It’s not hard to see what appealed to Peter Jackson about Philip Reeve’s four Mortal Engines novels. The futuristic stories of a future in which the city of London is a movable machine roaming the world and competing for precious resources was massive in scale – tick! – with an entirely new world to conjure – tick again – and filled with fantastical characters, many of whom would require complex special effects to bring to live. Tick, tick, and tick. Jackson optioned the rights to the books in 2009, and was expected to direct, but that duty would eventually go to Weta Digital’s Christian Rivers, who had been a unit director on the second two Hobbit films and has been working with Jackson in the art department on the origin as far back as Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures. Jackson co-wrote the screenplay and serves as a producer.
Below, Rivers reveals the biggest challenges of bringing Reeves’ — and to an extent, Jackson’s — visions to life, and what he learned from The Lord of the Rings that made the gargantuan task manageable, and the experiences for audiences so memorable.
What follows is a history of Weta Digital, drawn from an extended sit-down interview with Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers.
Christian Rivers: “I first became aware of [Mortal Engines] back in 2007, when Peter got the rights, because we were all wondering what Pete was going to do next. And when I investigated, and I read the books, I thought, ‘Well, you’re never going to be able to pull that off.’ [laughs] You know, the scale of it, the scale of the cities rumbling over the earth, you’re never going to be able to create that scale on screen, so that’s what stuck out to me. That it was going to be impossible to achieve. And here we are. [laughs]”
Christian Rivers: “When Pete asked me to direct it, I was thrown, because I was actually in the middle of setting up a low-budget kind of genre picture, which is a natural stepping stone [to a bigger film]. I’d already directed second unit for Pete on The Hobbit after Andy [Serkis, who was also directing second unit] left to go work on the Planet of the Apes movies, and I’d done the second unit on Pete’s Dragon. I’d sort of helped out as a consultant on a few projects, and I had directed my own short film, which had gone around a few festivals, and that was a small horror film. I was starting to take the conventional road to directing larger films. I was actually helping out WETA on a project and I got a phone call from Peter and Fran [Walsh, Jackson’s producing partner on Mortal Engines] and they said very quickly, we’re running out of time on Mortal Engines and Pete’s exhausted from The Hobbit films, and we were wondering if you wanted to direct it? And I actually had to think about it. What does this mean? What does this really mean? If I turned this down, what the hell am I doing wanting to direct movies. I knew the road that it would take. Um, but you know, I said yes.”
Rivers: “[Shrike] is a digital creation, but there we brought all the experience that we had from working with an actor in the key role on set, like we did with Andy on Rings with Gollum. But [Shrike] was tricky because he wasn’t like an animal that we could take reference from and he wasn’t just a robot that we could mechanize. He had to be a blend of the two, and he had to be an interesting design that was different to the Terminator or Robocop or things that we’ve seen before. We had to give him his own aesthetic and his own character. And make him very human, yet threatening, robotic, and relentless at the same time. We went into production with Shrike with a design that isn’t his design. We got it to a point – we knew he was going to be, you know, this height. He was going to be, you know, sort of robotic, sort of part-man… got to this point where it was, ‘Yeah, OK, look, that’s good enough for us to shoot with.’
“It wasn’t until we finished shooting that we started seeing Stephen [Lang]’s performance and we’re, like, ‘Well, that’s never going to translate to that design.’ We knew it was a problem that we could go back into. It wasn’t even a problem. We just knew it was as part of the process, it would be something that we could then address. And we did. We went through the process of designing Shrike around Stephen’s face and his performance.”
“The cities probably are one of the most difficult aspects [of the film]. At one point in time you might have done those with miniatures and, possibly, you still could have gone down that route, but the scale of them is so huge, that they’re even beyond miniatures. And also the amount of moving parts, the ‘componntry,’ the tracks, the wheels, the shock absorbers that are in play to keep each part of the city level as it’s crashing over the earth. All of that was complicated. It was complicated simulations, complicated animations. I can’t even think of anything that used to be hard [for Weta] that was easy now [shooting Mortal Engines]. It was sort of impossible then and was very hard now.”
Peter Jackson: “We live in in an age where everything is possible, really, with CGI. There’s nothing that you cannot imagine in your head or read on a script, or whatever, that you can’t actually do now. What you’ve got now is you’ve simply got faster – faster and cheaper. In terms of computers, you know, every year they get cheaper, and they get twice as fast. It is important because when you’re doing visual effects, it’s like any form of filmmaking, you often want a take two, take three, take four. You do the fire shot with a little flame once and you know you’re not necessarily gonna get it looking great on the first time, so it’s good to have a second go, and maybe a third go, maybe a fourth go. So when you’ve actually got computers that are getting quicker and faster, it gives you more goes at doing this stuff. Ultimately you get a better looking result.”