Transcendence (2014): Shooting of Depp’s Sci-Fi

“Transcendence,” the sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp, opens today, April 18, 2014.

Shooting: Settings

Filmed in Los Angeles and New Mexico, “Transcendence” takes place in a variety of settings, from the urban streets of Berkeley, California, to a dying desert town and a forested mountain hideout. Production designer Chris Seagers worked closely with Pfister, director of photography Jess Hall, and visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness to create the desired look and feel for the movie.

“We had a fantastic crew comprised of artists who were all very interested in the subject matter and excited to be part of it,” Pfister says. “My experience has made me appreciate streamlined sets married with interesting visual effects and an overall naturalistic style, and they were able to create exactly what I’d envisioned.”

“Wally always had a very clear idea of what he wanted,” Seagers says, “but then he let us run with it and really embraced our work.”

Seagers notes that, from his perspective, “it turned out to be a slightly unusual project, in that the look itself transcends from the traditional and familiar to an almost disturbingly sterile world that doesn’t need humans, but just runs itself. So we started with the humans that built the place, and then began to present less and less humanity.”

Brightwood Data Center

The set he refers to is a compound in the fictional remote desert town of Brightwood, called the Brightwood Data Center. Built by locals hired by Evelyn at her husband’s direction, it is a primarily underground facility where the ever-evolving Will is able to continually expand his scope of knowledge, accessing and merging with every hard drive in the world. The set was created on stages in Albuquerque and, according to Seagers, required long corridors to accommodate Pfister’s vision. Luckily, much of what they needed was already there. “Wally wanted something that felt both not of this world, but not purely science fiction either,” Seagers says. “The stages off I-25 in New Mexico were perfect because they had low ceilings and very flat concrete floors, and very, very long corridors—one was 300 feet long—so we could shoot everything practically, which he likes to do as much as possible.”

The exterior of Brightwood was filmed in the city of Belen, where Seagers’ team constructed five buildings and a number of trailer homes. The “town” was designed, drawn and built in just eight weeks, and the people of Belen were very accommodating to the production, which basically took over their town for the duration of their time there. In addition, the visual effects team, under the supervision of McGuinness, used green screens to give the town the remote desert atmosphere desired.

In Rio Puerco, the production built a solar field where many of the film’s action sequences take place. Seagers was prepared to shoot in a real solar field, but quickly realized that it wouldn’t be safe to do the required explosions and stunts there. “In the end,” he says, “we decided to make our own, taking what is available today and giving it a slightly more skeletal structure. And we did everything in black-and-white to give it a very stark look.”

The film opens in Berkeley, where Seagers says, “it’s all very Northern California wood tones, but urban. When we see RIFT’s headquarters, which is also in the woods, it’s all natural—in fact, because they are anti-technology, everything there is very simple, analog-based, and so we used the Luddites for inspiration.

The film’s color palette transitions as the story moves to the desert. “Once we get to the BDC,” he continues, “it’s very neutral with a lot of glass, so it’s also reflective and translucent.” The translucency plays out at its height in Evelyn’s Brightwood residence, where Will also resides in his virtual world, and his image appears everywhere she looks. “That was a tricky set to work out, because the whole thing was done by back projections, so it was getting reflections on the reflections. The danger was that it could become a big mirror box, so we had to play with texture and structure to get it to work.”

“The design and effects teams and our DP, Jess Hall, came up with an incredible way to keep Johnny present in the scenes after his character’s body dies and his mind is uploaded,” Kosove says. “They had Johnny on set, acting right there with Rebecca, but his performance was being projected into the wall. So, instead of shooting his performance later against a green screen, we have the authenticity of him being there in the moment. I think the result is not only visually stunning, but emotionally truthful as well.”

Hall sought inspiration for this technique from contemporary video artist Bill Viola. “His work related to what we were doing because we were working so intensely with camera projection, and that’s something he mastered in the gallery space,” Hall says. “I went back and looked at the way he projects onto different materials, and then we did some experimenting and finally came up with the way we wanted to do it for the film.”

Hall shot the movie on 35mm film with a photochemical finish. “It has wonderful depth, color saturation and contrast. You can achieve an intensely rich, yet subtle and realistic texture,” he says. “You know you’re working with light and emotion, not ones and zeros, and I love the way it captures the faces and skin tone of the actors.”

In addition to providing the computerized world in which Will resides, McGuinness’s effects team enhanced and extended the sets wherever necessary, especially on the larger builds, such as the solar fields and BDC.

“No matter how much was actually built for the set, when you’re in the desert even 400 solar panels would have felt small,” McGuinness reasons. “We built 75, shot all the action inside of those, and then created the rest to extend as far as the eye could see.”

However, McGuinness points out that the visual effect that was most specific to “Transcendence” was much more connected to the character of Will Caster and his evolving abilities, “in order to serve the overall concept of the film. The technology being designed and implemented by Will was a permeating extension of what he had become. It could be organic, metal, solid, liquid, or a combination of all of that. For instance,” he says, referencing one of the most difficult effects, “what would reverse rain look like? We had to figure all of that out and so much more, down to the smallest detail.”

Johnson observes, “Johnny’s character goes from a humble man of science in a modest home to an omnipresent artificial intelligence that manages to overtake the entire Internet. Whether or not he’s a benevolent or malevolent being, we needed the audience to feel his presence in every frame of the film.”

The filmmakers and cast reflect that the movie poses some profound questions within its sci-fi storyline, and raises some thought-provoking scenarios about the effects that advancing, evolving technologies might have on our culture and on us as individuals.

“People have been fighting wars over ‘my god is better than your god’ for thousands of years,” Depp says. “In the 21st century, I think it’s appropriate to look at the way human beings worship technology and what that could mean for our future. Whether you’re on the side of technology or ecology, a pacifist or an extremist, most people have very definite opinions, and the question of how far we should allow our dependence on computers to go is a question that needs to be asked.”

Pfister summarizes, “According to the experts, artificial intelligence of the sort we present in ‘Transcendence’ is coming, like it or not. What I wanted to do with the film is give people a peek into one direction our world could take in the coming decades, and engage them in an emotional, moral and intellectual debate about this very timely topic in a way that is both thought-provoking and entertaining.”