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November 17
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Deep Detail Heightens Adventure Millions of Miles from Earth in AWAY

By CHRIS McGOWAN

 

In the Netflix science-fiction drama Away, the first manned expedition to Mars must contend with catastrophes and conflicts on board as they hurtle through space on a risky three-year round-trip ticket. At the same time, the international crew of five – an American commander (Hilary Swank), a Russian engineer/cosmonaut (Mark Ivanir), a Chinese chemist (Vivian Wu), an Indian pilot/medical officer (Ray Panthaki) and a Jewish British-Ghanaian botanist (Ato Essandoh) – must deal with personal dramas involving family and friends millions of miles away on Earth.

For the 10-episode series, the visual effects artists had to conjure up scenes on both the Moon and Mars, as well as in the spaceship interior and on its exterior on the journey to the Red Planet. Away has 1,514 VFX shots supplied by eight vendors: Framestore, DNEG and Ingenuity Studios contributed the most, followed by Mr. Wolf, FuseFX, The Product Factory, Incessant Rain Animation Studios, and Studio 8.

 

The epic space adventure demanded close cooperation between all sectors. The Netflix VFX team on Away was led by Visual Effects Producer Scott Ramsey. “This team worked hand-in-hand with production and post-production throughout the series,” comments Visual Supervisor Victor Scalise. “There was a lot of planning and prepping an episode – or [being] on set supervising the shoot. There was quite a bit of collaboration between VFX and the amazing production design team. We always wanted to be sure that we did not overbuild any of the sets for the VFX sequences. They constantly supplied us with SketchUp models to use as a reference [from which] to build our 3D assets.”

“There was definitely a point at which I wished Zero G were real when looking at shots with five actors all on wire harnesses and rigging running throughout the set. Definitely the less glamorous side of VFX.”

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

The crew’s first spacewalk takes shape in previs. Emma (Hilary Swank) and Misha (Mark Ivanir) must venture outside to fix one of the spacecraft’s three solar arrays, with the help of DNEG and Ingenuity.

A view of the Atlas spacecraft leaving the Earth/Moon system for Mars. Framestore was tasked with many Atlas exterior shots in space.

“The [Gravity and The Martian] spaceship shots were beautiful and always felt real to me. It had to do with the way they were lit. That is also what led us to Framestore – they had worked on both [films]. … [They did] amazing CG lighting on all the ship shots in the series.” 

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

“We wanted to make sure the feeling of a working base [on the Moon] would come across as dirty  and grungy. We spent a lot of time getting the lighting right, because that was how we were going to get it believable. When in post, we opted to replace most of our practical set floor with DNEG’s CG lunar surface, [which] had a lot of amazing details put in the surface.”

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

Astronauts in spacesuits created work for every department, Scalise explains. “Sometimes the astronauts were completely CG and we had to make sure we matched the real ones exactly.” When it came to floating objects, “We did a combination of all-CG objects and practical SFX rigs that we then removed.”

 

The weightless movements of the astronauts inside the ship were numerous, convincing, and in the series from beginning to end. They required wires, sets and VFX. To prepare, Scalise did his Zero G research. “I watched every video on YouTube I could find from every space agency. I watched hours of space walks, floating objects, [floating] liquids and fire, and even the funny, goofing around vids.”

Supervising Stunt Coordinator Jeff Aro initially planned out the weightless shots. “We then worked together to make sure the rigging and wires were placed so as not to be a problem with paintouts,” comments Scalise. “We used a lot of wire work and some SFX rigs built by Paul Benjamin’s SFX team.” Subsequently, there were many things to remove from the shots, Scalise notes. “There was definitely a point at which I wished Zero G were real when looking at shots with five actors all on wire harnesses and rigging running throughout the set. Definitely the less glamorous side of VFX.”

The Atlas ship takes off for Mars from a staging base on the Moon. A small practical lunar surface was built for that sequence and “worked beautifully for giving our actors the proper bounce and ambient light from the ground,” says Scalise. “We decided that we would do the wider shots with digital doubles and completely CG. DNEG took on this sequence and did a great job.

 

“We wanted to make sure the feeling of a working base would come across as dirty  and grungy,” he adds. “We spent a lot of time getting the lighting right, because that was how we were going to get it believable. When in post, we opted to replace most of our practical set floor with DNEG’s CG lunar surface, [which] had a lot of amazing details put in the surface.”

 

In terms of creating the Atlas, Scalise cites Gravity and The Martian as influences on the look of the spacecraft. “Their spaceship shots were beautiful and always felt real to me. It had to do with the way they were lit. That is also what led us to Framestore – they had worked on both [films].” He enjoyed working together with Framestore VFX Supervisor John Kilshaw and the “amazingly creative Framestore team.” He points out “the amazing CG lighting that they did on all the ship shots in the series.” 

 

About the moon launch, he explains, “As the Atlas was being built by Framestore, it was handed back and forth between the vendors. DNEG detailed out the engines for takeoff matching the look of real NASA footage. They nailed it.” 

 

“One thing that we decided to do was shoot these scenes on black screens. We figured this would work best since our actors are in white spacesuits and our sets were white. We also decided to do all the visors as CG, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our crew and camera reflections.”

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

A liquid chemical leak occurs as Emma tries to capture the weightless liquid, but the sweat in her shirt causes it to burst into flames. Framestore conjured up the Zero G fire.

When making movies about space, it helps to have the advice of someone who has actually been there. “Astronaut Mike Massimino came to our studios and answered questions for us. Mike helped out a bunch for our first spacewalk.” The filmmakers also talked to others at NASA over the phone. “It was great to have the ability to speak with NASA and others involved with the Mars missions to help us be as true to reality as we could be,” says Scalise.

“One thing that we decided to do was shoot these scenes on black screens. We figured this would work best since our actors are in white spacesuits and our sets were white. We also decided to do all the visors as CG, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our crew and camera reflections.”

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

Away featured two spacewalks. For both EVAs, the filmmakers had to determine what sets would be needed, and which parts were going to stunt performers/actors or to digital doubles. “Due to all the logistics, we did pre-vis for both of the sequences,” notes Scalise. “The pre-vis allowed us to look at the sequence from many different angles and perspectives to ensure our choices were the correct ones. They made the shooting of the sequence flow smoothly since we knew exactly what shots we needed to get and how we could group them together. One thing that we decided to do was shoot these scenes on black screens. We figured this would work best since our actors are in white spacesuits and our sets were white. We also decided to do all the visors as CG, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our crew and camera reflections.”

“[Wadi Rim in Jordan] was such an amazing place that being there makes you feel like you are on another planet. We sorted through thousands of stills and hours of drone footage to make our Mars look otherworldly. Framestore used the Wadi Rum assets to construct their matte painting and 3D set extensions.”

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

A small practical lunar surface was built for the moon-base sequence and mostly replaced in post with DNEG’s detailed CG lunar surface. The crew took off for Mars from the Moon, and a dirty, grungy base had to be believable.

The spacewalks required sets, wires and VFX that had to be removed from the shots.

“One thing that was important to our producers was the threat of death throughout the landing. They wanted it violent and they wanted the audience to feel as scared as our astronauts. They wanted to give the feeling the ship could blow up at any point. We knew that the entry fire would play a major part in the story. Framestore really nailed the look of the fire in their early sims. It had a very elegant, yet still scary look to it. We also added some smaller details like a panel flying off. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful sequences in Away.”

—Victor Scalise, VFX Supervisor

The first EVA happens because one of the solar arrays on the outside of the ship won’t fully deploy and Misha (Mark Ivanir) and Emma Green (Hilary Swank) must solve the problem. Two sets were needed to shoot the actors: one built horizontally to the ground and a second smaller, vertical one. Visual effects came more into play when more of the ship would be shown. “DNEG handled the ship and wider shots, sometimes being completely CG with our digital doubles. Ingenuity handled a lot of the visors and the video feed for mission control which was completely CG.”

 

In the second spacewalk, after the crew runs short on water, Emma and Ram (Ray Panthaki) venture outside, release water from the ship’s hull and collect desperately-needed ice crystals with a static-electricity trick. “DNEG supplied Ingenuity this time with the CG Atlas for the wide shots,” says Scalise. “Our producers really wanted this scene to be magical and beautiful. I feel like we pulled it off – giving a tense situation some magic. One thing that was tricky to make believable was the static charge and how the ice would follow Emma and eventually Ram. We played with many different densities, speeds and paths. I think where we landed was perfect. Ingenuity put a lot of work in the close-ups with the spinning and dancing ice.”

The biggest challenge arguably came with the Mars sequence, Scalise reveals. “I spent a lot of time on the NASA sites looking at the photos from the Mars rovers, [In New Mexico], “we found a great location where the ground matched the look of the NASA photos of Mars. By having real ground and all the ambient light from being outside we ended up with a great Mars surface.”

 

For the Martian surroundings, Director of Photography David Boyd and Scalise spent four days in Wadi Rum in Jordan shooting drone footage and textures out of which to build Mars. The location has been used in The Martian and other films to represent either Mars or other worlds. 

 

“It was such an amazing place that being there makes you feel like you are on another planet,” says Scalise. “We sorted through thousands of stills and hours of drone footage to make our Mars look otherworldly. Framestore used the Wadi Rum assets to construct their matte painting and 3D set extensions.

 

An EVA before-and-after shows cables holding the astronauts and then the final shot with a CG extension, a red stripe of paint, but no cables.

When the crew’s water supply is close to running out, Emma and Ram must release water from the ship’s hull; it instantly freezes and they capture the crystals (created by Ingenuity) using an ingenious static electricity trick. DNEG handled many wide CG ship shots.

The utter lightness of being weightless in space. Wires suspend the astronauts on their EVA. These scenes were shot on black screens since our actors were wearing white spacesuits and the sets were white. All the visors were CG to eliminate concerns about our crew and camera reflections.

“We knew the Mars landing was going to be completely CG until we touched down on the ground,” he continues. “Jet Wilkinson, who directed Episode 10, had made a storyboard out of screen grabs from a bunch of films to show how she visually wanted the story to play out.” Wilkinson went through it with Scalise and talked about what the camera moves would be. “Framestore then came in and we started to build animatics of each of the shots. As we started to see the sequence playing out, we made a few adjustments, but it was playing nicely.

DNEG handled this exterior shot of the ship for an EVA with Emma and Misha tasked to repair a solar array.

“During this same time, Framestore worked on showing us the fire sims and dust sims for the landing. One thing that was important to our producers was the threat of death throughout the landing. They wanted it violent and they wanted the audience to feel as scared as our astronauts. They wanted to give the feeling the ship could blow up at any point. We knew that the entry fire would play a major part in the story. Framestore really nailed the look of the fire in their early sims. It had a very elegant, yet still scary look to it. We also added some smaller details like a panel flying off. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful sequences in Away. I felt the cutting between inside the ship and feeling the chaos with the actors and then back outside was perfectly paced by our film editor, Dana Gasparine, and producers.

Emma (Hilary Swank) is suspended with wires in a weightless shot in the central space of the ship. (Photo: Diyah Pera)

“I have to say I had the most fun putting the Mars entry sequence together,” Scalise admits. “It was a complex scene, but we planned it out so well it really came together without a hitch.”


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