Back in September 2012, writer Damon Lindelof and director Brad Bird, then in pre-production on the Disney film that opens May 22, were still struggling to find the right production designer. They called Chambliss and handed him the script.
That document “included everything about the story except for a description of Tomorrowland itself,” says Chambliss, referring to the city from the future that is at the film’s core. “That was a big blank question mark.”
There was one requirement. “The only thing they were clear about was they wanted it to be unlike anything anyone had ever seen before,” Chambliss says. “Something so fantastic that Casey (the heroine, played by Britt Robertson) gets addicted to it.”
From the fall of 2012 to August 2013, dozens and dozens of ideas were tried and dropped. “That was the heavy lifting,” says Chambliss. “Being an animator, Brad is such a visual guy, and he’ll do details and conceptual groundwork at the drop of a hat. Our discussions were broad and quite dense. I would often come away not knowing if we had solved anything at all.”
They pondered not only the physical aspects of Tomorrowland — Is it a city? A campus? — but also the metaphysical: Is it real or an invention? Are people really living there?
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“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until (Bird) started coming to the sets,” Chambliss recalls. “As time went on, he got happier and happier. It was a big fat relief.”
Shooting began in August 2013, at locations ranging from British Columbia to Spain, and lasted about six months.
The gleaming city that appears in the film is clearly inspired by the wide-eyed optimism of Walt Disney himself, who back in the ’50s invented Disneyland’s futuristic Tomorrowland neighborhood, and later dabbled in urban experimentation with Epcot.
The physical place created by Chambliss and his team — all spires, plazas, floating gardens, maglev transportation and highways in the sky — was transformed into a hyperkinetic metropolis by multiple layers of visual effects created by artists from several shops, including ILM, Hybride and Rodeo FX.
Once production wrapped, Chambliss stayed on as a consultant during post. “Often studios don’t want to keep the production designer attached once cameras stop rolling, based on how films used to be made,” he says. “But these days, it’s unfair to the director not to have his collaborator at his side to finish up so huge a task such as the city of Tomorrowland. I was happy to be there to help fill in the blanks.”