genre actors like Tcheky Karyo (Bad Boys, La Femme Nikita), Jurgen Prochnow (Dune, Judge Dredd), David Suchet (Executive Descision, Poirot) and Davie Warner (Star Trek, Tron) make up the rest of the crew, Warner having recently stepped into Malcolm McDowell's shoes to play the character of Admiral Tolwyn.
The movie finds Blair assigned with Maniac to the Tiger Claw, as the enemy begins an invasion of Confederation space, aided by a traitor connected to Blair's parents. Trouble ensues as the young pilot has to fight off both the aliens and the prejudices of his fellow humans. Naturally, fighter pilots need something to fly, and in an innovative twist here, the design team got the actors the real thing - almost.
Then ex-RAF, ex Saudi Air Force Lightning jets bound for the scrapheap were cut down to form the ugly-but-well-armed Rapier starfighters that defend the Tiger Claw, complete with new wings dripping with missiles and colossal multi-barrelled rotating cannons. "When you're flying htose things, you're really flying in them!" says Lillard, smiling.
In one corner of the hangar set, another cockpit sits on a raised platform with lighting scaffold wrapped around it like a spider. The actor has just completed a series of close-up inserts and puts on a mock upper-crust English accent as he "tally-ho's" another target. To make the Rapiers perform for the camera, visual effects supervisor Chris Brown's CGI team at Digital Anvil in Texas will be creating the ship-to-ship battles in a fully computerized environment. In fact, several DA crew are on set getting high-resolution texture images of the "prop" fighters to later map onto the computer-generated versions. But at the same time, the actors must still be put in the thick of things, so another Rapier sits atop a gimbal rig and green-screen affair capable of shaking the few tons of mock-up back and forth violently. This is nothing new to the gimbal - its last job was handling Bruce Willis' Leelo-punctured hover-taxi in The Fifth Element.
Brown, or "CB" as he's known, is no stranger to flying, having worked on Starship Troopers, and put the jets and 747s through their paces in Turbulence and Air Force One.
"Along with the director and digital supervisor Tom Duadress, we create the overall look and feel for all the digital work in the film," he says. The "digital work" includes all the space exteriors and dogfights, and with a lab on site, the CGI shots can also conveniently be created side-by-side with their real-life counterparts on set.
"You can take a lot of license in a film like this because we're in space - although aerodynamics have a part in 'selling' [the reality of] a model movement to the audience, in actual fact it doesn't have a hole on you, so we've done a lot of wild moves!"
According to Brown, the production's decision to go all-digital with the model shots was influenced by the dual benefits of performance and cost. "We have the ability to manipulate our models better than any motion-control state could, and we don't have the cost of a full model stage shoot, which can run up to twice the length of a first unit shoot. We have the freedom to create a really dynamic look for all the fights, with the ships coming past, under and over camera. We're limitless in the kind of choreography we can choose."
As well as the Rapiers and the Tiger Claw, a number of other starships also appear in the movie. Tcheky Karyo's character Paladin (plade by Sliders' ebullient John Rhys-Devies in the games) pilots a beat-up merchantman transport called the Diligent, and the hot-rod privateer ship shows some family resemblance to the Millennium Falcon. Sequestered in a corner of the second soundstange, the Diligent's partial interior looks like a wooden shed from the outside, but once through the airlock doors it's revealed as a low-ceilinged dropship packed with armoured Confederation troopers; Karyo shoots a scene with Prochnow where Paladin's ship is about to take a squad out to board a Kilrathi craft. Playing the abrasive yet principled Commander Gerald, Prochnow runs through his moves and the two Europeans growl out some angry dialogue. The troopers wear blood-read battle gear made from wetsuites and leather pads, and carry enclosed helmet-backpack combinations and guns build around Russian AK-47 assault rifles. As a result, there are lots of steamed up visors and sweaty faces under the harsh glare of the studio lights.
As soon as Roberts calls "Cut!" there's a weird line-dance as the actors try to undress and make for the water cooler at the same time. The costumes are the brainchild of Magalay Guidasci, whose exotic and colourful designs also appear in the martial arts kick-flick Double team an the forthcoming Bruce Willis asteroid movie Armageddon. On Wing Commander, Guidasci is working once more with director of photography Theirry Arbogast, recent winner of the French Cesar award for The Fifth Element, and it's Arbogast who puts into words their mutual desire to "paint the scenes with colour."
"This film is more moody than The Fifth Element - there's a different ambiance to it. Sometimes we set the lights completely red or blue and it's like those old submarine movies from 20 years ago. There are no restrictions to a movie like this, just 'styles' that you must adhere to."
The classic war movie ambiance is something director Chris Roberts has stuck to from the beginning. It even influenced his casting choices, with Jurgen Prochnow selected after his stunning performance in The Boat. Chris Brown compares the movie with Hell In The Pacific: "We've followed along those lines - the Rapiers are basically a gun with an engine. We used the traditional look of tracer fire, millies and dogfight sequences."
"You don't get to make many WWII movies anymore, and this film's idea is a Second World War film in space," sums up second unit director Roger Simonsz, whose only previous genre credit has been for An American Werewolf in Paris. "I grew up watching those old movies and it's given me a lot to go on. We also used Top Gun as a visual reference for matching the moves with the fighter cockpits, but it's still got that traditional feeling. There are tubes and pipes all over these ships and in the future you probably won't see tubes at all! It sets the mood. The thing about doing SF is that visually you're completely free."
Netherlands-born Simonsz is a perfect example of the international staff working on the movie, where lingual skills are vital. "I have to speak Dutch to the sparks, French to the grips, German to the clapper loaders and English to the director!" he laughs.
The object of the Diligent's mission is closer than the troopers might think. A mere ten feet away, taking up the remainder of the stage, is the Kilrathi vessel. In the later parts of the film, Gerald and Blair blast their way into the alien ship and make for the bridge - a long corridor with an arching roof that leads from the breaking point to the command centre.
It's lit in strange golds and greens, a metallic combination which is duplicated in the armour of the cat-like aliens. The bridge itself is like a pillbox bunker, with slot-shaped windows peering out onto a green screen, and an interior clutter with techno-organic columns and consoles. The Kilrathi ship even seems to have its own pungent atmosphere - until someone tells me that it's just the paint solvents and that I really should leave the set before I pass out.
The alien Kilrathi themselves are no less impressive. Fabricated by Shepperton-based animatronics team Animated Extras (who last worked on R2-D2 for Star Wars: Episode One), the big cats are big indeed - eight feet tall, with teeth that could bite your face off. Full body prosthetics cover the operators, with built-up leg sheaths designed to simulate the feel of real felines, hands ending in clawed fingers and radio-operated heads (they growl, snarl, blink and bare copious numbers of teeth) boasting macabre yellow eyes.
The design of the movie Kilrathi differs from the chunky rugby-player look of the computer game, but that's a deliberate move on the part of Animated Extras, who wanted to break new ground. There's more of a lithe, feral power to these guys, and the sheepish grin on Matt Lillard's face when two of them hug him says it all - they're large and they're scary. So large, in fact, that there are some worries that they'll even fit into the alien ship set...
Meanwhile, the director continues to navigate the production from his island of calm off to one side. The effects guys like him because he understands the complex world of CGI and the crew like him because he's already a director, even though this is his first "real' feature film. Wearing a Wing Commander III flight jacket, Roberts has no "attitude" at all, just a casual get-the-job-done manner.
He looks like he's been doing it for years... Then again, that's because he has.
Wing Commander will go on release in 1999. SFX will bring you a full review nearer the time.