Inside Reminiscence, HBO Max’s thriller inspired by real-life science
Reminiscence is a film that offers an intriguing look at the potential future of our own world.
Set in 2050, the sci-fi thriller follows Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), a Miami-based private investigator whose reused military interrogation machine allows people to relive all the memories they love.
When a client named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks into Nick’s life, changes her for the better, and suddenly disappears without a trace, he tries to find her. But Nick’s desperate search of the flooded streets of Florida – a byproduct of a recent natural disaster – becomes more dangerous than he anticipated.
Reminiscence’s submerged frame and futuristic technology may seem far away, but they’re not. Rising sea levels and the ability to recall our memories are not remote possibilities; they’re grounded in real-life science and may be closer to the real thing than we might think.
With Reminiscence now available on HBO Max and in theaters, TechRadar spoke with VFX supervisor Bruce Jones and production designer Howard Cummings to find out how his scenic dystopia came about. We also discuss the real-world experimental technology that inspired Nick’s Memory Machine and the challenges associated with achieving both aspects.
An idea arises
From the start, writer-director Lisa Joy (Westworld) wanted to create a world where the coastal regions would have been partly swallowed up by the oceans. Real-world studies attributed the rising sea waters to climate change, but Joy was reluctant to make claims about global warming through the Reminiscence plot.
Instead, a decision was made to focus on how humanity would adjust to life in flooded cities, with one Italian town serving as the model for Joy’s vision.
“Lisa is very visual in her storytelling and she wanted global warming to be the cause of the flooding in Miami,” Cummings explains. “We looked at how people would adapt rather than abandon Florida and use it as Venice. So we created a map of Miami with the flooded and dry areas, and marked them off as areas where the poor and the rich lived. “
To provide audiences with a clearer picture of its dystopian setting, Reminiscence opens with a three-minute aerial shot that reveals the scale of the flooding. It’s an all the more impressive streak since Reminiscence was not shot in Miami. Rather, the principal photography took place almost 1,000 miles away in New Orleans, Louisiana.
How, then, was Miami recreated in such minute detail for the opening view of Reminiscence? As Jones reveals, using two specific imaging techniques: photogrammetry and light sensing and ranging (LIDAR).
The former, often used by architects, allows individuals to take multiple images of overlapping objects and recreate them as 3D models on a computer. Meanwhile, LIDAR uses a targeted laser to build an accurate representation of the Earth’s topography. Merging them with aerial footage of Miami allowed the VFX team to rebuild the city from scratch.
“We were finding indescribable or very specific streets in New Orleans that looked identical to the ones we had spotted in Miami,” Jones explains. “We did a lot of drone references to Miami properties, then we matched those shots with our images of New Orleans using a combination of Google Earth, photogrammetry, and LIDAR. Next, Rise, our primary visual effects provider, built every model, texture, and shader to create the footage you see.
Build a memory machine
Reminiscence’s flooded setting isn’t the only aspect of worldbuilding that’s central to its plot. The memory machine is integral to the unfolding of the story, with Nick and the local police department using it to shed light on Mae’s disappearance.
Its design was a two-fold process: making it futuristic enough to show that technological advancements took place between 2021 and 2050, but basing it on realism based on the relatively short number of years that have passed.
The machine’s water-filled capsule is similar to stasis capsules seen in distant sci-fi properties including Interstellar and Star Trek. Meanwhile, at least on the surface, the design of the helmet resembles the electrode caps worn by patients during electroencephalograms (EEGs) to study brain activity – thus covering both design bases.
Medicine today was not the only real-world technology that influenced the final shape of the headgear. As Cummings reveals, ongoing research at MIT has also played a major role.
“We had access to the research of the graduate students,” Cummings says. “A student developed a device that rests against your chin and head and lets you control a computer with your thoughts. Another student created a headgear that would interpret what people dreamed of. We saw a recorded demonstration where a computer scoured an image database and found something that was close to what that person dreamed of. It was fascinating to watch, so we took those influences and incorporated them into the functionality of the machine.
Part of this functionality is the recreation of customer memories, which aren’t displayed as simple 2D wall projections that Nick is looking at. Instead, the design team built a circular setting – dubbed the Hamburger – that allowed actors to walk around and view 3D memories from different angles.
The incorporation of holographic technology also helped give a greater sense of science fiction to the proceedings.
“We’ve done a lot of research into how holograms work,” Jones explains. “Everything from lasers and smoky rooms to plexiglass, then we threw it all away. We wanted something more visceral; something you could almost touch. We wanted you to feel that connection between Nick and Mae where you think they’re in the same room. But they are not, because one of them is a hologram.
Advance Holologauze, a highly transparent and reflective projection surface that offers a 360-degree field of view around its subject.
Created by audiovisual technologist Stuart Warren-Hills, Hologauze’s support for 3D polarized images and screen grain – desired elements for Reminiscence’s memory recreations – made it an ideal choice for this part of the machine.
“Hologauze has been used by YouTube and for concerts,” Cummings explains. “It’s famous for recreating Michael Jackson on stage and it allowed our actors to react in real time to people’s memories. We didn’t want to add the memories later with visual effects, so we enlisted the help of Hologauze to create a system to project images of the memories.
Semi-virtual film productions are never without problems – Reminiscence included. Filming the underwater footage and composing the 3,400-frame opening flyby plan were difficult challenges to overcome.
But both issues were pale compared to the exhausting issues with positioning the hologauze inside the cylindrical burger assembly.
“Take any type of fabric and wrap it in a cylinder, and it will be concave in the middle,” Cummings explains. “It gave us something unique from a shooting point of view. But the problem was, we had to shoot our scenes from memory in advance so that our cast would have something to reference during the real world footage.
The filming of memory sequences initially posed many problems. On the one hand, the locations of the cameras had to line up with each other. If a specific angle was used to shoot a sequence, the same camera position was needed to shoot scenes with real actors present. Otherwise, parallax, the process by which an object is moved due to a change in the observer’s point of view, would be inevitable.
“The camera shots have to line up, otherwise driving your camera cart left or right, or up and down, will cause parallax,” Jones explains. “Running the hologauze on a curved surface, allowing the actors to walk around and interact with it, and get shots that match your initial filmed sequences, was my biggest shooting puzzle.”
It turns out that a simple piece of rope – a far removed element from the futuristic technology used in the film – allowed Joy to map the locations of the cameras based on the diameter of the dimensions of the Hamburger set.
“When Nick is standing on the floor looking at a memory, that’s a line of sight,” Cummings says. “But when you look over his shoulder and look at a picture up close, it’s a different perspective. So I gave Lisa some rope and said to her “stand where you need it for a shot, move her around and you will see what is in the field of view”. Using this, we built our projector system to fit specific angles for certain shots. “
Despite his charismatic lead in Jackman and his thrilling storyline, Reminiscence’s meager $ 4.9 million box office gain is indicative of its inability to capture viewers’ attention. A combination of average to bad reviews, the release of HBO Max, and a slight increase in cases of Covid-19 Delta variants won’t help either.
At a time when some viewers and industry workers want more originality from studios, it’s a shame that hasn’t resonated with audiences. With its development ingenuity, impressive world-building, and real scientific inspiration, Reminiscence deserved better – not only from a cinema appreciation standpoint, but also from a scientific standpoint.
Reminiscence is out now in theaters and on HBO Max.