Production Designer, Felicity Abbott APDG outlines her approach to working on Australian director Leigh Whannell’s new feature film, Upgrade, shot at Docklands Studios Melbourne in 2017.
Upgrade is set in the near-future when technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when Grey, a self-identified technophobe, has his world turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant called STEM. Produced by Blumhouse Productions (Get Out) and Goalpost Pictures (Cleverman, The Sapphires), Upgrade was supported by the Victorian Government through screen agency Film Victoria’s Production Incentive Attraction Fund.
While Abbott has created every period in Australia from 1780s to present day, sci-fi is a genre she’d seen on screen but never designed. But this seems to have worked in her favour, with Whannell seeking a fresh and distinct vision of the not-too-distant future.
Bel Tromp (BT): Tell me about the inspiration for the futuristic design?
Felicity Abbott (FA): It’s a world that exists at the interface of high and low technology so it was immediately interesting and appealing to me as a production designer in terms of creating worlds. It was always described as a world just around the corner. So in terms of the visual style, it’s a reality that we understand from our contemporary experience, with an enhanced view of current technologies rather than a departure from life as we know it.
(BT): How did you go about building the visual references?
FA: Leigh thought it was hilarious that I’d never seen Robocop and he joked that was the reason he hired me because those fantasy genre films weren’t my primary reference point. Leigh described the film as “future noir”. It’s a mix of genres ─ it has science fiction, horror, action and comedic elements.
We had lengthy conversations about what will be commodities 20 years in the future. In my mind, it will be things like clean water and air, food, renewables and sustainable environments. Also there will be an inclination toward natural materials, so for the sets at Docklands Studios I referenced rammed earth architecture and drew inspiration from naturally occurring fractals and geometry such as webs and nests that are undercurrents rather than being obvious. Leigh’s a very generous director in terms of his collaborative approach so he and I worked very closely together. I challenged some of what was scripted in terms of character environments, and together we really developed those ideas in a way that is quite unique.
BT: What was the balance between sets built at Docklands and shooting on location?
FA: The two sets at Docklands were the most significant, as they were the two character environments ─ one the interior of Grey and Asha Trace’s house, and the other the interior of hacker Eron’s mansion containing his laboratory and work environment. They were built on separate sound stages and during shooting we were swapping from one stage to the other. Our whole production was housed at Docklands ─ the art department, the construction workshop and costume, so it was a pretty big operation.
BT: How long did it take to build the sets?
FA: We had a peak period of about six weeks where we had to put on additional construction crew because we had so many sets going at once. We’d built complex models and there was a lot of discussion around those, and Ross Murdoch managed the construction in the big workshop at Docklands. I had some incredibly skilled and experienced professionals from Victoria in the art, construction, scenic, vehicle, greens and props departments.
Top & Bottom: Upgrade‘s set build, inside Docklands Studios
BT: The futuristic vehicles are a big part of the film, what was involved in building them?
FA: We had a dedicated workshop just to build the automated and police vehicles. For one of the cars, we built a smaller set of the interior that we shot at Docklands and then we built exteriors that were actually driven on a road that was blocked off for the shoot. Those cars were driven by stunt drivers in Chris Anderson’s team and on screen it’s shown that the driver sees the outside world through cameras and sensors, or they can be making a video phone call or reading email. So there was complex VFX interaction that required a green screen and other elements.
BT: How did you use locations around Melbourne as part of this futuristic world?
FA: We found things in the suburban environment that had the tone and feel of generic US cities and suburbs. I would always check with the American actors and they thought the tone was pretty spot on. We used a vast stairwell at RMIT University in the city. Also, we shot on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne to establish Eron’s world. He’s this genius young hacker living in a kind of subterranean environment. We shot scenes on a cliff with beautiful sunsets and for the entrance to his world we built enormous rocks and used DSX (Digital Set Extensions). We also had a backlot at Collingwood Arts Precinct with about ten sets of various sizes with lots of built elements, elevators and set pieces and that was a great adjunct to filming at Docklands.
BT: What was your experience working at Docklands Studios?
FA: I absolutely loved working at Docklands, it’s a wonderful facility. Our art department was above the construction workshops and for me and the art director Mandi (Bialek-Wester) we were in and out of the workshops multiple times a day so it’s efficient in the way it was set up. The art department offices are some of the best that we’ve worked in and Docklands Studios has really attentive staff and great crew, so for me it was a fantastic experience. I also liked its proximity to everything we needed, very close to the city.
BT: You’ve seen the final cut of Upgrade – what is your impression?
FA: I went to the premiere at SXSW in Texas (in March) with Leigh and the producers from Australia and the U.S. and the editor and the composer from Victoria. It screened at midnight which was a great experience and the audience was very responsive. It’s a wild ride and a very high energy film.
BT: Since working on Upgrade you’ve turned full circle ─ going from sci-fi to a period film?
FA: I had maybe a month off or so before I engaged with Bruce (Beresford) for Ladies in Black, which is set in 1959. But the process is kind of similar ─ you need time and conversations to allow ideas to filter through. For period films it’s all about historical research and social history of the time. I don’t find it hard to switch from one to the other and I feel incredibly fortunate to be engaged with two extraordinary projects in one year.
BT: You’re currently in Los Angeles ─ have you found your feet?
FA: I was the recipient of an Australians in Film mentorship last year and I signed with United Talent Agency, so I’m exploring the U.S. industry and are about to start on a project. I’m committed to working in Australia too and my hope is to work between the two. Upgrade releases in the U.S. in June and shortly after in Australia so there’s a lot happening and then Bruce’s (Beresford) film releases later in the year.