How do you make a movie set in the future about a six-year-old recruited by the military to wipe out an invading alien race? If the answer were simple, perhaps Ender’s Game would have been adapted to film far sooner. Orson Scott Card’s novel was first published back in 1985, after which the rights sat at Warner Bros. for 12 years, the film never making it past the development stage. Finally, the rights lapsed and Linda McDonough and her producing team snatched them up to make the movie their way -- independently. As she proudly points out, “We think we may be the largest independently financed film ever put together.”
Directed by Gavin Hood, Ender's Game features a young boy named Ender (Asa Butterfield) who’s plucked from his family on Earth and shipped off to Battle School to train with the International Fleet (IF) in the hopes that he’ll be able to save the human race from the alien Formics by using their own colony Eros as a vantage point.
If you were keeping track, that makes three key locations -- Earth, Battle School and Eros. Even though Ender’s Game isn’t some $200 million megabudget project, the filmmakers were still hell-bent on creating fully realized versions of each realm, down to the tiniest detail.
“We recognize that this is Earth, but it’s the future. There are little things that tell us that it’s a green world; it’s a postoil economy.” - McDonough
We first meet Ender on Earth as your average kid with two older siblings, Peter and Valentine (Jimmy Pinchak and Abigail Breslin). While Valentine and Ender share a very loving relationship, Peter enjoys picking on him. Props master Don Miloyevich showed off one of Peter’s favorite taunting toys, a "Formic" mask that could also be something you’d find in your everyday costume shop.
And that was of prime importance to Miloyevich and his creative team, to identify with this future. For example, in real life, most kids have computer printers in their rooms. Ender uses… a 3D printer.
Miloyevich pointed out, “We did make a promotional deal with 3D Systems to use the 3DTouch, which is a small 3D printer in [Ender’s] bedroom and another one called the Cube, which is not on the market yet.”
Miloyevich also struck deals with manufacturers. “You can’t build everything," he explained. "There’s not a budget for that, so we try to find stuff that is in prototype stage or most people haven’t seen or they will see eventually.”
“We decided we wouldn’t try and be excessively sci-fi. The more you try and get gimmicky, the more you pull the audience’s attention to the gimmick that may actually be no longer terribly hip in two or three years time because technology’s changing so fast.” - Hood
To ensure the spaceship designs adhere to where technology is realistically going, production designers Ben Procter and Sean Haworth consulted with a NASA representative. “Wings are out!” Procter said of spaceplanes. “Rockets and more traditional stuff is vastly more energy efficient when it gets to orbit.”
And once Ender hops on one of those more energy-efficient ships, he’s off to Battle School, the special feature of which is a giant zero-gravity globe called the Battle Room, where students are separated into armies and equipped with Flash Suits and Flash Guns that freeze one's target.
Miloyevich recalled, “When I was an army cadet way back, you’d have a contest to try to and field strip your weapon and assemble it blindfolded, to see who could do it the fastest.” Miloyevich proposed the idea of having the young stars do this with the Flash Guns. He continued, “They were like, really into it and they were like, really fast at it.” Ultimately, the contest wound up getting its own scene in the movie.
Procter noted that a highlight of shooting the movie at NASA was having access to their strange contraptions, including a giant room of castoff parts. Haworth said, “We happened to catch it as they were clearing out the space and [asked], ‘Can we have that?’ It was a great day of pilfering.”
Procter and Haworth also developed a very pragmatic lighting system. One set served as three different places in the space station, all thanks to certain lighting schemes.
“One of the things that Gavin drew inspiration from when he thought about how to create the visuals for this world described in the book was the giant ant hills of South Africa.”- McDonough
Ender eventually graduates to Command School on the asteroid Eros, once a Formic habitat taken over by the IF, which built structures on top of the Formic ones.
Outside, it is Formic territory. The challenge presented is, how do you make an underground world cinematic? Said McDonough, “Ant hills, when you see them, are just sort of the tip of the iceberg; they implicate a much larger life below the surface.“ Also like ant colonies, the Formics have a Queen. Procter noted, “The idea that the Queen controls all these millions of hands gives you the opportunity to make the Queen into an artist in some way.”
This attention to detail will undeniably have a positive effect on the big-screen representation of Eros, but most importantly the filmmakers wanted the general reaction to Eros to be much like the one to Earth, to see it as a world and race worth saving. Procter noted, “It’s sort of making Earth and the Formic culture, planet, and all that beautiful in different ways so that ultimately the war is the tragic part of the whole thing. It’s not just a simplistic enemy against us.”
Check out an exclusive new poster here.