In Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi adventure, The Martian (20th Century Fox), which stars Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara, a crew of astronauts on a manned mission to Mars encounter a storm while on an information-gathering expedition. The crew is ordered to abandon the mission and evacuate the planet. Unfortunately for astronaut Mark Watney (Damon), who is hit by flying debris during the storm, he is believed dead and left behind. Watney, however, is very much alive and forced to rely on his training, ingenuity and wit to stay that way on a hostile planet, while also figuring out how to send a signal back to Earth.
Just as in the film, where a team of NASA scientists with a range of backgrounds worked together to figure out a rescue plan for Watney, it took a team of artists and a number of studios to create more than 1,000 VFX shots for the film that included Mars environments, NASA headquarters and various action scenes in space.
According to MPC’s Richard Stammers, VFX supervisor on The Martian, it took anywhere from 500 to 1,000 artists across several VFX studios — MPC, The Senate VFX and Framestore, with additional support from ILM, Atomic Arts and Milk Visual Effects, as well as previs and postvis from Argon and The Third Floor — to complete the task.
Production for the film, which was shot predominantly on Red Dragon cameras, with additional support from GoPros, Blackmagic Design 4Ks and Arri Alexas, took place on-location in Jordan and on a greenscreen stage in Budapest. Here, Post speaks with Stammers about the VFX demands for the sci-fi adventure and how MPC created Mars on Earth.
Can you outline the type of VFX work you completed for this film?
“We divided the work into three main areas — Mars, space and Earth. And then we divided that across our three main vendors — MPC, which handled all of the Mars surface work; Framestore, which handled all of the space work; and The Senate VFX, which handled anything that was Earth bound, related to NASA, set extensions, window views and anything like that.
"Most of the work fell to MPC because there was more [of the story taking place] on Mars — probably about 450 shots to MPC, 380 to Framestore and about 185 to Senate. Then we took on a few other vendors [when needed], including Atomic Arts, ILM in London and Milk Visual Effects to do some additional work.”
What type of direction did Ridley Scott give for the VFX work?
“The script has a lot of resemblance to the book [by author Andy Weir] — obviously a great deal of the story takes place on the surface of Mars. So we knew that whatever happened, we’d be creating Martian landscapes and the Ridley take on it is, that there’s always got to be something beautiful about it. It’s not only a terrifying planet, but subtlety beautiful. So that was a very important aspect.”
Were you on-location during the film's production?
“Yes, I was on-board right from the beginning all the way through to the end of post, so my role was to definitely make sure that we’d be able to make a great match between our studio work and our location work.”
Can you break down a few of the scenes MPC worked on?
“Yes, there’s a sequence where the Hermes ship has to return to Earth – it’s a supply rendezvous before they basically return to Mars to try and help with the rescue of Watney. There’s a section where they have to dock the probe. And the Hermes has very interesting mid-section to the ship. It has a circular wheel. During the sequence of this probe docking, one of the astronauts is in a space suit at the air lock, ready to intercept the probe to make sure that it docks correctly.
“Meanwhile, one of his colleagues is in one of the pods that’s in the circular section of the gravity wheel, watching what’s going on. There’s a sort of moment, where they catch a glance of one another and where you have the astronaut Beck who is looking down at Johanssen. To shoot them together was impossible because the point of eye contact, Johanssen is upside down in a section with gravity and the other is outside in zero gravity and the spacial difference is huge — we couldn’t build a set big enough to contain the performance. We had small sections of our gravity wheel on a small rig that allowed a small amount of rotation, maybe five degrees, and the rest of the action in camera. We had to plot out those moves to show full rotation of the wheel involved with careful planning of utilizing the previs and figuring out how much of the camera move we needed so we could look into the living quarters where Johanssen is standing, keeping in mind that she’s upside down and knowing we had to turn the shot upside down with our foreground. And there was Beck, who is in the air lock, on a completely different stage, somewhere else, shot on a different day. Trying to coordinate those elements and make sure the scene worked was really important.”
How did you decide on the location for Mars?
“We did a lot of exhaustive scouting to find a place on Earth to shoot Mars. We settled on Jordan, which has some stunning landscapes. Most of the film on Mars takes place in a studio in Budapest. We had a huge greenscreen stage, one of the largest greenscreen stages in the world, where we recreated a section of the surface of Mars and the HAB, where Mark Watney has to survive for a long per-iod of time, surrounded by a huge, 360 greenscreen, so we could shoot in any direction. It was important that we got the look of that right, so we did quite a lot of planning to make the match between our preferred location in Jordan with our studio-based sets. One of the things behind getting the look right was, we basically matched the terrain [in Jordan] with the studio. The idea being we would shoot most of the movie on-stage. At the end of our shooting schedule, we’d spend a couple of weeks in Jordan doing wide shots. For me, that was a great challenge because we had to make sure that our studio shoots matched identically with our location shoots.”
Can you talk about some of the VFX work that was done on the film?
“I’ll start with Framestore. They had some interesting challenges — we had a very compressed schedule and we had to build the Hermes spaceship. It’s the main vessel the astronauts used to travel from Earth to Mars, and it’s a huge ship and it took a lot of time to build. We got on with that as soon as possible. Framestore built a stunning CG model, which was very NASA orientated in its design. NASA has their own plans for future Mars missions and they’re starting to do their own designs about what these ships might look like, and we took a leaf out of their book. There are a lot of similarities to the International Space Station in the way the components are modular and the design of the solar panels is almost identical to the International Space Station, so there’s a lot of really nice details there that lend themselves well to a science fact film rather than a science fiction film. But [it's] a huge undertaking to build that in enough detail so we can see a lot of those details in close ups in some of our final shots.”
MPC needed to enhance the surfaces of the actual footage you shot, correct?
“Yes, absolutely. Jordan is a beautiful setting and had really nice colors for Mars, ranges of reds and yellows for sand, and beautiful mountains. Unfortunately, everything is covered in tuffs of grass everywhere, there are these bushes that no matter where you go in the entire landscape, you can’t find five square meters of dessert that doesn’t have some tumbleweed grass growing somewhere. So, that was one of our biggest tasks. And the other part was the sky. So, whilst we were able to shoot these beautiful landscapes, we ended up having to replace much of the ground with a cleaned-up version of itself. In addition, we would add rocks, craters and features like that just to make it look more Martian in terms of what people would expect to see and what we’ve gained from references from NASA missions to Mars — they have photographs — so we were able to reference a lot of that.
“We also utilized those images to figure, well, ‘What color is the sky on Mars?’ Everybody has a slightly different opinion of it, depending on which photo they see — there are so many different images that NASA and the European Space Agency have created over the years of Mars and they’re very inconsistent. As it is on Earth, it’s not always a blue sky but Mars seems to range from anything to pale yellow, grey, and sometimes a big pinkish or a bit of green. So we utilized a lot of the reference images of Mars to try and balance into one universal color temperature that we could use as a guide for what we did to our shots of Earth. Naturally, we had a strong blue sky, so one of our questions was, 'What color do we need to correct that to and how do we go about doing it where we give Ridley a good starting point for him to do further grading when he gets into the final DI stage once the film is comformed?' We basically came to the conclusion that the sky needs to be almost grey with a hint of greenish yellow to it.
“Also, Ridley’s touch to this is to allow a certain style of clouds to Mars which sort of feels like a bit of a creative leap, as Mars does have clouds but not water-vapor clouds like we expect but ice crystal clouds which form from the CO2 ice. Also, there’s large amount of dust present in the Mars atmosphere, which gives it a sort of yellowish color. We took a little artistic license from Ridley’s direction to create some of these clouds. We made them sort of browns and reds to make it like there are streams of dust caught in high altitude winds blowing across the surface of Mars, which is not completely out of the ordinary, but I think the way we treated it was probably a little more romantic than what it would really be if they were there on the surface of Mars.
“Ridley’s direction for us on that was based on something he shot elements for on a commercial he worked on maybe 20 years ago. He had fast-moving clouds in the sky made up of sea spray blowing off white cap waves and a very strong wind. And these very interesting textures of strands of white water being blown off the top of waves and he used that upside down, as a sky texture, and he told us to look at that as sort of a source of reference. We ended up using these fast-moving streaks of fine textured clouds that had really nice internal movement. Definitely helped the look of the movie. It’s really stunning.”
What were some of the key tools you used?
“Nuke is pretty much a main stay compositing tool of any large VFX vendor. Outside of that, we went through the match-move process to lock down our camera movements to match the live action plates, so usually 3D Equalizer is most people’s preferred match-mover choice these days. Our CG animation is pretty much based in Maya, and the same for modeling. For rendering, I believe it depends on each vendor. I believe Framestore used Arnold as their renderer and MPC used Renderman.”
Can you talk a little about the color correction?
“MPC's compositing team came up with a really nice custom-made filter, which we called 'Earth to Mars' because it basically changed Earth’s sky to Mars’ sky (laughs) and it was quite a complex algorithm that we turned into a gizmo in Nuke, which allowed us control for how much blue we take out of a shot and how much we colorize it with another color, and it basically gave us nice clean results.
“We needed the finer control because what we would find was happening was that we had a lovely dessert landscape shot on a blue-sky day and we would take the blue out of the sky but were then left with haze in the shadows of the mountain or in the shadows of the foreground. We had blue bounce light from the sky that hit into the shadows, so we were actually very careful about how much of that we removed and how much we left in. If we got rid of it completely, we ended up with something that looked like a sepia photo. That was kind of an interesting scenario where we had to fine tune that level and leave a little bit of blue into our shadow detail and not completely remove it from the haze and background and that gave slightly more pleasing results in the final color correction and the DI stage at the end of post.”
Was there anything you thought was more challenging on this film?
“Every project has its challenges. To be honest, the biggest one was actually time. I would actually say normally most shows I worked on — from start of prep to end of post delivery — is usually about 18 months. Some go a bit longer than that. But we completed this in just about a year. We were definitely about 20 days shorter than a normal film. And our post schedule was incredibly short. Normally we have about a 34-week post schedule for a stereo film, and this was about 1100 shots or so, and we had 28 weeks going in. When we were about 10 weeks into post, they decided to bring the release date forward, which truncated our schedule by three or four weeks, so we got down to 24 weeks as our final post schedule. That was incredibly challenging. It really required all the vendors being on board with an accelerated schedule.
“From a technical challenge, I think getting the look of Mars was an interesting achievement. What you think would be quite simple work turned out to take quite a bit of time to get it right. Getting our greenscreen studio work to match the location plates in Jordan was incredibly challenging. And, despite the fact we kept our lighting setup very simple, we had a massive stage space with one huge light source and that light source was brighter when nearer and darker when further away. Unlike the sun, which is evenly lit wherever you look.
“I also think getting zero gravity to look right is always a creative challenge. Probably the hardest part of the film for us was the finale of the third act, where Watney’s rescue takes place in space. There’s a lot of wire work involved as well as complex maneuvers carried out by the astronauts. The final rescue is Lewis and Watney in the scene together, with Lewis out of the Hermes on a tether, basically trying to catch Watney in space.
“[The scene] involves some really complex wire work to get the performance to work and with that wire work were really complicated rigs that needed to be painted out. In some cases, there was this huge harness that’s around Matt Damon’s waste to allow him to spin and rotate as he’s flying out of control. It involves some complex paint work to remove it and in some cases we used a CG replacement of his body. In wide shots, we did full CG shots of digi doubles of the two actors. The final sequence is a combination of some greenscsreen stunt work with some great composites of space and Mars as a background, as well as full CG shots with digi doubles beautifully animated by Framestore — carrying on the same motions and carried across from previs live action shots. It all ends up coming together beautifully against a fantastic background of space and Mars with Hermes behind them and all beautifully rendered in stereo. You get this really lovely moment of appreciating the depth and void of space they’re in — it’s a great sequence.”
Were you happy with the end result?
“Oh yes, absolutely. Given our schedule, I was always concerned that we would get to a point where we were going to think that we were never going to get there, that we were never going to get those final, finessing touches on there, but everything really pretty much delivered on time and at a beautiful level of quality. All nicely rendered in stereo and composited in stereo as well.”