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[Exclusive] How 'Ghost in the Shell' VFX Artists Built the World of New Port City

"No straight lines": We spoke to the experimental visual effects artists who invented computer graphics techniques for the live-action anime adaptation.

Beckett Mufson

Beckett Mufson

Still from Ghost in the Shell. Courtesy Paramount Studios

Building New Port City was a monumental task. The vivid world of Ghost in the Shell was conceived in Masamune Shirow's 1989 manga, then further fleshed out in Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime film and Kenji Kamiyama's 2005 television series. For Rupert Sanders' take on the film, which hits theaters nationwide today, he enlisted the help of a sprawling, multi-studio VFX team to build a metropolis that updates his animated forebears, and becomes one of the most gratifying aspects of the new film.

VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocehron enlisted the help of London-based motion graphics and VFX house Territory Studio for two important tasks in the visual effects process. Led by David Sheldon-Hicks, the studio has designed VFX sequences and digital interfaces for blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as indie darlings including Alex Garland's Ex-Machina.

Early on in post-production, Territory was asked to create concepts of how digital technology would look in a post-iPhone society. Since cybernetics are integral to the world of Ghost in the Shell, their task was to imagine how people would use implant-based computers. Later on they were asked to build the library of digital signage that colors the city, advertising storefronts or directing traffic. Moving Picture Company (MPC), which handled the brunt of the VFX, then integrated Territory's designs into the film's VFX-heavy urban cinematography. The result is a world that looks shockingly like Keiichi Masuda's dystopian short, Hyperreality.

Courtesy Territory Studio

In concepting Ghost in the Shell's computer interfaces, Territory had strict instructions from Rocehron to think outside the box—literally. "No mobile, tablets, computer, or outdoor screens. That was key to our brief," says Peter Eszenyi, Territory's Head of 3D. They were also instructed to not use straight lines, which are integral to screen-based design. "You don't always realize how bound we are to the concept of screen-based user interfaces," he continues. "A brief that not only avoids flat screens, but lines that may suggest a screen made us think in more immersive three-dimensional ways about interactions in which gestures, voice, and thoughts manipulated data fields and streams."

The solution was to develop a concept Rocehron put forth called a soligram—a portmanteau of solid and hologram. Territory's soligrams are advertisements and street signs, which have been digitally painted over the live action footage.

Courtesy Territory Studio

Territory's work shines when the cameras go outside. While many focus on Scarlett Johansson's portrayal of cyborg protagonist The Major, "Territory's contributions were to the other main character of the film… the city," Ghost in the Shell's visual effects Producer Fiona Campbell Westgate explains to Creators. "Rupert wanted the city to be teeming with life and he had a clear vision of what that should be."

In order to realize that vision, Territory built hundreds of signs for restaurants, advertisements, ATM machines, and traffic indicators that are used throughout the city with attention to detail that pays off on the big screen. Wide shots are crammed with details about the culture and socioeconomics of the metropolis. "Everything from cross walk signs and shop signs, it was a huge undertaking," Westgate says. "It was important for these elements to have reflectivity with the environment. They had to fit within the city. For example in the downtown areas the soligrams were slick and polished, but when we got into the grittier parts of the city they took on a crude feel and appeared glitchy."

Courtesy Territory Studio

Courtesy Territory Studio

Territory's philosophy is to bake the story of the world they're designing into ever 3D image file. Their team of artists spent two months sketching concepts on paper, then Photoshop and Illustrator, before 3D rendering them in a combination of Cinema 4D and Maya invented specifically for this project.

They tailored their animations to the live action footage with help from motion photogrammetry shot by Digital Air. "A hyper advanced technological megacity capable of seamlessly combining human and robot, needs to be reflected at all levels of technology—from street to tech," Territory Creative Director Andrew Popplestone says. "Our challenge was to visualize that capability within a design language that matches the sophistication of the overall film, and feels familiar enough to be accepted by the audience, is able to explain plot points, yet retains the spirit of the original's physicality." Nuanced details like advertisements are key to understanding the world of Oshii's 1995 Ghost in the Shell, and Eszenyi says they continue to play an important role in the living city this time around.

"The 3D elements in the cityscape are a key part of the unique look and feel of this film, suggesting a world where new builds on old, and where corporate advertising is able to go to extraordinary technically sophisticated ways to attract attention," he explains.

"During our initial briefings Rocheron wanted the sense of physicality of the technology from that era," Popplestone adds. "The conflict inherent to this reference work is while it presented a fantastic vision of cybernetics, the technology was still limited to analogue conventions. Bringing this story to the big screen for a contemporary generation rooted in digital, meant that we needed to visualize technology that pushes our own expectations." Says Westgate, "It was important to Rupert to have form follow function. Each piece has a purpose and was well thought out, as opposed to solely looking great."

Courtesy Territory Studio

The research that supports Territory's work includes motion and particle theory as applied to digital technology, Japanese art and craft patterns, architecture, sculpture, and installations for modular symmetry of form, jellyfish, and the movement of sand, dust, and magnetic filaments. In designing a 3D interface called a hologlobe, Popplestone says, "Our research into traditional Japanese patterns led to our use of asanoha, a geometric pattern of triangles that is thought to protect against evil, and can mean strength and beauty, in the hologlobe's digital form."

Oshii's 1995 Ghost in the Shell was also one of Territory's largest sources of inspiration. "As fans of the original, we wanted to bring in subtle references from Japanese culture that enhanced the modern interpretation and bridged the dominant themes in both," Eszenyi says. Popplestone adds, "We felt it important that the color palette referenced all the original animes, hence the use of orange and golden hues from the 2004 series." Their world-building is one of the most recognizable aspects of the new film for fans of the old, providing what Popplestone calls, "a visual bridge between old and new." While much is different in the newest addition to the Ghost in the Shell franchise, Territory's work makes New Port City's inherent foreignness seem familiar.

Still from Ghost in the Shell. Courtesy Paramount Studios

Learn more about Territory Studio on their website.

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