“Design and aesthetics have always been the essential elements that lead to our decision to undertake any project,
and this was especially true for JUPITER…”
--Co-Director Lana Wachowski
Jupiter Jones [Mila Kunis] was born under a night sky, with signs predicting that she was destined for great things. Now grown, Jupiter dreams of the stars but wakes up to the cold reality of a job cleaning other people’s houses and an endless run of bad breaks. Only when Caine [Channing Tatum], a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track her down does Jupiter begin to glimpse the fate that has been waiting for her all along. Her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an extraordinary inheritance, that of the Abrasax dynasty, which could alter the balance of the entire cosmos.
An original science fiction action adventure from filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski, JUPITER ASCENDING reunited much of the design team with whom they collaborated on the recent CLOUD ATLAS, including Production Designer Hugh Bateup and Set Decorator Peter Walpole SDSA.
“In pursuit of the grit and grime of the real world…we actually shot much more on location than anyone would guess for a movie that is set mostly in outer space,” Lana Wachowski points out. The earthbound sets embrace their home city of Chicago and give nod to the countryside close by.
The far-flung other worlds are uncharted territory, which the Wachowkis describe as, “Seemingly futuristic, they all exist in the present but are just calibrated to the comforts and technology of a society at a far advanced stage of development…” These fantastic new worlds reflect architectural and design elements that reference our diverse cultures, implying an outside influence throughout civilized mankind’s history.
Those representing the three Abrasax siblings were specifically wide-ranging. The Abrasax Industries refinery on the planet Jupiter, is an industrial fortress serving as home base to the avaricious and nefarious tycoon Balem [Eddie Redmayne]. A cavernous space encompassing his lab and refinery, reminiscent of both a steel mill and a supercollider, it’s an astounding mixture of Gothic, steampunk and futuristic components. The ultra-feminine Kalique’s [Tuppence Middleton] alcazar was a fantastical palace set in the tranquil, water-themed surroundings of the planet Cerise. Titus [Douglas Booth], the sybaritic youngest, plied his pleasures in a luxurious compound on his massive clipper spaceship/yacht in the Cleopeides Nebulae.
Actress Mila Kunis notes, “Some of it was done in post, but the tangible sets were stunning and beautiful and very much tailored to the personal qualities of each character.”
SET DECOR asked Walpole to relate some of his experiences in making the film by responding to a few quotes from the always-fascinating Wachowskis. He graciously recounts…
JUPITER ASCENDING was mentioned whilst we were coming to a conclusion on filming CLOUD ATLAS. At that point, though, I was focused on finishing a complicated shoot, with a great diversity of sets, so put JUPITER ASCENDING to the back of my mind. Little did I know, that I would be repeating the process again so soon!
It wasn’t long after we had wrapped, I was on holiday with my wife in Thailand, when CLOUD ATLAS production designer Hugh Bateup made contact and said we had been “invited back” for JUPITER. This would be my fifth project with the Wachowskis, with three different production designers. Similar to our process for CLOUD ATLAS, I started very early on in the pre-prep period and had the chance to develop the design along with Hugh and the concept team.
“We wanted to capture all the incredible beauty and detail that is in our world and reflect it back onto the screen…We were also determined to do what a lot of science fiction shies away from, which is juxtapose different kinds of aesthetics, like the clean futuristic gleam of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain against the Gothic baroque of the British Museum…” -- Lana Wachowski
We met in Berlin and started the incredibly interesting task of researching everything and anything, slowly narrowing ideas down to the worlds that the directors had briefed us all on. It was a very organic process, one that eventually continued in Chicago, researching architecture and interiors…from ocean-going yachts, liners and modern boats to Islamic, Mayan, Egyptian and Christian temples to industrial buildings, factories and railway stations…Kings Cross Railway station in London, for example, which was originally designed by Cubitt in the 19th Century and redesigned in the 21st Century with its extraordinary latticework interior.
The research stretched far beyond what one would normally do, which is extensive in itself. We explored in-depth how the variety of furniture, fabric and everyday objects from Egyptian and Arabic cultures and Medieval, Victorian Gothic and Art Nouveau periods…made from wood, glass, metal and plastic…would react in all the different environments. Occasionally we would find a fantastic inspiration, such as Carlo Bugatti and his furniture design.
Whilst we continued this process in Chicago, we also started to combine physical location and off-world environments. During this time, I was introducing ideas for set dressing and props into the conceptual world of pre-production. I was teased as the “Conceptual Set Decorator” as I continually tried to think outside the box.
Sets and locations…
We started the shoot at Warner Bros Studios London, with most of the Earthbound sets, the Russian Apartment, Clinic, Katherine Dunlevy’s bedroom suite and the Family House of Jupiter Jones, which was my favorite on-earth set.
We had scouted a few similar houses in Chicago for inspiration, and then…with the directors’ own childhood memories of elderly relations who had things like a carpet runner covered in plastic protection or a particular dining table, sideboard or special comfy chair…the process began.
I love the idea of a family home, with continuous layers upon layers of everyone’s lives. We all do it one way or another, some not so cluttered as others, but with this number of people living in one house, it gave me great scope to dress so many things reflecting the characters: Items that travelled with them from Russia, carved boxes and dolls, eclectic items that were gathering dust on top of different pieces of furniture, some old Eastern European brown ugly furniture with heavy wood carving, some classics juxtaposed with ‘70s and ’80s pieces, and a few more modern…and, of course, the ubiquitous glass-fronted cabinet with a few treasures of china and silver, along with an old TV remote and a set of keys that have been lost for years.
Kitchens are always fun. In a family such as this, it is definitely the women’s domain. We shipped from Chicago to our London sets some quintessentially American gadgets: the can opener, the mixers and a sandwich maker. We also had many utensils and bowls that could have belonged to their grandmothers or great aunts…it’s the one place things don’t get thrown away. Then, with great American and traditional Russian food, we bought it all to life.
I did something similar on a smaller scale in the Russian Apartment, where Jupiter’s parents lived before she was born…not with the passage of time that existed in the Family home, but with collections of scholastic awards, university degrees, and the special certificates one gets from studying in Russia…all to build up the characters of Jupiter’s parents, his love of astronomy and her love for mathematics.
One thing you always get from working with the Wachowskis is a complete diversity of sets to dress! For example, two of the Chicago sets:
Katherine Dunlevy’s bedroom suite was the plush mansion-style bedroom of a rich young lady, with all her collections of clothes, jewelry, college memorabilia and favorite toys, an interesting jigsaw-designed headboard and pair of wood and Perspex [acrylic] backlit bedside cabinets finished off with special wall-mounted lights…something Lana Wachowski was particular about, a tangle of gilt roses with small lights coming from the petals…all of this detail.
In complete contrast was the half-finished floor of a downtown tower block, an equally important set. Caine had made this his base, amongst all the workman tools and building equipment, whilst looking for Jupiter and it’s where he brings her for safety.
The Earthbound studio sets were scheduled first, including the Fertility Clinic, the exterior being shot in Chicago, the interiors in London, as was the case for all these sets. The interior sets were on one giant stage at Leavesden Studios, thus it was suggested to us that all of them should be ready at once, which seemingly would allow the unit to shoot throughout without any interference. Brilliant on paper, but the realities…each set having its own stunt element that affected our dressing time, including making way for rigs and wires…made this impossible. So, with all these challenges and having the usual changing of schedules, we eventually were dressing early mornings and at lunch breaks and sometimes very quietly as the unit was shooting during the day. Not at all as planned!
We then left the security of the stages to shoot in some great UK locations: the Natural History Museum and Eleveden Hall, which were used for Kalique’s Alcazar and the Hall of Records; Ely Cathedral for Titus’s Ship, particularly the Wedding; and a disused power station in east London for Balem’s Refinery, Jupiter’s Escape.
All of them had their challenges and, of course, different styles of dressing for each environment they represented. However the National History Museum was the greatest logistical challenge, hanging specially designed lights along the ancient corridors, adding large pots with extraordinary purple and green plants, bespoke carpets and general dressing, all after the public had left, but before the unit turned up for the night shoots!
Then onto my favorite Earth Location, which was near Chicago – Stinger’s Farmhouse, a location about an hour from the city. It was a ‘Kit Built’ house from the turn of the 20th century, one that had been ordered from a catalogue, built on a site and connected to a much older 19th century cabin. We first scouted this semi-derelict farmhouse in the late autumn, when the weather was very cold and raining hard. The house was empty, apart from some dead raccoons, and barely hanging together. The plan was to shoot all the scenes here in the following summer, both interior and exterior…a bold move, especially as there was a big fight scene and some of the walls of the house would end up being blown away.
At this point I put the thought of dressing this set on the back burner, but it didn’t seem long at all before I was returning, 7 months later to dress this location! I had a great team in Chicago sourcing elements, again finding an eclectic mix of interesting items: odd-looking Victorian American furniture, some Shaker, some Arts and Crafts, some Mid-Century and a piano for good measure, plus all the character-specific beekeeping paraphernalia, both old and new, including lots of honey and mead and honeycombs!
The outside was transformed from a plain overgrown, tired garden and yard to this rustically romantic set of beautiful flowers, plants and bees. I was set amongst a huge crop of corn, which was real and planted especially for the shoot. “Knee high by the 4th of July” is the saying. We kept a close eye on this and it was true. After that, it grew at such a pace it was perfect for the shoot. A local farmer was responsible for the corn patch, but everything else was achieved with the help of Greens Coordinator Debra Toppel who eats grips and electricians for breakfast, especially when they walk on her flora and fauna !!
We also had the task of dressing the house with many beehives, and then applying over twenty thousand artificial bees, flown in from China, to help out the VFX team. The ‘B’ team did this! Tricia Schneider SDSA did an amazing job as my Assistant Set Decorator, keeping me constantly updated with ideas over Skype. My Leadman Scott Troha and his great team helped me create the living environment for Stinger, the bee-DNA-crossed human played by Sean Bean.
I very much enjoyed working with the Chicago team. We also dressed: Chicago streets, mansions, locations, a real ship container…the Directors like to keep it real…and because the main character’s family is in the house-cleaning business, too many bathrooms and toilets to keep count!
Off World...Sets and Locations…
“Each of these environments had to be brought to life on screen with its own unique elements of structure and style, yet share enough characteristics to suggest a interconnected history…”
The Three Abrasax Siblings…
Titus was always described as a playboy, living in a rich and opulent environment. Thus, although this went through many incarnations, as time progressed, it became clearer with the development of the beautiful exterior of his spacecraft that we would take our inspiration from luxury yachts and clipper ships of the mid-19th century.
My original excitement and embrace of the Bugatti style furniture started to become a reality. With the help of Nic Ainsworth, my Lead Set Decoration Concept Artist, we started to develop some ideas and ultimately ended up building all the furniture for the Titus Bedroom and Royal Suite. I was very pleased with the outcome. As other decorators will know, furniture is very difficult to make in a short space of time, getting all the scale and proportions to work, and then with time slipping away, go into production of building, painting and upholstering the pieces. Katie Ralph, one of my two assistants, did some amazing ground work and research and came up with some perfect fabrics, the color of which, along with the furniture, was guided by the deep browns, brass and mahogany of the set design. We then found various unusual glass hookah pipes from the Czech republic and handmade glass vases from Poland which were combined with some extraordinary submerged flower displays. We kept it simple, didn’t over-dress…each item was a specific statement reflecting his character.
The Titus Dining Room, was a slightly different approach, as it was a mixture of made furniture and rented antiques, as the quote above refers to, “…share enough characteristics to suggest a interconnected history.”
I had some beautiful sofas made, which went well with the Georgian side tables and pedestals I had rented. These in turn were topped off by feather and flower arrangements, striking in black and red. However, it was becoming quite clear that the dining table we were making didn’t work, so with very little time the team set out to look for a complimentary table and at the 11th hour came up with a marble top table with gilded lion carved legs…perfect ! We all breathed a sigh of relief. Other items were a mixture of Japanese iron pots and obscure period dressing. For the dining room entrance, I had two Egyptian and Robotic dog statues made by our prop model team, inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The scene centered on the dining table. With a combination of etched Indian glass candlesticks, Polish glass centerpieces, and specially designed glasses and wine carafes mixed in with small beautiful sculptured pieces of food, the table was “set”…we walked away and the unit began to shoot!
The Abrasax Industries refinery on the planet Jupiter, which Balem [Eddie Redmayne] utilizes as a home base, incorporated heavy, austere interiors reflecting the industrial surrounding.
The Grand Hall, which had his laboratory beneath…viewed from above when the floor became transparent…was this vast cathedral-style space. Many items were discussed in the development in terms of set dressing, but in the end, we settled for a simple small throne, which we made. I was always waiting for the Directors to turn around and ask for something else to complement this, but they stuck by their decision, and that was it.
The laboratory beneath was another thing entirely. Situated on a separate stage, we built more than you would normally expect on a film such as this with all the CG work. Most of the set was physical, actual. The construction department built 50% of the farming machines, which were an integral part to the architecture of the set. We then finished off each cubicle with metal operating tables and circular saw style tools…all interconnected with the constructed pieces…very much an industrial working environment and completely different from all the other things we had done to date.
The exterior refinery was a combination of close-up pieces on stage and the power station in East London, which had dressing added to the fabric of the building to bring it on line with the general feel of the Abrasax Refinery. There was nothing romantic about dressing a refinery, with lightweight fire retardant pieces attached to either the constructed pieces or existing location. However, this was just as important as all the beautiful dressing we had to do for Titus and Kalique. It had to function and had to look correct!
The beautiful ruby planet of Cerise, with its eclectic alcazar was Kalique’s realm. This type of fortress palace is usually reserved for something of Moorish descent, however we combined studio sets with the amazing Gothic Baroque of the National History Museum plus a hidden location in Suffolk, Eleveden Hall. Purchased by the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, the interior had been redesigned to resemble the Mughal palaces. All of this was bought together by the storyline and, I hope, the continuity of set decoration and colors. For these sets, our hardest task was to light them with new innovative lighting…a challenge indeed! We ended up with different styles of helix ribbon lights made by 3D Printing. This in itself was a long R&D process, the early ones ending up being too fragile for the size…but eventually we accomplished our goal and had something unique!
The other decoration aspects for these sets were either completely abstract or were driven by Arabic and Moorish design, both in fabric and furnishings. I also used glass a great deal, either as an interesting object or container, a mix of period and modern. There is something about glass which is subtle and pleasing to the eye and always seems to photograph well.
“Why are spaceships so ugly?!! They look like container ships from an oil refinery.
Yet, if you examine the history of transportation, from carriages to cars and boats to planes, human beings—particularly rich human beings—have always traveled in exquisite style…”
In the UK there is a different working structure between Set Decoration and Props, the Set Decorator often chooses who the Propmaster is and the departments function as a one. This is what happened on JUPITER with UK Propmaster David Cheesman and myself…we set up one department covering Set Decoration, Prop, Prop Making, Drapes and our own team of painters, carpenters and electricians.
And this is how it was when it came to decorating all the Spaceships. Our team of prop makers made all the operating consoles, many of which had live graphics generated by using a high-resolution film that reflected sharp projected images. Consequently, VFX had little enhancement to do. Dressing spaceships is always interesting…one is usually applying odd shapes and interactive set pieces to the body of the set, with hidden lighting and some new exotic fabric which has usually been designed for something completely different.
But I am proud to say there was not one set, location, ship, vehicle or scene into which our department didn’t have a creative input, one way or another.
Not having worked in the UK for a while, it was very much a new team for me, apart from my son, Oliver who was my other UK Assistant Set Decorator. He also worked on CLOUD ATLAS…and, oddly, the last time we had both worked together at Leavesden Studios was 15 years ago on STAR WARS, THE PHANTOM MENACE, where he was an actor and played Seek and I was the Set Decorator.
Editor’s note: Walpole and Bateup have teamed up with the Wachowskis again!
They are currently in production filming the new scify series SENSE8, which is to debut later in the year for Netflix