How do you film the future? With computers and a stunt driver

How do you film the future? With computers and a stunt driver

Could you make present-day cars look like they were new in 2041? With the help of Škoda cars, the makers of the sci-fi movie Restore Point managed it. What did they do to the cars to make them futuristic, and what present-day car design trend did they predict a few years ago?

29. 2. 2024 Lifestyle

The year is 2041. People who die an unnatural death are entitled to be “restored”. All they have to do during their lifetime is regularly back themselves up – that is, to reach a “point of restoration”. A special agent gets a case on her desk in which these rules have not been followed and the dead person’s backup has been erased.

The plot of Restore Point gets underway | © FILM KOLEKTIV, 2023

We won’t give away any more of the plot of the film, a co-production between Czech, Slovak, Polish and Serbian filmmakers that’s now available on Netflix. What we’re going to look at is the role played by Škoda cars in the film – and why they were chosen in the first place.

Director Robert Hloz explains: “Right from the start our goal was to create an iconic film with a self-confident vision that would be purely Central European and uncompromising. We wanted to incorporate as many local elements as possible – not as product placement, but as a perfectly believable part of the future. I like showing a future that is grounded in reality, and I didn’t want to hide behind some fictional brand. The role of cars is very important for science fiction – cars are a product that is central to defining the design of a society in a particular period.”

Robert-Hloz_305c20cd Robert Hloz
film director

Visionary designers

In science fiction films, the makers always try to work out which model of car would be best suited to a particular character or role. In the end, Czech cars were preferred (the film also features a Czech Petrof piano). Needless to say, the filmmakers couldn’t aggressively and irreversibly modify the fleet of brand new Škoda cars they borrowed, so they had to use plastic sheeting to create police graphics or a different transition from the radiator grille to the bonnet etc. “For the police Octavia RS we created this grille out of Forex, which is very thin PVC sheeting that is pliable and is easy to cut and shape. This sheeting is used to cover the required areas, which are then worked on in computer post-production,” explains  Ondřej Lipenský, the film’s architect.

After After
Before Before

Radiator grille of the police Octavia RS with stickers and after final post-production | © FILM KOLEKTIV, 2023

The film is set two decades into the future, which isn’t all that long in terms of car development and design. Even so, the filmmakers worked on the assumption that by then cars would be completely autonomous – at least in urban traffic – although they’d still have a steering wheel. “We sensed early on that we were going to see unbroken strips of lights at both the rear and front of the body. This is confirmed today because there are cars that already look like that, but when we started thinking about the car design six years ago, people outside the car business found it surprising or thought it was just a gimmick for the film. To me it seemed inevitable, and it was important to me to get it into the final design – an unbroken high strip where you don’t see reflectors on the edges any more. Naturally, we did this because we didn’t want the cars to look dated by the time the film was released – and real-world car design is in fact moving more slowly, with a narrow line connecting the more massive traditional lights,” the director explains.

Rear lights joined into a futuristic line | © FILM KOLEKTIV, 2023

Develop our own car of the future? Maybe next time

The makers of Restore Point admit that they took inspiration from the famous Minority Report. The film’s crew even developed a model of a car of the distant future. The film even features footage from a production line and shows how the entire car is created. “Škoda made us a similar offer to develop the Škoda of the future together with their design department. They were open to absolutely amazing and interesting ideas,” says Lipenský. In the end, however, the filmmakers took a different route. In the film, all the scenes featuring the cars are a sophisticated combination of physical modifications to the cars and computer post-production.

The cars were given original flat hubcaps | © FILM KOLEKTIV, 2023

The filmmakers carefully researched the current design trends of electric cars and arrived at their own version representing a new clean form of the future. For example, the hubcaps are perfectly flat, with at most a subtle design element – the crew had these custom-made for each car because it was easier than replacing all the wheels in post-production. Conversely, the aforementioned lights and bonnet modifications were preferable to CGI (computer-generated imagery) because it’s easier to get the exact look you want. 

Generating that proper sci-fi atmosphere

A lot of use of visual computer effects is made in science fiction films like Restore Point. The first purpose to mention is the most obvious, which is to create a sci-fi atmosphere. “It’s mainly used for the big, wide establishing shots that introduce each scene. It usually involves a shot with a foreground where something is happening, and extending the shot backwards to include computer-generated 2D or 3D objects and backgrounds. There were quite a few of those scenes in our film, mostly enlarging the city to give it a futuristic sci-fi look. Another category of computer effects that is used a lot in the film but isn’t so noticeable is the eponymous devices, the restore points, where everyone has their own display. In fact, there are lots of displays in the film, with screens in lots of different shapes and sizes. We had to figure out what the graphics would look like and what was being displayed on them, and then also what we call tracking, so that the display would stay in the right place even when the camera angle changed. And the third area was the visual effects with cars, which we’re discussing here,” says Michal Křeček, one of the founders of Magiclab studio.

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Director Robert Hloz recalls one such scene he took special care over: “It’s the moment when the character of the detective played by Václav Neužil arrives at a scene where several futuristic versions of Octavia RS and Enyaq police cars are parked, and stops beside one of them. The camera, like his character, examines the car very carefully, because there’s something the detective doesn’t like about it. It lasts a long time and it’s in full light, and everything has to look absolutely perfect so that the viewer doesn’t notice visual effects in the shot. The Magiclab tricks team, who work on the biggest Hollywood films, did a brilliant, patiently listening to dozens of comments I made, often about the tiniest design details like getting the perfect curvature in every centimetre of the strip of lights. The result is a shot that is pure wow!”

Restore Point - the device that backs you up | © FILM KOLEKTIV, 2023

Dust gathering on prototypes

At one point, the creative team needed to fill a garage with futuristic cars to make it look believable. For this scene, Škoda lent them several prototypes from its museum, most of which are the only examples in the world. These prototypes lack the details found on regular mass-produced cars, and this made it easier for the filmmakers to achieve a futuristic feel. “Making sure the cars didn’t get damaged during filming was a huge responsibility. You could cut the tension with a knife, especially when we started sprinkling fake dust on some of the cars to make them look like they had been sitting in the garage for a while. We needed it to be as realistic as possible – you often see dust-covered cars like this in normal garages, only in Restore Point they’re unique prototypes,” says film architect Lipenský.

There are some shots where the audience sees autonomous driving – a car arrives to pick up the female lead when it’s summoned. It seems this resulted in one very funny moment during the filming, as the car was driven blind by a stunt driver who had to learn the route perfectly so he could be hidden below window level. “To passers-by the scene looked like something out of Knight Rider, where the car drove itself around the set without the need for digital effects. 

The tricky part came when the car opens the door by itself and the heroine is about to get in – suddenly we can see inside the car, but I didn’t want to cut the shot because that would take away the magic. So the driver gets out of the car at the moment when he’s least visible, and for that brief moment we did a quick inpaint. It was a real challenge to synchronise the whole crew because at that moment the garage signal light above the car also had to change colour to alert pedestrians that a self-driving car was approaching. And someone else had to open the car door at just the right time with the help of a fishing line. But I love these kinds of moments on set!” the director concludes with a smile.