In-depth: Territory on creating the futuristic 3D cityscape for Ghost in the Shell

London-based VFX studio Territory created a huge amount of 3D elements for the cityscape of the hugely anticipated dystopian sci-fi film Ghost in The Shell. Based on the Japanese manga by Masamune Shriow, the new film directed by Rupert Sanders follows cyborg counter-cyberterrorist field commander The Major (Scarlett Johansson) as she fights against criminals, hackers and terrorists.

Territory was brought on board to visualise the film's futuristic technology - what they’ve done for films such as Prometheus, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ex Machina and The Martian. But for Ghost in the Shell, the brief said there were to be no screens, instead it asked the studio to take ideas into the 3D dimension. Territory was brought in to work on concepts after the filming had already begun.

The studio delivered around 200 final assets to MPC, the lead VFX vendor. These assets included giant advertising holograms that float through the sprawling cityscape, logos and brands that appear in shop windows, hotels and the red light district, signage and directions on the street, accessories, holographic displays and building wrappers that envelope sky scrapers with colour and texture.

Territory also created medical devices and clinical data ‘screens’ for lab environments and reception areas, holographic information points for street scenes, and a holographic environment for a key fight scene.

We spoke to Territory’s creative lead Peter Eszenyi and Andrew Popplestone.

Still from the film: Niihama/New Port City

Miriam Harris: What did Territory create for Ghost in the Shell’s Japanese city of Niihama?

Peter Eszenyi: “When we were brought on board, our brief was to create 3D elements that would stand out against the cityscape and street scenes. We were shown concept art and given direction about scale to help us get a sense of how director Rupert Sanders visualised the cityscape, and evolved our ideas from there.

“Many of these 3D elements would be perceived as realistic looking, sharply defined tangible objects or animations in a daylight cityscape and in some instances we were given references or photogrammetry assets about specific 3D objects or a character animations. But we also had a huge amount of creative freedom in what the elements looked like.”

Andrew Popplestone: “We created an environment where advertising competed for attention in a way that reflects the wealth or status of the brand. So some elements have the sharp, high definition, hyper reality of luxury brands, while others are rough, pixelated and glitchy, in keeping with low-end advertising.

“Similarly, in the street scenes, we worked with VFX Supervisor John Dykstra to create credible civic 3D elements – pedestrian lights, stop lights, directional signage. We wanted to achieve a layered look in which old traditional city signage elements can be seen under the new 3D elements, which shows the evolution of the city as it transitioned from old to new technology.”

Still from the film: Niihama/New Port City

MH: Where did you gather inspiration for the futuristic technology?

Andrew: “As part of the research process, we looked at colour swatches from the on set art team and the plates from production, and then we went on to look at art and architecture, sculpture, installations, jellyfish, sand. We looked at books, photography, and YouTube clips, for different explorations that for example looked at tangible attributes. For specific environments like the medical lab, we referenced medical data and images.

“Working closely with VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron, we developed a range of concepts to show the visual language for key elements in the film, such as the ‘hologlobe’, a sort of personal computer, the holographic conference room, and the medical UI.

Concept art: Hologlobe 
Concept art: Holographic conference room

“Early in the concepting process, the original anime informed our ideas as 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 some of our colour tests where the green/blue of the 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.”

Still from the film: Niihama/New Port City

MH: How did you work to create all technology to be floating or holographic? 

Andrew: “Our brief was always to avoid any reference to flat screens or straight lines that build on current UI and UX conventions. Instead the director wanted a unique look and feel that fit into his vision of the Ghost in the Shell universe and we felt that holographics seems to be a natural progression in terms of a future facing technology. 

“In addition to that, we also needed to design technology that fit into existing film shots. Coming into a project in post, when much of the filming has already been done, means that motion graphics often need to be designed to fit pre-existing gestures and sequences. So the visual solution needs a great deal of design consideration; the whole product needs to make sense to feel credible in that context and that is a real challenge. 

“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. 

Still from the film: Notice the 3D information hologram on the left-side of this scene in the red light district

“In terms of the cityscape and street scene elements, director Rupert Sanders wanted an original look and feel to the city and the idea of solid energy or holographic style objects and elements were a part of that vision early in development. Our role in the creation of those elements came in post production, and we were given previously developed concept art to help us get a sense of what Sanders was looking for.

Concept art: Hologram

“The real challenge that we helped to solve was how these giant 3D elements looked and behaved in the environment. 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.”

Still from the film: A key fight scene unfolds in this setting 

MH: How is the concept art different to the original manga, previous animae and the 1995 film?

Peter: “We hoped to include a number of subtle references to Shirow’s visual language in the manga series, but our initial inspiration drew on Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime.

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.

“There are a number of things that contribute to the difference: firstly, the original anime was released in 1995, with a story set in 2025 so it was challenging in terms of evolving the original visual aesthetic with respect to how technology as evolved in the interim. While we were initially asked to reference the analogue feel – a visual pixelated or volumetric ‘roughness’ – of the era (1995) it was important not to mimic or be iterative. 

“Secondly, the final concepts needed to reflect Sanders’ new contemporary and optimistic universe, in which humans and highly sophisticated technology coexist; 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. Of course, because they were created to inform and inspire, we don't actually know to what extent they were adopted for the film, if at all. We obviously hope that our work is referenced, so it will be very exciting to see the final edit.”

Still from the film: Notice the 3D advertising behind The Major

MH: Tell us a bit about how the concepts for the hologlobe, solograms, holoconference and cloaking device came about.

Peter: “In practical terms, we were given scene references in which The Major (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr Ouelet (Juliet Binoche) interacted with an as yet undefined technology, so our task was to design a product that would fit the context of those scenes. We also had a visual reference in the form of a physical circular plate or platform on set, which formed the base of the technology. 

“At that point our work was to design a conceptual virtual product that would make sense of the base plate, expressions and gestures in those scenes. While this technology is not seen in the original manga or anime, we did include elements that pay homage to the original culture – such as the geometric Japanese Asanoha pattern, which we subtly referenced in the way that data is generated in the hologlobe. We also use a red/orange colour palette for the holographic elements, again, as a nod to UI conventions in the 2004 anime Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, but updated to express a more contemporary visual language and style that would ultimately reflect the technology’s futuristic sophistication, intelligence and capability. 

“We began by visualising a digital globe that generated content - data, images, animations, movies, memories - dynamically according to questions, instructions or narrative reporting. How that content generation was visualised was the really exciting challenge for us, and we explored a range of possible expressions with varying degrees of roughness and refinement.

Concept Art: Territory's original concept art for a 'Zengarden'

“Our original concept of how to achieve virtual physicality in holographic content generation was based on voxel explorations of small volumetric forms that convey a really interesting physical tangibility. We created several routes that were based on voxels for the hologlobe concept (essentially a thought controlled holographic personal computer) and content generation in the holographic conference room. From there, we refined the concept using what we call ‘digital sand’ – an exploration based on subverting the raw natural element of sand into a technology that is infinitely flexible, adaptable and can take any form.

“Capable of creating an organic feeling UI, this route felt close to the man / machine themes of the film and our motion tests demonstrated how these smaller sand like particles could behave and move as they form, transition, reform and maintain their shape across any dynamically generated high or low tech content. 

“The holoconference was another opportunity to explore how a complex amount of information could be generated, updated and visualised in a much larger spatial environment. We explored the juxtaposition of data and information streams, animations, and movies alongside whole life-sized bodies and representational heads.

Concept Art

“The cloaking device was an indirect consideration – quite separate from our brief – in that we explored how people and objects could be generated in a holographic context. 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.

“Finally, the ‘solograms’ were quite different from the concept art. We knew that these 3D objects and elements needed to reflect a high degree of realism, so we worked to craft objects that appeared tangible in a daylight cityscape or street scene, but could be walked through as easily as smoke or a projection.”

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