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Set Visit Report #1: The Production Art Tour

"Can you guess this?"

At his question, we smiled and shuffled in our seats. It certainly looked like the giant and the impossible game he played with the tiny mouse, but now was not the time to jump to conclusions, not with producer Bob Orci looking so entirely pleased at the front of the room.

"The Mind Game! In the Mind Game, you know, in order to contrast it with the technology and the sci-fi -- this is more beautiful and impressionistic and just fantasy-like," Orci went on, clearly unaware of the bomb he had just dropped.

"Wait… so, it's being filmed? The Mind Game?"

"It's in the movie."

That was only a few seconds of the hour-and-a-half long roller coaster ride that was the Ender's Game production art tour -- and the tour was only the tip of the iceberg. During our set visit on May 22, 2012, we had the fortunate opportunity to sit and chat with the film's producers, actors, and production team, having intimate discussions in which we learned tons of exciting tidbits about how they brought Ender's story to life.

What you'll be reading the next few days is what we discovered.

© Summit Entertainment

The movie was, for the most part, filmed in chronological order, something the producers were immensely glad about later since Asa Butterfield (Ender Wiggin) grew nearly three inches during filming. "He starts the movie seeming like a much smaller kid and by the end of it, as he becomes a leader, he's actually sort of grown into it." Orci explained. "I think it's going to have a weird, subtle, psychological effect when you're watching it in the movie. We've been shooting it chronologically so let's talk about method acting, huh? 'GROW!'"

While it isn't clear over the course of the film exactly how much time passes, Bob Orci assured us that they do sort-of specify -- in height.

"Three inches pass," he winked.

So, why Asa? What was it about this then soon-to-be 15-year-old boy that made everyone who met him believe he could pull off a credible and moving Ender Wiggin?

"[During] the casting process we looked at a wide age range and ultimately the only thing that mattered is who would we believe could be Ender and who would we believe could be the leader of his peers by the end of the film in a believable way," producer Linda McDonough explained, "He has that deep, wise soulfulness in his performance. [...] And so all of the things that you get in the book where people judge him at first blush as an underdog? We still have that in Asa's interpretation of the character."

For younger, supporting members of the cast, they needed actors who were talented, athletic, and willing to work really, really hard.

© Aramis Knight
"When you spend time with them at the press conference, you should ask them about their time at Space Camp and also the military training they did," McDonough suggested, "Because, you know, whether you have twenty kids or a hundred -- when you're talking about the extras, they have to all be prepared to march and know how to do it and make it look good before you start shooting. I think that that's kind of a cool experience for them because it was months of training while we were prepping the film."

While there was a lot of hard work, the kids definitely got to kick back on the weekends -- on occasion to the dismay of the adults in charge. One day, during a Walmart run to grab a few much-needed supplies, McDonough spotted some very familiar faces outside the sliding glass doors: several younger members of the Ender's Game cast -- all on bicycles.

"I'm like, 'How did you guys get here?' It wasn't in a good part of town and I was like, 'Ahh! Actors! Where are your parents?!' And they're like, 'We took our per diem! We took a cab to buy cheap bikes!' and then they rode off and this looked like ET, this little pack of them going."

Ender's jeesh.

Peddling off into the sunset that day, friends from the moment they first met at the welcome dinner in New Orleans, it seems unlikely that these boys had any idea about the long road that had been travelled to see them there that day. But as she stood in the parking lot watching them speed away, McDonough knew, and so did the other excited men and women we shared a room with last year.

A Futuristic Earth

Set during an unspecified time in the future, Ender's world is a far cry from the dystopia we are so used to seeing today in futuristic YA tales such as The Hunger Games or Divergent. There are no barbed-wire fences or barefoot children running around looking for scraps. It is a rich, colorful Earth, filled with beauty and art, where the citizens thrive under an authoritarian yet very peaceful government. "A world worth saving," Orci smiled as he flipped to a mock-up of Ender's classroom.  "Looks like my classroom as a kid."

© Summit Entertainment

And the production artists took care to ensure many elements of Ender's earthly environment remain familiar to those of us stuck in 2013. Even the Wiggin family house, while most likely equipped with a far better home theater system, isn't so different from fairly modern homes you might run across today. "Why wouldn't there be classic houses?" Orci asked, pointing out that the Vatican has existed virtually unaltered for the past 500 years. Even the location Ender visits on the lake during his short landside leave with Valentine - the veterans' retreat - looks very much like a resort you could currently find nestled in a forest in North Carolina.

© Summit Entertainment

While many aspects of Ender Wiggin's futuristic world have remained relatively unchanged, there is one area that has flourished: the space program. When sitting down to decide on a look for advanced launch vehicles, the production team was fortunate enough to be able to consult Elon Musk, a genius in the field of rocket technology.

"Originally we had concept art of shuttles taking off like an airplane, like a shuttle, and he said, ‘No, that's highly... that would never happen. Since you're trying to get up, just point the damn thing up!'" Orci laughed.

"And that's what the future's gonna be."

Battle School

© Summit Entertainment
So, the shuttle was pointed up -- and aimed directly at Battle School.

Very early renderings of the Battle School were nearly identical to the structure we recently saw in the trailers: an enormous space station located within Earth's orbit with giant rings containing the student and faculty's living quarters. The entire construction rotates around a massive, transparent sphere -- effectively creating gravity everywhere except where it's not needed: the Battle Room, the center of the school and the focus of everyone who lives there.

And the film's version is definitely a far cry from the dark, nondescript Battle Room of the book. "One of the big changes, obviously, is that the Battle Room is transparent," Orci pointed out. "That allows us to have the light change. It gives the feeling when you're out there that you're actually in space ‘cause you can see the Earth out the window, you can see the sun, you can see the moon and it just gave it this scope that seemed to be practical for the fact that they're training these kids to operate in space." They plan to make good use of lighting changes; some battles will take place at night, some during the day, and every time the Battle Room is shown there will be a different feel to the incredible null-g environment.

© Summit Entertainment

While a lot of the Battle Room must be computer-generated, the majority of the Battle School hallways and rooms were built to scale as it was important to director Gavin Hood that the actors had tangible spaces to work in. To emulate the school's ringed hallways, they constructed a set piece they called "Corridor A," a beautiful, curved walkway they used to film the cast travelling up and around the ring. Unfortunately it wasn't there when we visited; to make room for other set pieces, it had been torn down, though it had been a cast and crew favorite.

"We had a little memorial for it last week," producer Linda McDonough admitted.

While the Battle Room is a huge part of Battle School, just like in the book, it's not all lasers and flash suits. The young soldiers also attend to their lessons - though it doesn't seem to be biology and literature books they're cracking. It's in history class where they study the Formic invasion and Mazer Rackham's incredible victory. It's in these classrooms, which were also built to scale in New Orleans, where the young soldiers view footage or "vids" of Earth's first interaction with the Buggers -- and not just on their desks, but displayed in front of them using advanced holographic technology.

It will be easy to see in the film how these videos could be used as pro-Fleet propaganda on Earth: The swarms of Formic jets well outnumber Mazers fleet, with fighters that are advanced but not a huge leap from the ones we fly today, "We want it to seem grounded and more immediate. You know, that this is something that's gonna happen to us soon," Orci explained.

The Mind Game

Bob Orci called it "beautiful, impressionistic, and fantasy-like," a mixture of motion-capture mixed with artistic renderings. In the film, Ender plays the game on his desk, and the audience will be sucked into this beautiful, fantasy world not just once, but off and on throughout the film -- the same way Ender experienced it in the book.

We got a brief look at the production art of the mind game, including the mirror Ender peers into and sees Peter instead of himself reflected back. I remember it being faintly reminiscent of the "Tale of the Three Brothers" animation in the final Harry Potter film - gorgeous, and I can't wait to see the final product.

Eros and the Final Simulation

While Earth is all greens and blues and Battle School filled with steel blues and grays, the Eros of the film, while maybe not specifically called by name, is a beautiful amber color.  It's a formerly thriving planet which was occupied by, not a monstrous race, but an intelligent species with culture, history, and dreams of colonization. The surface of Eros, which in part jets up toward the sky in skyscraper-esque dwellings, is only the tip of an iceberg; the structures stand tall above miles and miles of underground tunnels in which the humans later bolted in their steel walkways - which we got to visit while in New Orleans!

© Summit Entertainment

"To interpret the idea of the Formics being an insect-like race in a sense, cinematically, Gavin was very much inspired by the giant ant hills of South Africa which is his home country," McDonough revealed, with Orci nodding in the background. "When Lynn says giant ant hills in South Africa, she means giant ant hills in South Africa. Like spires, totally gigantic. And Gavin can explain this, how it's all about keeping the queen totally comfortable in her air conditioned chamber."

Eros is the home of Command School where Ender and his friends are sent to complete their training with the International Fleet -- but the film's version is obviously not a factual representation of the real-life Eros asteroid that sits between Mars and Jupiter today. That particular tiny, potato-shaped rock has no atmosphere, almost no gravity, certainly no underground structures; it would fit on Vancouver Island more than 82 times.

Command School is also the location of the battle simulation room where Graff and his team overlook Ender's final exam from a observation deck above. And this room is absolutely epic.

During his final battles, Ender is standing on a podium in an absolutely cavernous chamber with the most elite of his soldiers and his very best friends forming an arc in front of him, each on their own console, helping control the ships' movements. The scene looks very much like a deadly symphony is playing with Ender Wiggin as the conductor.

It is going to be a gorgeous visual experience, the entire simulation playing out in front of Ender and his confidants in encompassing holographic projections. For the young soldiers, what they are experiencing both looks and feels real.

Sequels

So how does it end? I can't tell you that. Will there be sequels? Maybe, but Bob Orci doesn't like to count his chickens before they hatch, though there's no harm in ensuring that the coop's big enough.

"[We have to make sure] that emotionally it is over in a way, it is a chapter. The emotional chapter is, ‘I now know the truth and I won't stand by and let that stand. I must make that right and I will make it right.' And that is him coming into his own so it's all about what you feel at the end. The idea is to make it feel that he is making a promise to do right and that's lots of classic films. Use that logic even though I could continue on."

"Any movie could have another chapter."

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Make sure you also check out the set visit reports from EnderWiggin.net and Ender's Ansible!

Coming tomorrow: Part 2 - Interview with Gavin Hood
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