Aquaman‘s subaquatic world is as much a character in the film as its larger than life hero. Director James Wan and his production team reveal how they created a unique and imaginative look for Atlantis and its neighbouring kingdoms.
“This is our outer space – a whole different world, limited only by the imagination,” says James Wan of Aquaman‘s oceanic realm of Atlantis. “We have no idea what material would really look like underwater, how hair would move. For Atlanteans, water for them is like air for us. It’s the environment they grew up in. So, we had to approach it from their perspective.”
Co-writer Will Beall compares this underwater universe to Rome, if it had never fallen. “There’s modern technology and ancient customs, and they still have the gladiatorial arena. That’s how I thought of Atlantis: unconquered and isolated, highly advanced and yet still burdened with ancient rites and customs.”
Production designer Bill Brzeski saw Atlantis as “a neoclassic culture from somewhere in the Mediterranean… possibly forerunners to the Greeks, the Hellenistic period. Even pre-Egyptian. But what sets it apart is that it is also a culture that was on the verge of digital technology.
“Atlantis happened when a whole culture descended underwater and stayed there, evolving into seven different kingdoms: Atlantis, Brine, Fisherman, Xebel, Trench, Deserter and the Lost,” he continues. “And most of them don’t even know what’s on the surface because they don’t go up there. So, it’s like two different worlds occupying the same planet that don’t contact each other ever. Or at least not until this movie.
“We tried to pull a lot of influences from the ocean, from the maritime, nautical world. The idea that maybe their buildings were very much organic, like coral. Is it a living thing that they live inside? Also, what gives them light in this world? They’re down so deep that sunlight doesn’t penetrate the ocean.
“We came up with the logic of bioluminescence and glowing coral. Creatures in the ocean depths make their own light through bioluminescence, so we maintained that Atlanteans weren’t a primitive culture that went underwater; they were already pretty advanced.”
More than 50 sets were created for the film, utilising all nine of Village Roadshow Studios’ soundstages on the Gold Coast. However, the production’s greatest hurdle would prove to be the vital component of an underwater world – the water.
“Whenever possible, I’m a very practical person. I love shooting with practical effects. I like to be able to see them and touch them,” says Wan. “As much as I can bring into the real world, the better it is, so we shot a lot of dry-for-wet on this one. There was a lot of blue screen work, but there were many days where we had physical set pieces, and we submerged them into a water tank. For me, there are things that you still need to shoot in the real world; it’s only the super complicated effects that require digital work. Of course, there were quite a few of those as well. This was a challenging shoot that used both practical and digital effects.”
Visual Effects Supervisor Kelvin McIlwain notes that the challenge was the sheer enormity of it all. “We created an entire undersea world. You have Atlantis, the Fisherman Kingdom, and the Kingdom of the Brine… and every realm has a different look to it. Literally everything had to be shot in a blue screen environment. It would have been a nightmare to shoot in real water. I don’t know how you’d do it. You absolutely couldn’t do it.”
“The challenge of creating a superhero movie is enormous anyway,” adds Brzeski. “Pair that with making it look like you’re shooting underwater and dealing with the physics of an undersea world. We understood that we couldn’t work underwater, and at least two-thirds of the story is set there, so it was complex.”
McIlwain states unequivocally that it would have been extremely difficult to make Aquaman without the technological advances of the last ten years.
“We relied on the latest technologies, like MoCap cameras and Virtual Production, which allowed us to look through the camera and frame up a shot,” he explains. “Your actor is there, maybe sitting on a motion base to replicate a sea creature that he’s riding. We can then look through the camera and see the creature he’s riding and the environment he’s in.”
Wan says that Aquaman is all about wish fulfilment, not least his own desire to make a film steeped in world-building. “We cultivated all the different visuals, the characters, the outfits, the creatures… everything. That’s my dream come true. Luckily, I had the most creative team behind the scenes and the most talented cast to go on this journey with me.”