VFX Voice

The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


April 12
2021

ISSUE

Spring 2021

LIGHTING NIGHT ON THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON FOR ALT-HISTORY SERIES FOR ALL MANKIND

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

U.S. moonbase Jamestown was developed beyond its original first season depiction. The series postulates great technological advances beyond what actually took place in the post-Apollo years. 

With its premise of how history might have changed if Russia had beaten the U.S. in the space race to the Moon, For All Mankind, created by Star Trek scribe and Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore, posits America taking the Avis rental car position of being number two: we try harder. An expansive and expensive commitment to manned spaceflight, far beyond the real-world Apollo program, develops, with more than a few hints that the Cold War will heat up the vacuum of space. 

Season 2 of the Apple TV+ series offers a deeper dive into this alt-history, but still relies on behind-the-scenes talent carried over from the first season, including series creator Ronald D. Moore, cinematographers Stephen McNutt and Ross Berryman, production designer Dan Bishop and Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Redd. With a career that started in the 1990s with Rhythm & Hues and continued with 18 more years of feature film work at Sony Pictures Imageworks, adjusting to TV production was something of a shock. “Co-supervising a single movie with Ken Ralston at Imageworks would be something on the order of a two-year process,” he states. “Here, it’s a nine-month cycle for 10 episodes per season, with each year requiring 1,600 to 1,900 shots. 

 “Since we’ve taken a leap of about a decade from Season 1, Moonbase Jamestown reflects considerable development from how it first looked,” Redd acknowledges. “We made a big deal in Season 1 about discovering ice on the Moon, so that suggests the potential for self-sufficiency rather than bringing everything up from Earth. And with the potential to create oxygen and hydrogen, that tied into a mention of using the Moon as a fueling station for trips to Mars, which kind of points up why, as a total space nerd from childhood, I really love working on this show. Plus I feel super-fortunate to work with like-minded people, ranging from VFX artists to the technical advisors, who help us with our desire to keep one foot – minimum! – in accurate tech.” 

The stark lighting and sparse palette for moon scenes mandated exacting standards for quality control with respect to color. Redd worked with a variety of vendors to ensure the look was locked-in, ensuring a smooth DI without surprises or a need to tweak the image further. 

“We shot down at the old Boeing warehouses next to Long Beach Airport, using this huge 100K light as a sun source. It’s similar to the First Man approach, but while they shot outdoors in a quarry, we wanted the control of a studio, which permits us to place cables wherever we want for the stuntwork as astronauts bound along in the low-g environment.” 

—Jay Redd, Visual Effects Supervisor 

But Redd readily admits that balancing science and tech with an overriding need to deliver the requisite level of drama remains a prime concern. “That’s often an issue with TV and film sci-fi, so the struggle will always be a part of things going forward. And the thing is, envisioning this future isn’t just a straight-line process of saying, ‘after we get to the Moon, next up we have a moonbase.’ It’s also a matter of exploring how things may take a detour for one reason or another, which could either be the cause for more drama, or driven by dramatic dictates.

Lunar landing pad suggests a rough-and-ready equivalent to similar but much more advanced vistas in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the area located at a remove from the base proper. 

Live action for the exterior moon sequences, which were much more expansive than Season 1’s work, was accomplished at a former Boeing warehouse in Long Beach, California. 

 

Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Redd drew on the experience of various vendors in realizing the many challenges on For All Mankind. A new look first seen in Season 2 is lunar night, which was achieved by Method Montreal, which extended the no-light illumination achieved by the cinematographer during live action.

 

A 100K light illuminated the moon set, conveying an appropriate single-source look for the surface. Most of these scenes required VFX set extensions to depict the lunar vastness. Set extensions and paintwork were used to transform stock NASA imagery for Earth scenes as well.

The technological developments in this reality show a progression far beyond what happened in our world by that time. Should we incorporate, say, cellphones in this alternate version of 1983? The technology is advancing faster because more money was poured into space exploration than happened in reality, which means we get to show the various efforts that result in new rockets, space vehicles and communication methods. And it’s not just focusing on U.S. and the military, there’s NASA and also the Russian space effort.”

With the increased focus on lunar habitation came the need for production to build more sections of what Buzz Aldrin called ‘magnificent desolation’ in order to accommodate an increase in surface excursions. “We shot down at the old Boeing warehouses next to Long Beach Airport,” says Redd, “using this huge 100K light as a sun source. It’s similar to the First Man approach, but while they shot outdoors in a quarry, we wanted the control of a studio, which permits us to place cables wherever we want for the stuntwork as astronauts bound along in the low-g environment.”

Special Effects Supervisor Mark Byers was no stranger to such gags, with wire-rigs for low gravity a part of his work on the feature The Space Between Us and Netflix’s Space Force series. “Many years back, we’d have to use piano wire and super-thin cables because, if they showed up on film, painting them out was super-expensive,” he recalls. “Nowadays, the more easily they can see the rope or cable, the easier it is for VFX to remove it.”

For HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, balloons were attached to the performers to aid their low-gravity movements on the Moon’s surface, but the limitations inherent with that process ruled out its use here. “The idea is a good one, but it just requires so much helium,” explains Byers. “Plus, the balloons take up so much space above the heads of each person that you can’t position them close together. So we worked with stunts to give that 1/6th gravity look, employing counterweights that let them keep up on their toes and take large strides. Setting up the track and cable rigging from above just requires knowing where they are going in frame. The huge vertical space was perfect for staging and shooting this kind of thing. There were other issues as well, like how the kick of a gun would impact you in low gravity, and whether you’d even see a muzzle flash. Once these aspects were addressed, we’d prepare enough of the gags so production could shoot multiple takes. This was mainly on indoor scenes, with VFX helping a lot when the action takes place outside of pressurized cabins.” 

Production designer Dan Bishop collaborated with VFX when it came to blending between practical builds and post work. “The art department construction issues often revolved around – you guessed it! – a question of both budget and time,” admits Redd. “We’d use The Third Floor heavily for previs to figure out how handoffs could happen between his art department and VFX. The same was true for scenes where VFX had to bridge between shots of stunt performers and digi-doubles. This kind of open collaboration really paid off during those times when Ron Moore would come to us with a specific line of description from the script and ask what we could do to make that moment happen. If a director had been assigned at that point, we’d get together with him or her to do some quick boards, which was very useful when the characters enter and exit space vehicles, especially if they are turning. That way we can make sure the lighting matches before anything gets set up on stage.” 

Spacesuited performers were fitted with overhead wire rigs that allowed them to bound along in a manner consistent with the 1/6th gravity environment. 

“The art department construction issues often revolved around – you guessed it! – a question of both budget and time. We’d use The Third Floor heavily for previs to figure out how handoffs could happen between [Dan Bishop’s] art department and VFX. The same was true for scenes where VFX had to bridge between shots of stunt performers and digi-doubles. This kind of open collaboration really paid off during those times when [series creator] Ron Moore would come to us with a specific line of description from the script and ask what we could do to make that moment happen.”

—Jay Redd, Visual Effects Supervisor

The issue of reflections on space helmet visors was also something of a push-me/pull-you. “A lot of the helmet visors – and there are both the kind with a gold shield that comes down and a transparent one – wound up being CG replacements,” reports Redd. “The amazing paint and roto work often added 3D extensions into visors on occasions when the practical reflection was used. Sometimes the paintout is just limited to the camera crane, since we’re all either dressed in black or behind a curtain. Almost all of our partner studios offer paintwork. We work with Method Studios, Union Visual Effects, Barnstorm VFX, Refuge, Crafty Apes and other small boutique houses. Since houses use different render engines, I have to be concerned about sharing assets, since the same rocket rendered in V-Ray at one facility may look different when rendered elsewhere in Arnold. So we try to minimize such sharing, and instead assign like sequences and types of work together.” 

Special Effects Supervisor Mark Byers oversaw live-action dogfight work involving use of a motion base to effect drastic aerial maneuvering. When the pilot ejects, a parallelogram rig was augmented by air movers to suggest his trajectory through the sky. 

Accurate lighting reference for scenes set on the moon’s surface was integral when set extensions were called for, and also provided key data for reflection elements used for astronaut visor replacements. 

 

While inside pressurized environments like Moonbase Jamestown, traditional practical approaches to bullet hits could be used, but out on the surface, care had to be taken to maintain a scientifically accurate depiction of guns being fired in a vacuum, requiring coordination between SFX and VFX. 

 

A 100K light was used to simulate the harsh single-source light of the sun falling on the moon’s surface. While the lunar stage set expanded on what was built for Season 1, digital extensions still often were required. 

“Philosophically, I have very strong views on colorspace. It’s why I handhold our images all the way to the DI. I may get some flack over this, but I just don’t believe that colorists should be reworking our CG. Coloring should be thought of as an accent, like salt and pepper on top of a nice meal. … I have a good relationship with our colorist, so we get things nailed and locked before it can get into somebody else’s hands. The showrunners absolutely want me there to carry it across, maintaining image integrity while making it pretty.”

—Jay Redd, Visual Effects Supervisor

The series still divides its time between the heavens above and the Earth below. “We provided various gags for Earth scenes,” says Byers, “which included flying a T-38 on a motion base for its dogfight maneuvers. There were some pretty drastic and severe moves to program, followed by an ejector-seat sequence. We put the performer up on a parallelogram as he ‘flew’ and used air movers for wind and turbulence. It was largely the kind of work we’ve done before, but for this series, production had their act together. I’ve been on shows where they ask for too much, because they aren’t considering – or just don’t know – the expense and effort to deliver a particular effect. We can wind up building elaborate rigs that they don’t end up having time to use. But on shows where they’ve done their homework and already answered their own questions, I can just go. Such a well-organized production allows me more time to get the right tools in place, which is the key to being efficient and staying on schedule. And since they’ve only got so much time to shoot, in some cases that made the difference, in terms of getting something that we might not otherwise have had time to get on film.” 

VFX work on Earth scenes involved new live-action shooting as well as manipulation of stock footage. “We do a lot of paintouts for period [work] on our location shooting in Culver City, sometimes to make places look like Houston or Cape Canaveral,” Redd reveals. “There’s a lot of manipulation of archival imagery too, like swapping out different NASA logos on the Vehicle Assembly Building footage and altering building numbers for Johnson Space Center stock.” Redd wasn’t a stranger to dealing with rocket blast-offs from Florida, having recreated the launch of Apollo XI for Men in Black 3. 

One new situation this season involved scenes set during the two-week-long night on the Moon’s surface. “We wanted to explore lunar night last year, and this season actually got to deal with that right at the start,” Redd states.

“That gave me a great opportunity to work with DP Stephen McNutt in determining just how little light would be needed to convey a surface only illuminated by starlight. Essentially it was a no-source look, but with enough light that you could see things.”

The element that wasn’t viable for suspending the astronaut performers turned out to be very suitable for helping to light them in these scenes. “The solution came from giant helium-filled softboxes, which gave us a beautiful even light across the whole set,” enthuses Redd. “It gave us a tiny but very necessary diffused shadow, which let you discern shapes that wouldn’t register with flat lighting. From there, we struck a balance between what he needed to do on the day and how I would take that the rest of the way in post. I studied how much we could adjust the exposure upwards and downwards while we worked on the low end. If it was too bright, viewers would start wondering where this light is coming from, and if it is too dark, you’ve got nothing except the lights from spacesuits and lunar rover vehicles. I worked with Method Montreal to make sure when they extended the environment, it matched to what Stephen had done on set. Then, during final grading, we used Windows and did some additional tweaking to make sure everything read.” 

Redd, in declaring his very strong views on colorspace as being akin to a philosophy, states, “Philosophically, I have very strong views on colorspace,” he admits. “It’s why I handhold our images all the way to the DI. I may get some flack over this, but I just don’t believe that colorists should be reworking our CG. Coloring should be thought of as an accent, like salt and pepper on top of a nice meal. If a colorist asks me for mattes, I will say no. I spend a ton of times with the artists and supervisors at all our partner studios to dial in a sequence’s look, and the compositor may have had 150 layers working in concert. You don’t ask a single violinist out of the whole orchestra to re-record his part and then dub that in. Instead, I may go back to production and ask if they want me to work with the vendor and tweak the work there. I’d rather spend the time in a DI suite doing things the right way. I have a good relationship with our colorist, so we get things nailed and locked before it can get into somebody else’s hands. The showrunners absolutely want me there to carry it across, maintaining image integrity while making it pretty.” 

Production was halted last March owing to COVID “that left our two final shows – really big episodes – unshot. We were among the first productions to go back in at the Sony lot, but that was only after months of Zoom meetings to figure out how best to resume under COVID conditions, shooting for five very intense weeks in August and September. We were doing previs, techvis, plus a lot of pan-and-tile cameras, because with the new restrictions we couldn’t have many people on set. So often we were limited to just shooting the main cast in mission control on one pass. Then they’d leave and we’d bring in our extras. But when you look at it, there’s no sign of an effect, no giveaway that we did anything tricky. How did we bring it off? Incredible work from our ADs managing all this. And being told, ‘Three takes to get that, not eight.’ You just had to be focused, and I actually kind of liked how there was less chatter and milling about. And it was easy to get used to shorter 10-hour days. Now I don’t ever want to go back to working 14-hour days ever again!” 

Live action was shot using a variety of methodologies that included handheld work to embellish on the ‘you are there’ feeling of verisimilitude.

 

Moon scene clean-up routinely required paintouts of the camera crane used to shoot live action.

 

Action scenes for this alt-history series include elements that could have come from science-fiction paperback covers, such as the armed astronauts poised on the outside of a lunar lander as it maneuvers above a lunar facility. Accurate lighting reference for scenes set on the moon’s surface was integral when set extensions were called for, and also provided key data for reflection elements used for astronaut visor replacements.

Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

The Miniature Models of <strong>BLADE RUNNER</strong>
02 October 2017
Television/ Streaming
The Miniature Models of BLADE RUNNER
In 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner set a distinctive tone for the look and feel of many sci-fi future film noirs to come, taking advantage of stylized production design, art direction and visual effects work.
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave <strong>TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY</strong> a 3D Makeover
24 August 2017
Television/ Streaming
Converting a Classic: How Stereo D Gave TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY a 3D Makeover
James Cameron loves stereo. He took full advantage of shooting in native 3D on Avatar, and has made his thoughts clear in recent times about the importance of shooting natively in stereo when possible...
How to Start a <strong>VFX Studio</strong>
01 October 2019
Television/ Streaming
How to Start a VFX Studio
Four new VFX studios (CVD VFX, Mavericks VFX, Outpost VFX, Future Associate) share their startup stories
The New <strong>Artificial Intelligence</strong> Frontier of VFX
20 March 2019
Television/ Streaming
The New Artificial Intelligence Frontier of VFX
The new wave of smart VFX software solutions utilizing A.I.
THE PEARL: THE SUPER ALIEN MODELS OF<strong> VALERIAN</strong>
02 August 2017
Television/ Streaming
THE PEARL: THE SUPER ALIEN MODELS OF VALERIAN
Among the many creatures and aliens showcased in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are members of the Pearl, a beautiful...