Tech takes center stage with Disney's new "Tomorrowland" film

Behind the scenes with the actors of "Tomorrowland" and how filmmakers incorporated tech such as jet packs and other innovations into the film.

Disney's newest film, "Tomorrowland," features futuristic tech.
Image: Film Frame©Disney 2015

Driverless cars, wristwatch phones, giant-screen televisions, auto-flushing toilets and speakerphones: realities of today, once thought of as merely optimistically futuristic. But the coveted jet-pack, the totem of the new "Tomorrowland" movie, has yet to become a household item (although, apparently next year, $100,000 will buy the much bulkier and heralded Martin Jetpack, developed in 2010, and which provides a 30-minute ride).

The iconic Disney theme-park destination Tomorrowland inspired the live-action/CGI/animated movie, which opens nationwide today. Denizens of the ever-evolving, popular and predictive fun land will enjoy finding Tomorrowland Easter eggs throughout the film, which stars George Clooney and Hugh Laurie.

For some, "Tomorrowland" (the movie) may be a big-budget excuse to promote renewed interest in a costly area of Disney theme parks, which, thanks to evolving technology, must continually repurpose and create new attractions to remain relevant. For others, the film embraces America's enduring love of space travel: two optimistic kids, generations apart, dream of a healthy world future. In the mid-1960s, a girl catches the eye of brilliant young Frank, and she shows him a glimpse of an idealized future. Decades later, the daughter of a NASA engineer has a similar introduction. But could "Tomorrowland" not be what it seems?

Space exploration and the technological possibilities of the future provide the movie's backdrop. Elaborate sets, highly specialized CGI work and animation combine to bring the story to fruition. For Clooney, the film's message is critical: "Your future's not preordained and predestined. A single voice can make a difference. I believe in that."

George Clooney stars as the adult Frank Walker in Disney's "Tomorrowland."
Image: Disney/Kimberley French

"The movie is filled with innovative people with innovative minds," said NASA's Bert Ulrich, who coordinated scenes shot on an actual Cape Canaveral launch pad and to ensure anything related to NASA "was portrayed accurately." Not only were scenes filmed at NASA, but Tim McGraw's Ed Newton is a NASA engineer who inspires his scientifically adept and curious daughter Casey (Britt Robertson) to ensure a promising future. Urich said Newton is "an inspired character." The scenes shot at NASA also featured additions "done later in CGI."

"On these large visual effects films," said Tom Peitzman, special-effects producer and "Tomorrowland's" co-producer, "you need to find a balance between practical and CGI."

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) builds an almost-working jet pack.
Image: Film Frame©Disney 2015

Clooney's scientist Frank is introduced as an 11-year-old wunderkind who brings his almost-working jet-pack to an innovation convention during the 1964 World's Fair. "Frank's jetpack is representative of the optimism of the future," said supervising props-master Kris Peck.

Realism in a clearly fantastical setting was critical to the filmmakers, said Maia Kayser, lead animator at Disney's ILM, which was responsible for significant scenes, including one where young Frank (played by an emotive Thomas Robinson) finally experiences an amazing ride, on his now fully-functioning jet-pack.

Technology in film today is "always developing," based on the needs and expectations of the script and film makers, said Kayser. "We had to find the right techniques to resolve problems and issues," she said, since the goal was to make the action look real. A kind of layering incorporated Thomas, an animated duplicate figure, and a digital environment. Even in moments when the character's entire body and surroundings were CG, his head and face were Thomas' alone, so "when you see him acting, that is his face, and his actual performance," said Kayser.

Peitzman echoed Kayser, and said, "Too much of the time people rely too heavily on computer-generated imagery, and it looks like CGI. I always approach it a little more old school; I like to challenge the director to do as much as he possibly can in camera so he has something to look at, touch and light. I would rather have 10% of the frame practical than one hundred percent of the frame digital; even if it is only a small portion, it's something to hinge the CGI on, and then you can achieve a more natural, seamless look."

"Tomorrowland" is a futuristic view of where innovation can lead.
Image: Film Frame©Disney 2015

"Tomorrowland," the movie, while clearly an homage to the mid-century idealism presented by Disney when it opened Disneyland in 1955, isn't an easy film to summarize. Earlier this month, director Brad Bird ("Iron Giant"), told an audience at the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood that the lack of an easy one-line description proved a challenge to advertising campaigns. "Tomorrowland," Bird said, encompasses many genres. While there are elements of action-adventure, mystery and suspense, its nod to sci-fi can't be ignored.

And Clooney, who said, "I really related to the film," doesn't believe the film's message should be ignored. "Young people don't wake up and start out their lives cynical, angry and bigoted. You have to be taught all those things. I see really good signs from young people," he added, as he dodged questions about bringing his own children into the world. "I've always been an optimist," he said with his classic Clooney smile.

The movie's end result, said Kayser, was a very "rewarding collaborative" effort, "there are so many effects teams involved," "it's really fun to...tell a fantastical story and have the tools and talent to bring it across the screen, as you entertain and inspire audiences."