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The end of the world -
"A psychologic disaster movie"

Planet Earth slowly moves towards another huge planet...
Accompanied by Wagner's classical music, the Earth hits the surface of this huge planet. The Earth's crust cracks. The continents shift. Our home planet shatters piece by piece into countless parts and gets swallowed by the giant gas planet named Melancholia...
That's not the beginning of a science fiction movie made in sunny Hollywood, but the new film by Lars von Trier...

The impressive planetary collision has been developed in the Frankfurter effect-forge Pixomondo (Iron Man, The Fast and the Furious 5). Art Director Max Riess and Visual Development Artist Sven Sauer report on the development of a planetary collision in an Art-House film. A tightrope walk between art and science...





What is "Melancholia" about?
Sven Sauer:
The film begins with an idyllic wedding in the countryside.
The happening focuses on two sisters, starring Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, Marie Antoinette) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist).
Strange signs interrupt this celebration: a blue star appears in the night sky and becomes greater in a disconcerting speed. This blue planet seems to be on a collision course with Planet Earth...

Dunst and Gainsburg represent two different ways of dealing with a hopeless situation. Like the protagonists, the spectator gets helplessly delivered to an unavoidable end. With eyes wide open we head for the disaster and cannot escape it.

We see the apocalypse coming in stylized images like living paintings in super slow motion, such as elaborately staged photographs full of magical realism. Lars von Trier describes the film as "A beautiful movie about the end of the world".
Thereby he passes a barely visible border to the science fiction genre.


What exactly was your part?
Sven Sauer:
Our task was to create the planet Melancholia and to incorporate it into the film. There were a number of scenes in which the blue planet appears - but the most sophisticated and impressive scene is showed at the beginning of the film: Planet Earth collides with the gas planet and gets completely destroyed.



How can I imagine this whole thing technically?
Max Riess:
We researched a lot to get an idea of how a planetary collision could look like. There are many ideas basing on asteroid impacts - but what happens if such a huge object like Earth hits another planet, is largely unknown.
The scope of our task included a very lot of possibilities on how such a catastrophe could look like... The best way seemed to stay close to a "real" scenery... as strange as this sounds. We met an astrophysicist who explained us the reactions and properties of a gas planet. Theoretically, the Earth could even fly through a gas planet... But there is even a chance that the Earth could get torn up by the crash and the liquid core would then get hurled into space... It is principally impossible to calculate every detail... But these unpredictable elements created spaces which we could fulfill with our own creativity.



Sven Sauer:
We started the first developments of the pictorial world with Sven Martin (VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo). The same team had priorly buried Germany under rubble and ashes for the TV two-parter "Volcano". We already had our experiences with disaster movies...

In the first phase, the planetary crash has been implemented unmoved, like in a comic strip. This allowed us to determine which elements would be shown later in the scenery: What color is the planet? What exactly happens during the impact? 
That wasn't easy at all. The main problem was that such a destructive force could quickly turn into a caricature - a scenery which cannot be taken serious by the spectator. 
Peter Hjorth, Special Effects Supervisor and the right-hand man of Lars von Trier, explained us the collision like that:
"Imagine you have a huge ball consisting of honey, whose surface is lightly frozen, and you throw a raw egg into it..."
This task sounds curious at first, but on closer observation it creates an image which describes exactly what happens during a planetary collision: The raw egg (the Earth) hits the frozen skin of the honeyball (Melancholia) and bursts up the surface. Icesplitter get catapulted into space. Once the Earth has reached the honeyshift, the eggshell implodes and gets devoured piece by piece by the honey.
This description doesn't only express the physical features of the elements which hit each other; it also describes their esthetic impact. Thick, tough and slow. This planetary collision shouldn't seem to be frightening - it should be associated with a quiet fascination, with almost a beauty.

Max Riess:
At the beginning we planned to let Melancholia get completely deformed as soon as Planet Earth hits it... But we quickly removed from this idea. Melancholia should keep something superior. It should be something so huge that even a bounce of another planet couldn't have influence on it. In our new drafts, Melancholia literally "swallows up" the Earth. The atmosphere of Melancholia "claws" at its victim the closer it comes. Melancholia gets even mightier by not being involved in the crash, what even emphasizes the finality. There is no escape and there would never have been any chance to.



Sven Sauer:
We gave the clash of the planets a structure which we had discovered in hurricanes... We had found a couple of very strange formations in these storms that looked incredibly big. That's exactly where we started. The Earth plunged into the eye of a storm...

Max Riess:
A lot of small sceneries act out: at first, the seas evaporate. The surface burns by impinging the surface of Melancholia, the cloud layer dissolves. Even the decomposition of the Earth doesn't happen at random. We adjusted the fissures in reference to real continental plates. The earth breaks at the tectonically weak spots...
At the end, we added dirty stains on the lenses. We obtained them out of photographic material, for example by photographing several wineglasses placed in top of each other with macrolenses on camera. This helped us to convey the impression that the strike would have been filmed by a satellite. In a subtle way, the look through a glass pane becomes realer. Because of these small elements, the spectator accepts the idea that the whole happening arises in a real space and not on a computer. 


How long did it take to finish this sequence?
Max Riess:
Insgesammt haben wir 3 Monate an dem Einschlag gearbeitet.
Um so öffter man die Einstellung ansehe, um so mehr gibt es zu entdecken. Wie sich die Wolken aufschieben, wie die Kontinente zerbrechen und sich zusammenschieben, hunderte von kleinen Details die den Shot trotz seiner Länge noch interessant halten. Das war auch eines der grössten Anforderungen an uns. So viel Detail zu produzieren und das über 56 Sekunden.
Eine Einstellung die so lange ist wie der Crash bei Melancholia, muss dem Zuschauer etwas bieten.
Max Riess:
We have been working for altogether 3 months on the planetary impact.
The more often you look at the setting, the more there is to discover. How the clouds drift, how the continents break and push themselves together, hundreds of little details which keep the shot interesting in spite of its length. That was also one of the greatest requirements to us - to produce so many details for a lenght of only 56 seconds.
A setting which lasts as long as the crash of Melancholia, has to put on a show for the spectator.







What are your impressions of working together with this Enfant Terrible of the filmscene?

Sven Sauer:
Creating effects for a von Trier-film was a welcome change to us because thereby the creativity was more in the foreground than the technical realism. In a sense, that film is a milestone in the history of Art-House. We had the chance to connect the effects of a Sci-Fi film with the work on a dogma-legend. This mixture seems to be paradoxical - but perhaps this was exactly what Lars von Trier intended to do.
If we made our work sucessfully, the spectators at the cinema will witness in slow motion how their home planet will shatter in thousands of pieces... that sounds quite great to me.