“The Island” takes place in two distinct worlds—the regimented, monochromatic, manufactured world of the institute’s residential facility, dubbed Centerville by the filmmakers, and the colorful, unpredictable world outside. Every aspect of the production was deliberately crafted to reflect the disparate natures of these two milieus.
Director of photography Mauro Fiore says that he and Michael Bay discussed how to modify the lighting and the camera work to convey the division. “The underground environment is artificially lit, so we wanted it to feel very clinical…much more about white light, lacking in color. But when the agnates discover the outside world, there is an oversaturation of color because they are experiencing the sun and nature for the first time. We wanted to maintain that contrast with the camera as well. In the beginning of the film, we are in this controlled environment, so our approach was to not move the camera in any chaotic way and to keep it more formal and objective. Later, as we get into the outside world, the approach was much more kinetic and subjective, using more hand-held cameras.”
Filming on “The Island” began in fall 2004 in the deserts of California and Nevada, where Lincoln and Jordan first emerge from the containment facility into the world above. Walter Parkes offers, “Michael liked the idea that when the characters first escape from their confinement, they are in an inhospitable world—not one that’s been destroyed by pollution, but in no way welcoming. It gives us a two-step reveal. First they come out and realize they are able to breathe the air, but it is still the threatening landscape of the southwestern desert. Then, when they get to Los Angeles, they are like kids in a candy store. It’s a world they could never even have imagined.”
During post production, visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig and the effects team from Industrial Light & Magic would embellish the barren desert landscape. They digitally added 100-foot wide intake fans that keep the secret facility below ventilated, as well as the futuristic mag-lev train, which transports Lincoln and Jordan to Los Angeles.
The desert locations served as the backdrop for the first of many sequences involving the talents of frequent Michael Bay collaborator Alan Purwin, the film’s aerial coordinator, and his team of fellow pilots. Purwin’s helicopters were used both on camera by Laurent’s security team in their pursuit of the escaped agnates, and off camera to provide the dramatic air-to-ground and air-to-air aerial photography. The black choppers in Laurent’s unit, called Whispers, marked the film debut of the state-of-the-art Eurocopter EC120, one of the quietest helicopters ever made, which is equipped with the latest in hi-tech gadgetry and can easily cruise at speeds of 150 miles per hour.
After a week of desert filming, the cast and crew relocated to Detroit, Michigan, which doubled for the Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future. Producer Ian Bryce says, “We scouted all over the country to find a city that could ‘play’ Los Angeles, and found Detroit to be the closest aesthetic match to downtown L.A. in terms of the architecture. The city was also very flexible and gave us a great deal of cooperation and control.”
Bay adds, “Detroit is reminiscent of Los Angeles, and they were amazing enough to let me shut down eight blocks at a time and control the streets for as long as I needed to. I really liked shooting in Detroit…except for the cold,” allows the Los Angeles born-and-bred director.
Beginning several weeks ahead of the main company’s arrival in Detroit, the design team redressed areas of the city, fitting them with appropriate signage and other trappings of a near-future urban metropolis.
Production designer Nigel Phelps observes, “Detroit has a classic, timeless look, which made it a perfect canvas. We brought in all of the slightly futuristic foreground elements, like traffic lights, bus stops, etc., to make it look just ahead of contemporary. The idea was that we could then digitally juxtapose all of our futuristic architectural designs on top of the existing buildings.”
Brevig says, “Obviously, our real world isn’t in the future, so I still needed to augment reality with buildings and transportation devices that don’t yet exist. But instead of creating it all in the computer, if you can start with a real photographed background, you always end up with a more realistic result.”
One of the movie’s key scenes was shot at the former site of the Michigan Central Station, a circa 1913 Beaux Arts Classic train station designed by the legendary architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore. Abandoned since 1988, the historic building served as the setting for the climactic confrontation between Lincoln Six-Echo and his “sponsor,” Tom Lincoln, both portrayed by Ewan McGregor.
Ewan McGregor reveled in the chance to play the two different roles, and despite their being physically identical, the actor had some thoughts on how to make them distinct individuals. “One idea I brought to the table was for Tom to be Scottish, while Lincoln, because he’s been brought up in an American society, would have an American accent. I also wanted Tom to be different from Lincoln in his attitude. Tom is rich, arrogant and selfish. Every picture in his apartment is of himself. He is the opposite of Lincoln, who seems to be quite sensitive.”
“We made Tom Lincoln a real smarmy guy,” Bay confirms. “I loved how Ewan kept working on his characters to give them completely separate personalities.”
Once again, visual effects came into play in making the pivotal scenes between Lincoln Six-Echo and Tom Lincoln work seamlessly onscreen. Brevig explains, “Usually when you have one actor playing two characters, you try to keep them from appearing to touch each other because it’s very difficult to do. So, of course Michael blocked it so that one Lincoln is holding the other Lincoln’s wrist, which would be hard enough, but the camera is dollying all over while they’re doing this.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges, “I knew it would be more believable to the audience if we could make this work, so I came up with a method—using motion control cameras and very precise choreography—to allow one Lincoln played by Ewan to be holding onto the other Lincoln, also played by Ewan, and it’s all happening right there in front of you.”
Michael Bay expounds, “Motion control is where you have the camera on a track and it’s timed so each take is identical. We did it once with Ewan playing one role, and again with him playing the other. You see the shadows cross and the eye lines match, and it’s not done with any kind of 3D effects; it’s sheer timing.”
Being a rich playboy of the futuristic western world, Tom Lincoln would naturally indulge in the best of everything, including his modes of transportation. Creating a car that reflected his wealth and personality, however, proved to be one of the filmmakers’ biggest challenges. “We kept designing cars, and I kept throwing them out,” Bay remarks. “We just weren’t getting the quality I wanted.”
Working in Motor City, the director took advantage of his connections with some of the top car designers in the world. “I have a good relationship with GM from my other movies, and I’ve also done commercials for them, so I asked them what concept cars they had. They showed me some stuff and, of course, I went for the most expensive concept car they had in the shop: the Cadillac CIEN. It’s a beautiful gull-wing…one of a kind. I have no idea what the final tally on the cost was; they stopped counting when they got to seven million. I personally gave them my word that I would guard that thing with my life, so you’d see me on the set, ‘Get that stand away from that car! Move that light back!’ One crew member started to get in with muddy feet and I was like, ‘Dude! Did you not hear me say it is a seven million dollar car?!?’”
Special effects supervisor John Frazier came to the rescue to help Bay keep his pledge to protect the car, especially when an actor or stuntman had to be behind the wheel. Frazier and his team created a “clone” of the multi-million dollar automobile, which could be driven and potentially damaged without the high price tag. He recalls, “They came to us and said, ‘Okay, we’ve picked out the car. It’s a 2002 Cadillac concept car, but we can’t actually drive it. You have to build that car.’ So, we built an exact replica of that Cadillac from the ground up in 17 days. We got it on an airplane and they filmed with it the next day.”
The value of the concept Cadillac actually paled in comparison to that of the boat first seen in Lincoln Six-Echo’s dreams and later in the real world of Tom Lincoln. Bay wanted the boat to be as impressive as the car, but had no idea that the search for the perfect craft would take the production past the wrap of principal photography and all the way to Europe. Bay relates the story: “I wanted the best-looking boat in the world. We found the WallyPower, which is owned by this guy named Luca in Italy, the nicest guy in the world. It took a long time to get clearance to use it because it’s a 25 million dollar yacht, but it is beautiful, just beautiful. It’s extremely state-of-the-art—the lines are very stealth-like and it’s powered by three Harrier engines. I think it can go something like 80 miles an hour. We’d already finished filming, and Scarlett and Ewan were on other projects, so I only had one day to shoot with it on a Saturday. We got to Italy and the weather forecast was horrible; it was raining so hard the ceiling in my hotel room was leaking. I woke up the next morning, opened my blinds, and it was terrible outside, just pouring rain, so I shut the blinds and went back to bed. A little while later, my director of photography calls me, ‘Mike, get up, get up; there’s sun on the horizon.’ It actually cleared up just long enough for us to shoot the scene. The seas were very choppy, and Scarlett is standing out there with no railing—very scary. It was also freezing and the two of them are supposed to look like they’re in the heat of a tropical island…but we got the shot.”
The film’s most futuristic vehicles are the Wasps, the flying motorcycles utilized by Laurent’s unit to chase down the escaped agnates, Lincoln and Jordan. Bay states, “I literally wanted a flying engine, very small but very powerful and fast. I wanted it to look shark-like—a rice rocket that can fly—so it would be very cool on film.”
The Wasps are especially prominent in perhaps the film’s most heart-pounding stunt sequence, which was filmed when the production returned to Southern California from Detroit for the balance of principal photography.
Over the course of three weekends, the production shut down a four-mile stretch of the Terminal Island Freeway in San Pedro, California, for the harrowing sequence in which Laurent’s team is in hot pursuit of Lincoln and Jordan, who are riding on the bed of a big rig hauling train wheels that look like giant spools. Using the train wheels as weapons, they try to thwart their pursuers, until Lincoln manages to commandeer one of the Wasps.
To capture the action, Bay had as many as 15 cameras positioned in various locations, including a hand-held camera that was often in the hands of the director himself. The Wasp was mounted on the arm of a gimble, an apparatus built on the back of a trailer, which allowed the Wasp to appear to “fly” down the freeway. John Frazier expounds, “The arm could articulate up and down and pitch and roll. My set coordinator, Jim Schwalm, was running the gimble, and he was speeding down the freeway with the stunt guys essentially hanging off the side of this truck as if they were riding this futuristic flying motorcycle. We did that for a couple of days and it was quite a ride, but we wouldn’t want to do it again, I can tell you.”
Later, in post production, the Wasp sequences captured on the freeway and the streets of Los Angeles would be augmented by visual effects. Using live-action photography, Brevig’s team filmed the actors on a full-sized Wasp hanging in front of a blue screen. They also created a computer-generated Wasp with animated CG riders for some specific shots.
Michael Bay worked closely with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to script the action sequences in “The Island.” Bay notes, “Bob and Alex were great to work with, because I would write what I was envisioning, beat by beat, and then we would refine it together. But,” he smiles, “there are times when you just wing it, too.”
To give the audience a piece of the action, Bay and the special effects team employed a specialized camera truck, which was first used on “Bad Boys II.” Nicknamed “the Bay Buster,” the truck has an exterior roll cage that can shield multiple cameras even as it puts them in the middle of the most explosive action scenes. Frazier explains, “Instead of the roll cage being inside the truck, we built it on the outside to protect both the truck and the cameras. At times we had as many as three cameras mounted on the truck inside the roll cage, so when we ran the truck into cars and flipped them over, etc., the cameras were right there. That’s the Bay Buster.”
Stunt coordinator Kenny Bates, who was behind the wheel of the Bay Buster for several of the scenes, affirms, “The audience actually sees the crash and feels the bounce a lot more than they normally would, because they’re along for the ride.”
Bates also designed a unique camera vehicle, which was named for him: the Bates Cart, a kind of state-of-the-art, high-speed go-cart, on which a remote controlled camera could be mounted on the front or rear. Able to smoothly accelerate from zero to 130 miles per hour without shifting, it enabled the director safely to track the transition from a car chase to a foot chase and follow in tight places with ease from a remote location. “The Island” marked the debut of the Bates Cart, and it worked right according to plan.
The second half of the film’s biggest stunt sequence commences with Lincoln and Jordan flying the Wasp into downtown Los Angeles and crashing through the 70th floor of a skyscraper. They end up dangling from the building on a giant “R” logo sign, with a helicopter menacingly hovering over them.
Everyone in the cast and crew knew there would be no second takes on this complex piece of action, so 13 cameras were utilized to get the shot from every conceivable vantage point.
Frazier says, “Naturally, some of the action was going to have to be accomplished with digital effects, but a lot of it was live. That is Ewan and Scarlett inside that ‘R,’ looking down all those stories. Obviously, it would be impossible to do many of these stunts twice, so with Michael, it’s like, ‘We’re going to do this one time, and we’re going to get it right the first time.’ We call that ‘Bayhem,’” he discloses. “It’s the Michael Bay style: You have to be prepared at any moment and give 110 percent. But that’s what makes it exciting to be on one of his films; there’s never a dull moment.”
Action sequences like these require endless hours of planning because safety is always the overriding concern. “We’re always pushing the envelope, but it’s got to be safe or we don’t do it,” Frazier states. “Kenny Bates is extremely safety conscious because, at the end of the day, we all know it’s just a movie.”
Bay adds, “Kenny and I go back 15 years; he’s like a brother to me. We’re constantly challenging each other to do bigger and better stuff. What I love about him is that he has a great head for physics. He is always thinking three, four, five steps ahead of what could go wrong, because we are putting people in risky situations, and we want to be as safe as possible.”
Putting safety first was of particular importance when the actors took on doing some of their own stunts. “Ewan and Scarlett were in some precarious and challenging positions, but they were both troopers,” Bates attests. “We had them ducking, diving, crawling, running, jumping, falling, climbing… They were wet, they were dry, they were dirty, but through it all, they were just great sports about everything.”
“I’ve never done anything like that before; it requires you to really keep fit,” Johansson admits. She reveals that the stunts were made even more challenging by the fact that she arrived on the set having barely recovered from a tonsillectomy, so there was almost no time for her to train for the physical demands of her role. Nevertheless, she continues, “It’s interesting to have to push yourself to new limits. I’ve never had to run for my life, ever, but I did it every day on the set. It definitely pushes you to a different place, mentally as well as physically.”