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February 07
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ILM DIDN’T NEED TO GO TO MARS TO SAY ‘GOOD NIGHT OPPY’

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Prime Video and ILM.

The Martian terrain traveled by Oppy was given a reddish tint while the setting inhabited by Spirit had a bluish tint.

The Martian terrain traveled by Oppy was given a reddish tint while the setting inhabited by Spirit had a bluish tint.

The Martian terrain traveled by Oppy was given a reddish tint while the setting inhabited by Spirit had a bluish tint.

The Martian terrain traveled by Oppy was given a reddish tint while the setting inhabited by Spirit had a bluish tint.

Considering the *batteries not included vibe, it is not surprising to learn that Amblin Entertainment was involved in producing the Prime Video documentary Good Night Oppy, which chronicles NASA’s successful development and launch of Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003, with the former defying expectations by going beyond the 90-day mission and surviving for 15 years.

To re-enact what happened to the two rovers on the Red Planet, filmmaker Ryan White turned to ILM Visual Effects Supervisors Abishek Nair and Ivan Busquets to, in essence, produce an animated film to go along with present-day interviews and archival footage. “Ryan White wanted to make a real-life version of WALL·E [a small waste-collecting robot created by Pixar] in some ways, and mentioned during the project that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was his favorite film growing up and wanted to bring that emotion into it,” Nair explains. “For us, it was trying to maintain that fine balance of not going too Pixar, doing justice to the engineers who worked on the rover missions and forming a connection so that the viewers feel the same thing that the engineers went through when they working with Opportunity and Spirit.”

Amongst the 34 minutes of full CG animation was the landing of the rovers on Mars.

Amongst the 34 minutes of full CG animation was the landing of the rovers on Mars.

Amongst the 34 minutes of full CG animation was the landing of the rovers on Mars.

“For us, it was trying to maintain that fine balance of not going too Pixar, doing justice to the engineers who worked on the rover missions and forming a connection so that the viewers feel the same thing that the [NASA] engineers went through when they working with Opportunity and Spirit.”

—Abishek Nair, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

Creating a sense of a face was important in having the rovers be able to emote. “Early on in the show, Ryan was interested in exploring a range of emotions for these rovers and was doing that in parallel in sound and visual effects,” Busquets states. “He was trying to come up with a library of plausible looks so that we were not making a caricature. Even when animating the rovers, we observed the limitations of the joints and what the range of movement is. We did cycles of, what does sad or older-looking-moving Oppy look like? It was all based on, ‘let’s use what’s in there.’ The most obvious example was using the pan cameras as eyeballs because from a physical position, they do resemble the eyeballs on a person.”

ILM created a view of Mars from outer space.

ILM created a view of Mars from outer space.

ILM created a view of Mars from outer space.

Data was provided by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The rovers themselves are the most accurate versions of Opportunity and Spirit,” Nair observes. “We would send turntables of the rovers to the JPL and they would point out certain things that felt a little off, like how the robotic arm would bend and including the decals/details on the rover itself. We built up the rovers with some of the stickers that were on the prototypes and those were taken off when the rovers went to Mars. We had to keep all of those things in mind. It was a good symbiotic process. The engineers at JPL were excited that we were breathing life into the rovers.” The models for Opportunity and Spirit were the same but treated differently. “We respected the story, like when they needed to compensate for how Spirit was to be driven after one of the wheels broke,” Busquets states. “All of those animation cues were respected, so we did animate Spirit differently than Oppy. Then there are differences as to the environments that they were in, and those were kept realistic and true.”

“Early on in the show, [director] Ryan [White] was interested in exploring a range of emotions for these rovers and was doing that in parallel in sound and visual effects. He was trying to come up with a library of plausible looks so that we were not making a caricature. Even when animating the rovers, we observed the limitations of the joints and what is the range of movement. We did cycles of, ‘what does sad or older-looking-moving Oppy look like?’ It was all based on, ‘let’s use what’s in there.’ The most obvious example was using the pan cameras as eyeballs because from a physical position, they do resemble the eyeballs on a person.”

—Ivan Busquets, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

Both environments did not share the exact same color palette. “The Spirit side of the planet had more of bluish hue to it whereas the Oppy side was redder,” reveals Nair. “Also, whenever you see the split-screen, Oppy is on screen left and Spirit is on screen right. and that was maintained throughout the documentary. There was always this visual reference as to who was where, who is doing what and even the direction that they move. Oppy would always go left to right while Spirit was right to left. We built in these little cues to psychologically know that right now you’re looking at Spirit not Oppy. As the story progressed, Spirit had a broken wheel so that helped.”

Adding to the drama was having the rovers get stuck in sandpits and trying to get out.

Adding to the drama was having the rovers get stuck in sandpits and trying to get out.

Adding to the drama was having the rovers get stuck in sandpits and trying to get out.

Adding to the drama was having the rovers get stuck in sandpits and trying to get out.

“The Spirit side of the planet had more of bluish hue to it whereas the Oppy side was redder. Also, whenever you see the split-screen, Oppy is on screen left and Spirit is on screen right. and that was maintained throughout the documentary. There was always this visual reference as to who was where, who is doing what and even the direction that they move. Oppy would always go left to right while Spirit was right to left. We built in these little cues to psychologically know that right now you’re looking at Spirit not Oppy.  As the story progressed Spirit had a broken wheel so that helped.”

—Abishek Nair, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

Four major dust variants were created for Spirit and Oppy. “As the shots progressed, we started running effects simulations and dust maps on it so we could turn them up or down depending on the shots themselves,” Nair notes. There was not a lot of room for creative licence. “Normally we would go with what makes for a more cinematic shot, but with this being a documentary we kept it grounded in reality as much as possible,” Busquets states. “A place where we did make a concession was when it came to the speed. The maximum speed of the rovers was something like two inches per second. It became obvious when we started animating that we were not going anywhere. How are we going to tell a story with that?”

A critical part of making the imagery believable was incorporating photographic aberrations such as lens flares.

A critical part of making the imagery believable was incorporating photographic aberrations such as lens flares.

A critical part of making the imagery believable was incorporating photographic aberrations such as lens flares.

A critical part of making the imagery believable was incorporating photographic aberrations such as lens flares.

A critical part of making the imagery believable was incorporating photographic aberrations such as lens flares.

Since visual effects was a new area for Ryan White, ILM produced storyboards and previs that also aided editorial. “The documentary style of filmmaking is different from feature film,” Nair observes. “We had to make sure that we get some fairly detailed storyboards going for key shots at least and rough storyboards for the rest that we would be doing which would then inform us in terms of the beats, length of the shots and how it’s sitting in the edit. When it came to the particular shot of Oppy getting her wheel stuck in the stand, we had some fairly detailed storyboards, but then we went through quite a bit of postvis animation to get the idea across of the wheel spinning. We also had to work with some clever camera angles that would tell the story. We were working within a timeframe and budget and trying to make sure that visually it was telling the story that was supposed to be told there. There were pockets of sand simulation that we did early on to show the wheel spinning and kicking out of the sand. We showed that to Ryan who was excited about it, and then we brought in all of those little animation cues of Oppy struggling trying to go in reverse and get out of that sandpit.”

The pan cameras on the rovers were treated as if they were eyes, which helped to give them a personality.

The pan cameras on the rovers were treated as if they were eyes, which helped to give them a personality.

The pan cameras on the rovers were treated as if they were eyes, which helped to give them a personality.

The pan cameras on the rovers were treated as if they were eyes, which helped to give them a personality.

The pan cameras on the rovers were treated as if they were eyes, which helped to give them a personality.

Sandstorms had to be simulated. “We had photographic reference of sandstorms on Mars, so we knew exactly what it would look like,” Nair explains. “We’ve done sandstorms before on various movies, but we had to make sure that these would actually happen on Mars: the little electrical storms that happen within them that have bolts of lightning. That’s where we could bring a little bit of drama into the whole thing by having the bolts of lightning and closeups of Oppy staring up at the sandstorm and lightning flashes on her face. There were tons of auxiliary particles flying around the area around her and tons of sand bleeding off her face and solar panels. We did run that through layers of simulations and then threw the whole kitchen sink at it and started peeling back to see what we could use and omit to bring the storytelling back into the whole thing.”

“The number of unique locations, from their landing sites to the journeys, to the different craters that they visit, the amount of nuance and rocks and different type of terrain, everybody involved felt there was something special about building something not based on concept art but scientific data. However, you want to make it as photographic and exciting as possible. There was a lot of pride I saw in the team in doing that.”

—Ivan Busquets, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

The edit was a work in progress. “What was challenging and unique about this project was being involved from an early stage and they hadn’t finished all of their interviews,” Busquets remarks. “Ryan had some ideas for the chapters that he wanted to cover. We helped to inform the edit as much as the edit helped to inform our work. It made things a bit slower to progress, and we had to rely on rough animation and previs to feed editorial.”

Four major dust variants were created for Spirit and Oppy.

Four major dust variants were created for Spirit and Oppy.

Four major dust variants were created for Spirit and Oppy.

Four major dust variants were created for Spirit and Oppy.

Four major dust variants were created for Spirit and Oppy.

No practical plates were shot for the 34 minutes of full CG animation. “We asked to be sent to Mars to shoot some plates and were told that it would be too expensive!” laughs Busquets. “We did get a ton of data from NASA including satellite images from orbiters that have been sent to Mars. It was the equivalent of Google Earth but at a lower resolution. All of the environments that you see in the documentary are based on the real locations the rovers visited.” ILM had to fill in the gaps and could not use the actual imagery because they were not high resolution enough for 4K. A cool moment to create is when Oppy takes a selfie. “It was a fun sequence to do, and we followed the same arc of the cameras so Oppy could actually take the photographs,” Nair comments. “We did have reference of the separate images that were stitched together. We got our snapshots within that particular shot very close to what was actually taken. In the documentary we made it black and white and grainier compared to the other shots.”

Electrical storms had to be incorporated inside of the sandstorms that occur on Mars.

Electrical storms had to be incorporated inside of the sandstorms that occur on Mars.

Electrical storms had to be incorporated inside of the sandstorms that occur on Mars.

Electrical storms had to be incorporated inside of the sandstorms that occur on Mars.

Electrical storms had to be incorporated inside of the sandstorms that occur on Mars.

One of the most complex shots was depicting the solar flares hitting the spacecraft as it travels to Mars. “As an idea, it was storyboarded in a simple manner, and when we started looking at it we figured out that it wasn’t going to show the scale and the distance that these flares would travel or the danger that the rovers were in,” Nair states. “Working the timing of the camera move to the sun with the burst of flare energy… The camera takes over from there, follows the flare energy hitting the spacecraft and swivels around. That whole thing took a bit to plan out. It was a leap of faith as well because Ryan didn’t want it to look like too Transformers in a way. We had to keep things still believable but at the same time play around a little bit and have some fun with the whole thing. It’s one of our longest shots in the show as well. As for the other challenges, it was a documentary format where the edit was fluid, and we had to make sure it would conform with our timeline and the scope of work that was left to do.”

The environmental work was extensive. “The number of unique locations, from their landing sites to the journeys, to the different craters that they visit, the amount of nuance and rocks and different type of terrain, everybody involved felt there was something special about building something not based on concept art but scientific data,” Busquets remarks. “However, you want to make it as photographic and exciting as possible. There was a lot of pride I saw in the team in doing that.”


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