In 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi drama Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, who travels to the furthest reaches of our solar system to uncover the truth about his father, the leader of a doomed exploratory mission 30 years earlier. The film was directed by James Gray and produced by Plan B Entertainment.
From Earth, McBride first travels to the moon and then to Mars as part of the mission. But when he is unexpectedly relieved of his duties, he then stows away on and ultimately hijacks a rocket heading to Neptune, where the program believes his father (Tommy Lee Jones) may still be alive, though not working for the greater good of his home planet.
MPC Vancouver (www.mpcfilm.com) was one of the main visual effects providers on the film, handling between 150 and 200 shots, says compositing supervisor Eric Andrusyszyn. The studio’s visual effects work - 198 shots in total - focused on scientific accuracy, including the brightness and exposure levels between stars and surrounding assets, the defining look of materials and even how the assets were built.
“Our work involved a lot of the launching and landing,” he recalls. “We did the Earth launch. We did the moon landing and lunar-base design. We did the moon take off, and we did a lot of the space travel.”
MPC’s work also included scenes where Brad Pitt’s character crosses the Mars terrain toward the launch site of the Neptune-bound rocket.
“We did the Mars take off,” states Andrusyszyn. “And when it comes to Neptune, it was a shared sequence with Mr. X. We did anything between Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones coming out of the Lima station, up until the point Brad Pitt gets back into the ship after traveling through (Neptune’s) rings.”
While MPC has worked on visual effects for many high-profile feature films, Ad Astra still challenged its team with work they’ve never done before.
“It was definitely a first for me,” says Andrusyszyn of the film’s outer-space visual effects, adding that he worked on Independence Day: Resurgence back in 2016. “It was fairly unique, as far as I know,” he says of the look.
“Even though it was a science-fiction movie, the director wanted it to be a lot more tangible and grounded in reality. Even though Brad Pitt’s character is strapping in and going to the far reaches of the solar system, they still wanted to look at the technology and feel that that could be something that existed.”
The North Pole was used as a reference for the creation of the Moon. The design went through serveral iterations before falling in line with Gray’s vision of having a clean and streamlined base, but large and grand in nature.
MPC employs industry-standard tools for much of its visual effects work, paired with proprietary technology.
“We do use Nuke,” says Andrusyszyn of the studio’s compositing tool. The studio used Terragen to recreate the planets and broke down these shots into more complex data sets for greater control of the intricate details. The team also built a realistic star field, pulling in data from NASA with accurate star brightness values rendered out as an HDRI for per-shot projection. Their Nuke pipeline operates on the Linux platform.
In addition to the team of 10 to 20 artists at MPC’s Vancouver studio, the company’s Bangalore and London facilities also pitched in.
“Our pipeline talks among the various sites and we have synching technology that allows us to transfer work back and forth. When it comes to Nuke and compositing, we always try to establish, not only looks, but also templates so that when the other branches come on and pick stuff up, they are able to easily plug into the system.”
Chris Downs headed up the VFX team in Vancouver, and Guillaume Rocheron oversaw the London team. Allen Maris was the film’s overall visual effects supervisor.
According to Andrusyszyn, the most challenging sequence for the VFX team comes near the end of the film, where Brad Pitt’s character is trying to perform an untethered space walk from the Lima station, back to his spacecraft. He must pass through the planetary rings that circle Neptune, which are filled with various-sized rock particles that can damage his space suit.
“[Those scenes] were a challenge both in compositing, but also for the CG department. They were pretty involved.”
The Neptune’s rings sequence represents the longest set of shots the studio worked on for the film and marked a collaboration with Mr. X (www.mrxfx.com).
“Mr. X was developing that, so we worked in tandem with them. And especially since the sequence was shared, we had to make sure that the technology between the two studios worked well and that the results looked the same.”
Andrusyszyn continues, “If I remember right, we had four different sizes of rocks for those rings - that was simulated. It was challenging because we tried to work as best to scale as we could. We tried to work in a real-world scale. So you’ve got these rings that have thousands and thousands of particles in them and they are a thousand kilometers wide. I think the thickness in terms of top to bottom was only like 100 meters, but the perspective and scale, and that grand feeling for the movie was the most challenging part.”
While the film’s visual effects were demanding, Andrusyszyn says the filmmakers were committed to delivering high-quality results.
“The client really had something they wanted to make really good, so they were willing to put in the time to make a great movie out of it,” he recalls. “We did have a schedule, but it wasn’t as rigid. I would say my involvement in it was a year total.”
Director James Gray also called on Method Studios (www.methodstudios.com) to create space vistas and interstellar action sequences grounded in realism. This including a dangerous rover pursuit on the surface of the moon early in the film.
As McBride and his crew begin their journey to the outer reaches of the solar system, their jumping off point is the moon, which is home to several ports, with varying land and aerial craft. In addition to helping establish the moon location with CG environments, Method crafted an intense sequence in which McBride’s crew is attacked by space pirates while traveling between the moon ports via lunar rovers.
Realizing the complex sequence was achieved through careful coordination between Method VFX supervisors Jedediah Smith and Ryan Tudhope, along with on-set VFX Supervisor Aidan Fraser; Gray; cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; and overall VFX Supervisor Allen Maris.
Live action footage served as the foundation for the sequence, with Method transforming footage shot on a sound stage against black screen, as well as footage shot in the deserts of the southwestern US using a stereo rig outfitted with an Arri Alexa XT camera with a modified sensor to capture infrared light, and an Arriflex motion picture film camera. One hero rover was filmed on-set, and Method augmented the footage with two CG support rovers that were keyframe animated.
“The rig that Hoyte put together was a pretty crazy, interesting creative idea,” says Smith. “It was kind of like a native stereo project but instead of capturing two different camera views, we were capturing luminence from one camera and color from the other camera. The infrared footage made the desert look more like the moon: the sky was black and the ground appeared brighter, mimicking the moon’s atmosphere and lighting. First, we neutralized the color and exposure of all plates, then we used Foundry’s Ocula toolset to align the film footage to the infrared footage. Once we had the two plates aligned we blended the luminence from the infrared plate and the color from the film plate, and then added our CG moon environment behind.”
Method artists also referenced NASA archives for footage of the Apollo missions, which provided inspiration for creating the distinct lunar environments, as well as how objects behaved in the moon’s low gravity atmosphere.
“Realism was important to James, so we based our CG work on scientific reference as much as possible, while also taking some creative license to ensure the visuals were cinematic. The moon appears silver from our vantage point on Earth but through our research we discovered that the terrain actually varies quite a bit in color and behavior. We cover a large distance in the lunar rover sequence, so we mapped out key features of the terrain from the moon base through to the dark side of the moon as a starting point and built out the full environments from there.”
Artists also created or enhanced the reflections in every space suit visor and rover window, accounting for accurate lighting based on the sun and stars, as well as rover headlights as the crew headed to the dark side of the moon. Gray’s intimate, close-up filming style for the sequence influenced more prominent visor reflections that help unfold the story.
“Working on this project was such a pleasure and gave us the opportunity to experiment with some out-the-box approaches that ultimately created elegant imagery,” concludes Smith. “James always had insightful direction for what would visually enhance the narrative, and the whole Method team delivered standout work to achieve that vision.”
In addition to the lunar rover pursuit, Method also created the sequence where McBride conducts a spacewalk from his spacecraft The Cephius to the abandoned Vesta ship. Artists developed the look of the ship and surrounding environment and built assets in CG, then composited in live action footage (also shot against a black screen). Method also worked on a small sequence that takes place in the underground tunnels of the Mars port, extending and enhancing the location tunnels to make them appear more vast.