Riddick: Design and Locations

It was crucial to Vin Diesel, Twohy and Field that Riddick evoke the terror of the first film and provide the visually stunning elements of the second. When it came time to scouting locations, Montreal proved to be the ideal city in which they could open up Riddick’s unexpected new journey. On Field: “We were fortunate to be able to shoot in the same studios where 300 was filmed. David had created such elaborate storyboards for every sequence of this movie, and that gave the crew a significant tool to know the exact shots we wanted and kept production right on track.”

When it came to a cinematographer, the filmmakers opted to bring back David Eggby, who had so masterfully served as DP on Pitch Black. “He’s a guy that I enjoyed collaborating with because we challenge each other,” remarks Twohy. “We pushed each other to make bold choices in Pitch Black, and again I challenged him here on a technical level. I said, ‘We are going to create a fairly exotic-looking alien world, but I’m going to ask you to shoot it in a train depot in Montreal.’”

The team loved the visual style and the tone that Eggby had created in Pitch Black, a bleached bypass process that gave a beautiful light to the film. Even though they wanted to bring back that film’s texture and graininess, shooting on stage—with a much bigger visual effects show and many more creatures this time around—forced Eggby and Twohy to create a new visual style.

This first consisted of determining the light source on the planet. For Twohy, who has a keen interest in astronomy, determining the planetary arrangement is always his starting point. In Pitch Black, Twohy chose a binary system, a planet with two suns, which may imply an unstable planet. For Riddick, he also looked to the stars. “I begin with real astronomy and astrophysics because that’s one of my passions,” he notes. “For this film, one of the things that caught my eye was putting a brown dwarf star in the sky, which is like a very big Jupiter. I try not to get too fanciful; the universe is strange enough out there that you don’t have to add strangeness to it.”

Because many of Riddick’s scenes take place on the exterior of the planet, Eggby had the arduous challenge of lighting inside a studio. In addition, both he and Twohy did not want top light, but rather chiseled, contrasting light. The solution? On a previous film, Eggby had worked with giant reflective pieces of fabric that served as bounce sources, and he believed that concept could again be applied here. “I knew this would be a good way to light our four stages and it would be combined into one source,” shares the DP. “You don’t have multi-shadows. It’s soft, and it’s like one big orb. So we purchased 40 20-by20 gold lamés, which are gold material reflectors. We stretched them on the ceiling and put lights into them individually. We could flip them around for a white bounce for ambient fill, or gold, or the moon.”

On each of the soundstages, production designer Joseph Nemec III built landscapes that filled the majority of the stage. Twohy had hired Nemec for A Perfect Getaway and when he spoke about the possibility of Riddick, the Terminator 2: Judgment Day veteran expressed interest in getting back to the sci-fi genre. The team found Nemec to be an incredible collaborator, one of the critical pieces to putting this whole puzzle together.

Though Riddick required many visual effects, it was important to the production team to not have the entire film shot on green screen. Indeed, they wanted sets that could anchor the actors in their environment. After discussing with Twohy how the two suns would affect the planet’s environments, Nemec designed the various environs that Riddick and the bounty hunters would experience. Eight unique landscapes were needed, but with only four soundstages, Nemec had to carefully plan when to tear one down to build another.

The landscapes depicted different aspects of the hostile planet’s terrain, from its badlands—filled with steaming sulfur pools and yellow sand that whipped about—and huge reddish rock walls with large mud pits to hoodoo rock formations and a vast, desolate savanna-like tundra. Discussing his production designer, Twohy commends: “Joe is a quick-change artist, and few people could have pulled off what he did.”

This set was where, on one end, Nemec built a full-scale way station—at which Riddick activates a beacon—and at the other end, a full-scale spaceship. “Most of the outdoor environments we were looking at were architecturally geological, generally more barren or monumental,” says Nemec. “The topography we chose for the look of the way station exterior is in Northern Quebec. It’s called Kuujjuaq, and it’s very barren with low arctic scrub and lichen-colored granite—not something people normally see.”

Nemec explains what was required of his crew to create this barren tundra inside a giant soundstage: “It took about nine truckloads of dirt and rubble to shape the ground. Then we came back and poured concrete over all of that. Then we came back again with more dirt and gravel and ground materials over the top; that began to suggest the tundra. To finish, we used a combination of Styrofoam coated with plaster, other wood structures with fiberglass and plaster rocks over the top. Finally, we gave them all the same scenic treatment to match the rocks of the Kuujjuaq area.”

In order to expand Nemec’s tundra landscape in the film, visual supervisor Gunnar Hansen, who had previously worked on such topographically challenging films as The Grey, traveled to Kuujjuaq to shoot plate photography. “We were helicoptered in to an area that has probably never had a human set foot in it before; the terrain was too rough to drive through. We didn’t see any wildlife at all in this stark, desolate landscape,” says the VFX supervisor. For this special shoot, Hansen’s team built an elaborate rig to hold the three high-resolution digital still cameras needed to capture the visuals. After stitching the images together, this gave a 180-degree point of view, a perspective one might guess would prove helpful to a Furyan relying upon eye shine…

Riddick, after he has been left for dead on the desolate planet, takes refuge in ancient burial ruins. As Nemec drew the ruins, he imagined what culture would have influenced them. “We felt the burial ruins had to be an architectural environment,” says the production designer. “We decided to take our influence from Petra in Jordan. The idea was that in a great deteriorated mountain, some ancient civilization would have carved out a shrine or ceremonial place that gave homage to the creatures on the planet.” When researching the inner carvings and the stone that was used in Petra, the art department learned that the main colors where mainly shades of terra-cotta. Fortunately, it was a perfect complement to the palette that Nemec was working with, so he kept them.