Ghost in the Shell: creating a hybrid world

Motion graphics studio Territory talk us through creating the cityscapes for Rupert Sanders’ new film – and bringing a holographic vision of the future to life

Ghost in the Shell is a polarising film, for many a controversial one. I was lucky enough to see it in 3D and it is a beautiful spectacle – its world-creation is brilliantly realised – yet there are elements in it that are much harder to watch and that have overshadowed both its production and reception.

If a positive can be found in the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the principal character ‘Major’ – and the tangled nature of identity and representation that further emerges once you’ve seen the film, or already know the story – it might be that the concept of ‘whitewashing’ has been put in front of a wider audience. (An interesting take on Ghost’s handling of Japanese culture was recently posted on hollywoodreporter.com where four Japanese actresses were invited discuss the film and ideas of cultural authenticity. Spoiler alert: the article reveals the film’s main twist which is significant to any discussion of its representation of Japanese characters.)

Despite its divisive reception, the story itself – a human cyborg starts to remember elements of its previous life – is classic science-fiction and the film remains a compelling visual experience. The main New Port City-based locations in which the action takes place are rendered in incredible detail thanks to some great work from production designer Jan Roelfs, the film’s art direction and set decoration teams, animatronics studio Weta Workshop, MPC – the lead VFX studio on the film – and 3D and motion graphics studio Territory, who worked with VFX supervisors Guillaume Rocheron and John Dykstra.

Territory’s work has appeared in a host of recent sci-fi movies, from Prometheus to The Martian and Ex Machina, but its involvement in Ghost in the Shell is its biggest project to date.

Ghost in the Shell, Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

The studio created a huge range of 3D assets for the film’s street scenes and cityscapes – including the vast, solid-looking hologram advertisements (‘solograms’), street signage and animated road markings, logos, branding, building wrappers, numerous character accessories and ‘hologlobe’ visualisations – delivering around 175 final 3D assets to MPC. One of Territory’s hallmarks is its ability to bring credibility to scenes that depend upon evincing future tech.

“Futuristic tech design really has to be developed as though it is to be used in the real world, and requires UI/UX experience, a strong aesthetic understanding and a passion for storytelling to get it right,” says the studio’s David Sheldon-Hicks. “This is the space we operate in – and our work across UI/UX design for emerging technology, games and VR all feed into our motion graphic film work on set and in post.”

Coming into Ghost in the Shell’s production during post, Territory’s work involved creating viable tech that would fit seamlessly into director Rupert Sanders’ world. More of often than not, Territory applies its work to flat screens (think the ship interfaces in Prometheus), but in Ghost in the Shell, the technological innovations have three-dimensional depth and are holographic in nature.

The direction was influenced by an R&D process that saw Territory’s Creative Lead Peter Eszenyi and Creative Director Andrew Popplestone looking at how people are likely to engage with tech in a world where screens of any form are obsolete. Instead, interactions based on gestures, voice and thought replace traditional screen-based interfaces.

Sheldon-Hicks explains: “As part of the research process, the team looked at colour swatches from the on-set art team and the plates from production – and [also] art and architecture, sculpture, installations, jellyfish, sand – drawing on books, photography, and YouTube clips for different explorations that looked at tangible attributes.” The studio also worked with Rocheron and Dykstra on a number of specific design concepts – including the look of a ‘hologlobe’ computer and ‘holo conference’ briefing room.

In the street scenes and cityscapes, however, messaging is everywhere. Translucent digital holograms animate next to buildings and up in the skies, while people pass through the lower iterations like clouds.

“The real challenge that we helped to solve was how these giant 3D elements looked and behaved in the environment,” says Eszenyi. “The motion element of these graphics needed to be realistic or logical in some ways – for example, giant human figures moved and walked realistically through the city, and fish swam. Also, we needed to distinguish between the ‘brand’ origin and purpose – from wealthy luxury brands to low-tech street vendors, brand logos to civic signage. Other objects, like pedestrian crossing lights hovered at head height to be in the right sight line.

“The considerations that framed our work included discussions about where light sources were coming from, how reflections and reflective surfaces could work, how physical elements in the environment, such as buildings and people, would influence the objects, how these objects would move through the environment, how textures were incorporated and conveyed.”

Scarlett Johansson plays the Major in Ghost in the Shell, Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

Popplestone adds: “The cityscape features a huge number of holographic objects and elements and about 30 giant ‘solograms’ – photoreal holographic animations that appear to have solid edges but are completely digital, enabling buildings to be seen through them and characters to walk through them. We designed all of these elements having considered their purpose and function in this futuristic society – this is part of the world building process that is so essential to integrate CG elements that feel authentic to the context.

“The rationale behind the 3D assets was about propaganda and advertising,” he continues. “In this international megacity where technology was embedded at all levels of society, from infrastructure to organic enhancements, these eye-popping elements would serve varying socio-political purposes – from alerting to missing persons and cyber criminals, to political or religious messages, to corporate branding and advertising.”

Territory also created digital street and directional signage – from pedestrian crossing lights and road markings – that, says Popplestone, “required more serious practical thought about visual standout in this type of mixed reality cityscape. The application of the pedestrian and traffic signage over the old ones also helped to create the feel of layers and signify a city and society in transition.”

The palimpsest-like history of Ghost in the Shell itself also had an influence on the direction that the visuals for the new film moved in – its two original animes from 1995 and 2004 informing the team’s ideas for a feature set in 2025, says Eszenyi. “I would say that the similarities of our concepts relate to the holographic nature of the anime’s technology and the difference lies in visual sophistication of form and function.

“We sought to bring in subtle references that would tie the old and the new together – for example the spherical form of the ‘hologlobe’ and our orange/gold colour palette (from the 2004 anime) and green/blue (from the 1995 anime) – and we added the Japanese ‘Asanoha’ pattern into the ‘hologlobe’ UI as a nod to the original, in this more contemporary interpretation.

“Some of these elements changed as the film aesthetic evolved, but we feel that even if our concepts reflected a more contemporary vision, they remained true to the spirit of the original.”

Ghost in the Shell, Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

“It was challenging in terms of evolving the original visual aesthetic with respect to how technology as evolved in the interim,” Eszenyi adds. “While we were initially asked to reference the analogue feel – a visual pixelated or volumetric ‘roughness’ – of the era, it was important not to mimic or be iterative; secondly, the final concepts needed to reflect Sanders’ vision for a new contemporary universe.

Thirdly, the concepts needed to reflect the advances of modern VFX and expectations of the audience – this is a highly anticipated film with a strong science-fiction fan-base whose expectations are informed and shaped by modern CGI. Within this context, our concepts were visually sophisticated and supported by motion tests to demonstrate the look and feel in action.”

At the heart of the film’s aesthetic are ideas that come from a merging of the organic and the mechanical, the analogue and the digital – and things not being quite as they first appear, a kind of holographic take on physical reality.

“We also explored how people and objects could be generated in a holographic context,” says Popplestone. “We wanted to convey a sense of tangibility, of physicality so worked with the idea of ‘digital sand’ as a way for particles or pixels to coalesce and fluidly form shapes and objects, then how they would transition from one form to another. This exploration generated concepts around how an invisible form could become visible.”

Territory concept art for Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas now. Full credits are at imdb.com. See more of Territory’s work at territorystudio.com

Ghost in the Shell, Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

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