For 'Ender's Game,' effects house Digital Domain took a bigger role
By By Richard Verrier
Oct 23, 2013 | 11:00 AM
In the upcoming movie "Ender's Game," boy warrior Ender Wiggin faces a series of challenges as he embarks on a journey to battle insect-like creatures that threaten to destroy the planet.
The movie also is a test for the film's co-producer, Digital Domain, the pioneering visual effects house co-founded by director James Cameron in 1993. The Venice studio is co-producing "Ender's Game" with OddLot Entertainment and Summit Entertainment.
Taking such a major role in a live-action movie, which opens Nov. 1, is both rare for a visual effects company and a big gamble for Digital Domain, known for its work on the movies "Tron: Legacy" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Digital Domain executives also hope collaboration could lead to a new way of producing digital movies, giving effects companies that have struggled from low margins and global competition a greater say in the filmmaking process while enabling them to share in the success of such hit movies as "Gravity" and "Life of Pi."
Daniel Seah, chief executive of Digital Domain 3.0 Inc., as the company is now known, said he expects "Ender's Game" will be the first of several co-productions with Lionsgate, the film's distributor, which owns Summit, producer of the hit "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" movies.
"We're looking to do other films with Lionsgate," said Seah, who became CEO in July. "To me, this is a great asset for future co-productions. Now we can sing like a filmmaker, and we can work with studios who are our major clients."
Previously, visual effects companies have co-produced animated movies or smaller live-action films, such as the 2010 Universal Pictures movie "Skyline," which was co-produced by Santa Monica effects house Hydraulx.
By contrast, "Ender's Game," the anticipated big-screen adaptation of the popular 1985 book of the same name by Orson Scott Card, is among the most expensive independent movies ever made, with a budget of more than $100 million.
Digital Domain would not disclose its investment, but sources familiar with the production said the company is a substantial investor, contributing both cash and visual effects work to the film in which it has an equity stake.
The studio is 70% owned by Seah's Hong Kong company Sun Innovation, which trades copper and plastics and owns various car parks in China. Seah had no experience in the media sector. Sun acquired its stake in Digital Domain this year from China's Galloping Horse for $50 million. India-owned Reliance MediaWorks holds a 30% stake in the company.
Digital Domain's push into producing movies was championed by Seah's predecessors, Cliff Plumer and former Chief Executive Ed Ulbrich, who also was a producer on "Ender's Game."
A mutual friend introduced Ulbrich to Linda McDonough, then executive vice president of OddLot, the Culver City production company that was looking for partners to help make the movie.
OddLot Chief Executive Gigi Pritzker learned about the novel after her teenage nephew handed her the book and suggested it would make a great movie. She spent years acquiring the rights to the book but couldn't attract much interest from other studios to collaborate on the project.
So OddLot took the unusual step of enlisting Digital Domain as a partner to help finance the movie — and bring complex galactic battle scenes to life.
"They fell in love with the property and the idea of being able to co-own and develop it with us,'' said Bill Lischak, co-president of OddLot. "We were very excited to find a meeting of the minds."
As it turns out, Digital Domain for years had been thinking about getting into the movie business, an experience that was reinforced after its role in Disney's hit film "Tron."
Digital Domain executives produced a short prototype of "Ender's Game" in early 2011, similar to what they had done for "Tron." The teaser, less than a minute long, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and gave OddLot an idea of what the film would look like and helped raise awareness for the project.
"When Digital Domain first formed in 1993 with James Cameron, the idea was to build a digital studio that would be self-sufficient and create films in a new way," Ulbrich said in the film's production notes. "We've approached this film that way. We were involved during the writing process, and the visual development was as important as the story development."
Key scenes for "Ender's Game" were filmed at a former NASA facility in New Orleans, which stood in for a deep-space military academy and a zero-gravity training room. But much of the movie was made on a computer screen.
Digital Domain oversaw the creation of the movie's 941 visual effects shots — 700 of which were created by Digital Domain artists in Venice and Vancouver, with 250 more delivered by six partner effects companies. In all, 430 people at Digital Domain and many more at partner companies worked on the movie over 27 months.
"Some of the scenes were a hundred times harder than what we've done in the past,'' said Matthew Butler, visual effects supervisor for the film and Digital Domain employee.