By Joe Utichi – www.joeutichi.com
For Justin Kurzel’s big-screen adaptation of Ubisoft’s hit video game series ASSASSIN’S CREED, the production was faced with a unique challenge: realizing two time periods separated by more than half a millennium, that would be both complementary and distinct, against which the film’s dual protagonists, Callum Lynch and Aguilar de Nehar (both played by Academy Award® nominee Michael Fassbender) would play. Here, we focus on the present-day sets built at Pinewood Studios and in Langley, Buckinghamshire, and the world of Abstergo.
When Michael Fassbender’s Callum Lynch is brought into the Abstergo facility, having been rescued from the lethal injection on death row, he doesn’t know what to make of it. A foreboding, concrete structure with plenty of natural light, but no windows, it’s kind of a cross between a high-tech day spa and a prison. His fellow inmates are a ragtag bunch of souls who seem to struggle with their own mental faculties. And at the facility’s center, within the circular structure of an old church, lies the Animus, a device which will send Cal back in time to 15th Century Spain.
In Justin Kurzel’s big screen adaptation of the hit video game series ASSASSIN’S CREED, Abstergo plays an enormous character. “It’s really the basis of the story,” notes producer Frank Marshall. “It’s where the main characters exist and work, and it houses the Animus. It’s the world we create in contemporary times.”
For production designer Andy Nicholson (GRAVITY), getting the design of the Abstergo facility right was the biggest challenge he faced on the production. “In real time, more than half the script happens at Abstergo,” he explains. “It always had to be really big, with a lot of different rooms. It had to be a complete set that would be useful for many things.”
Indeed, the phrase “go big or go home” seemed to apply. The key Abstergo set was constructed on the enormous 007 Stage at London’s Pinewood Studios, one of the biggest interior facilities in the world dedicated to film production. As its name suggests, it has been the site of many large sets in the JAMES BOND series, as well as films like PROMETHEUS, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and EVEREST.
“It was such a great thing to be able to build not just a couple of rooms, but an entire facility you could walk around. For the audience, Abstergo is a threatening, claustrophobic place. The 007 Stage gives you the chance to go really big.”
Nicholson and his team worked closely with director Justin Kurzel to figure out the floor plan of the Abstergo facility, and it was Nicholson’s idea to build it around the ruins of a 15th Century church. “That provided a physical, direct link with the past, which echoed the themes of the film,” he explains. “Justin was keen on the place being an important site for the Templars in the geophysical sense. They didn’t just build Abstergo here – they built it around this church, which was hundreds of years old.”
As the designs for the set came together, the script was tweaked to make the best use of the space, and Nicholson created a 3D simulation, which could be tested with different lighting, to offer Kurzel an opportunity to line up his shots before rolling a single minute of film. “Sets start speaking back to you,” he says, “and this one was changed in a way that was very compositional and photogenic.”
The entire complex is an uncomfortable clash between the present and the past, which reflects the strains Cal suffers when he is subjected to the regressions of his genetic memory. Says Nicholson: “It’s a corporate headquarters, and it had to have that feeling of a kind of banal showing off that you get with a lot of big companies.”
For costume designer Sammy Sheldon-Differ (EX MACHINA, ANT-MAN), the modern period and the styles of dress favored by Abstergo reflect that cold environment. “There are two distinct groups in the film: the Assassins and the Templars. The Assassin shape is the Eagle, but the Templars are very square, similar to the tabards of the Crusades. That’s a very easy delineation to follow as a basic rule. The whole Abstergo thing is linear and hard-edged and angular.”
Simplicity was the watchword, she notes. “You have to keep a sense of reality in the modern-day costumes. It needed to be grounded in tomorrow, not 200 years time. You have to be careful with the lines because if you use them too much, then it starts feeling futuristic, and it’s not.”
With production wrapped on the 007 Stage, much of the shoot focused on the Animus chamber set, built separately at a facility in Langley, Buckinghamshire. The Animus chamber itself is the epicenter, not just of the Abstergo site, but of the clash between two worlds. With red brick walls and a mosaic tile floor, the set also houses the highly-technical Animus machine itself, while a glass-fronted observation room pokes through the upper wall with little grace or elegance.
The Animus has always played a key part in the ASSASSIN’S CREED games, but it has never before been visualised like this. In the series, it is typically a chair or a bed on which subjects lie while they experience their regressions. In the film, with so much of the action cutting back to the modern period while Cal regresses into his 15th Century ancestor, Aguilar, the opportunity to imagine something grander presented itself.
“You can’t watch Michael Fassbender lie on a couch for several sequences,” jokes Andy Nicholson. “We started with the idea of immersing him in some kind of liquid, but then we came up with the idea of the Animus being this robotic arm. It’s far more visual and dynamic, and we can achieve a lot of it practically.”
Cal is attached to this robotic arm by his spine, which doesn’t just place him inside the regression, but moves his body physically in the way Aguilar moves within the simulation. Observers at Abstergo can then watch Cal move, and see what he sees with the help of holographic projections of Aguilar’s world.
“The arm is a dancing partner for Cal, and it is reading his genetic memories. It interprets them to play the movement back so it can be experienced more strongly,” explains Nicholson. “The way we’re shooting it, if he’s fighting someone you’ll see the impact from that fight in the room for real. The chance to do that is really unusual. It simply hasn’t been done before.”
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