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January 19
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

THE MIDNIGHT SKY: From The Artic To Deep Space In Search Of A Refuge For Humanity

By TREVOR HOGG

Not one to shy away from political activism, George Clooney takes on the topic of global warming in his adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Distributed by Netflix and retitled The Midnight Sky, Clooney portrays a scientist stationed in the Arctic attempting to warn a returning space expedition about a mysterious ecological disaster that has rendered Earth inhabitable.

Oftentimes, the ice on the beard of George Clooney, pictured here with Caoilinn Springall, was the only way to tell whether a shot was captured on location or onstage. All images courtesy of Netflix.

“Rather than go traditional previs, we would get everything into the Unreal gaming engine with Nviz,” explains Matt Kasmir (Catch-22), who shared visual effects supervisor duties with Chris Lawrence (Christopher Robin). “Martin Ruhe [Harry Brown], our DP, would shoot it and block it out. That was invaluable and saved so much time and invested everybody. It also reached a point where Jim Bissell [Good Night, and Good Luck], our production designer, would come down to give us the latest models – he could have a look at the set design before putting it onstage. There was one occasion where Jim realized that he didn’t even have to raise the Barbeau Conservatory set as much after having a quick look though the Ncam virtual camera system.”

Part of the 700 visual effects shots created by Framestore, ILM and One Of Us were caused by the circumstances surrounding principal cast member Felicity Jones. “There was a quick rewrite of the script because of her pregnancy,” states Kasmir. “All members of the cast who had to fly in zero-G did have Anyma work, which was the face-replacement system that we used, but this was accelerated because of how much wirework she could do.”

 

Earth-like planet K23 is seen as the possible home for humanity. “At first,” says Kasmir, “we were looking at ultraviolet and infrared photography, which I quite liked, but it was stark and different from the rest of the film. We ended up using a more traditional alien planet sky, which helped. It was less of an atmosphere, so it gets darker quickly, and Jupiter has over 64 moons, so there was always a moon or two in every sky. We tried to keep the infrared ultraviolet feel in the sense that nothing was green. Our native flora was an orange or a brown.”

A known challenge from the beginning was the design of the spacecraft known as the Aether, which saw Framestore art director Jonathan Opgenhaffen spending six weeks at Shepperton Studios with Jim Bissell. “The brief was interesting because it was, more or less, take the current technology that we have now and add to it with what feels 20 years ahead,” notes Opgenhaffen. “We have the framework of the ISS and then we tack on these topological optimization organic shapes that were 3D printed. We tried to have the two aesthetics work in harmony so it tells the story of these guys being in such a hurry to build this spaceship that they tacked on their most up-to-date technology.”

Director George Clooney on set at Shepperton Studios with David Oyelowo and Tiffany Boone.

Greenhouses were incorporated into the structure. “Speaking of the vegetation,” remarks Kasmir, “it turned out that the back end of the ship was so attractive that my only regret, if we were ever to make The Midnight Sky 2, would be to stage more action at the rear end because we had so much detail from the storage pods, gardens and solar panels.” 

The technological hybrid approached appealed to Lawrence. “The Aether was fun for me because it was drawing upon current SpaceX, NASA and JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab] tech and taking it to a new place with things that were plausible, but not out there in reality,” remarks Lawrence. “It is best kind of science fiction, where truth is at its center and extrapolated to tell us where we might be going.”

While Felicity Jones takes part in a spacewalk, Framestore had to produce a series of face replacements for her character of Sully. 

Kyle Chandler portrays Mitchell, who longs to return to Earth to be with his family.

 

 

 “Rather than go traditional previs, we would get everything into the Unreal gaming engine with Nviz. Martin Ruhe [Harry Brown], our DP, would shoot it and block it out. That was invaluable and saved so much time and invested everybody.”

—Matt Kasmir, Visual Effects Supervisor

The exterior shots of the Aether were not obstructed by the sunlight. “Martin Ruhe was applying filmic principles in space, which is quite unusual because normally we are used to the hyper-contrast, blown-out, super-dark of space, whereas this is quite muted,” explains Kasmir. “Martin, in his lens package, used a lot of de-tuned lenses that had soft edges. Even on fully digital shots in space we would doff our hats toward these lenses, and rendered in a lot of grammatic aberrations to try to keep the language of our film going.” 

A greyscale model and final CG shot of the crew of the Aether attempting to repair their spacecraft. 

Conveying zero-G was always going to be difficult especially for the spacewalk sequence. “In one of our early meetings with Framestore, Chris said to me, ‘In a perfect world, you would just shoot their heads and we’d animate everything digitally. At least we could own and control it,’” recalls Kasmir. “That stuck in my head. Even though we did try to shoot a lot practically, we decided early on that this was our methodology. We literally went through the previs and tried to cull as many beats within shots and commit to those being digital and hoped that it worked. It was an absolute leap of faith.”

 

The Anyma sessions were directed by Clooney. “When we set up these sessions,” Kasmir explains, “it was quite interesting because we asked each cast member if they wanted to be in costume. A couple of them wanted to be in full spacesuits while others wanted to be in tracksuits. Cast members would sit in opposite chairs feeding lines to each other while George directed. This meant that these performances couldn’t be argued about later. All that we were doing was controlling the lighting and then the rest of the body. It was a fantastic tool and a new use of this technology.”    

 

The initial data from the Anyma sessions were encouraging. “We went in with a plan to include long, swinging wires and rails, but we realized how many challenges we were presenting to physical production,” notes Lawrence. “We were able to say, ‘We’re comfortable about the faces in this shot that we can probably get away with a digital double.’” 

The crew desperately attempts to hold onto the Aether as debris comes into contact with the spacecraft.  

The 70 to 150 shots that were going to be practical to varying degrees were reduced to 30 to 40 by the end of physical production. “We did have some shots on K23 where we had to do these face replacements for Felicity because she couldn’t travel to the location,” says Lawrence. “In that scene there was a full range of emotions. We did have to look at the plate data that the Anyma system gave us and work out where the blood flow was and transpose that over. Technology is one thing, but it’s also about observation.”

“We had one shot where our editor, Stephen Mirrione [Traffic], had picked an Anyma performance capture because he liked a subtle twinkle in the eye of David Oyelowo. Even to capture that on film from a genuine performer would have been hard,” states Kasmir. “Just a subtle lighting tweak brought it back because the information was still there.”

 

Clear Angle Studios collected the complimentary data needed to build the digital doubles. “We had Dominic Ridley’s latest scan technology called Dorothy and Eugene,” remarks Lawrence. “We built these incredible digital doubles beyond anything that I had to do on any prior show, where we would take the Anyma capture date for everything except the mask area around the eyes and then we would hand-track the eyes at Framestore. It was pixel-perfect work. A millimeter out would give them the wrong look or gaze.”

The bloodletting scene had to be beautiful and not scary, with each blob of blood being art-directed.

After coming into contact with debris while out on the spacewalk, Maya, portrayed by Tiffany Boone, discovers she is leaking blood. “I don’t know if Stanley Kubrick would have done the bloodletting scene this way, but it had to be beautiful and not scary,” explains Kasmir. “Even though one of our characters is dying, she is actually hypnotized by the beauty of her blood in zero-G around her. Everyone stops for a beat. It’s very graceful.”

 

Clooney talked about the fateful moment being like a ballet. “We’ve seen water and other substances floating on the space station,” notes Lawrence. “But we’ve never seen blood in that way.”

The blood was art directed. “George started to give each piece of blood names,” reveals Kasmir. “We would physically direct Blobby #1 or Spider Blob. Could we slow this one down? One became so popular that we started towards the end racking focus with it. We decided it was more fun than the cast! Each one had a character, personality and its own dynamics. We wanted the blood to be not too opaque, but at the same time we didn’t want to see through it. Our blood has a smoother consistency than genuine blood – it went through a lot of iterations.”

 

“We had Dominic Ridley’s latest scan technology called Dorothy and Eugene. We built these incredible digital doubles beyond anything that I had to do on any prior show, where we would take the Anyma capture date for everything except the mask area around the eyes and then we would hand-track the eyes at Framestore. It was pixel-perfect work. A millimeter out would give them the wrong look or gaze.”

—Chris Lawrence, Visual Effects Supervisor

K23 has less of an atmosphere than Earth, so it gets darker quickly. One Of Us made sure that there was always a moon or two in every sky, as Jupiter has over 64 moons.

A pair of astronauts decided to return to Earth and experience re-entry. “I collaborated with Martin Ruhe and Julian White, our chief lighting technician, on the Rosco System, which is a gel that diffuses light. It’s a neutral grey when it’s off,” states Kasmir. “Behind it we had hundreds of SkyPanels, and they could all be controlled as basically a low-pixel ratio monitor. We could control intensity, blowout and diffuse beautifully. It got us out of so many holes.

Framestore Art Director Jonathan Opgenhaffen spent six weeks at Shepperton Studios with Production Designer Jim Bissell designing the Aether

“One of them,” continues Kasmir, “was creating the heat and light of re-entry. It could also pulse, strobe in a direction, and we could control timings. We had the aurora borealis being played on these panels. We used it heavily for slow sequences because it would give a sense of depth and mist. You could also have a sun moving. I always thought that I would never mix stage and optic as environments, because often if something is shot onstage and something is shot on location, particularly a snowy vista, they really jump out. But the use of the Rosco screen was absolutely ground-breaking, and the amount of light that it could throw on our artificial snow surface onstage was essential for making these shots. We could literally grade the shot. It’s rare that a DP will allow someone to control their light, but we were using iPad control panels to adjust the lighting to make it match as close as possible in-camera to the location footage.” 

 

Not everything takes place in space as a pivotal location is the Arctic. “The thing about a glacier is it’s not snow as you imagine it,” observes Kasmir. “It’s a lump of ice that is solid. All it has on the surface is what I can only describe as ice sand. These are bits of ground-up ice that blow along the surface. It’s quite unlike anywhere we shot. The snow mist would descend like [snaps fingers] that. We embraced the snow mist. In actual fact, we ended up putting mist into shots that were shot on a clearer day.”

Snow needed to be augmented into shots. “The Framestore team in Montreal did a lot of the environment extension work,” remarks Lawrence. “One of the key challenges is a lot of the locations in Iceland didn’t have any snow because it had been a warmer fall than previously on record because of global warming. At the beginning of the movie where Augustine walks into the Barbeau Conservatory, that was like a gravel mound. It wasn’t a snowy environment. That was completely computer-generated snow.”

 

Virtual production helped in blending the sets with the exterior shots. “I was lucky that when I went out to shoot the plates for StageCraft, it was the only time that it snowed,” states Kasmir. “We ended up using those snow plates throughout the film.”  

 

A set of stairs and a gantry was built for the Barbeau Conservatory, with the rest being CG. “For the interior set, we had this huge architecture window,” remarks Lawrence. “That was where StageCraft was brought in.”

George Clooney was the only practical element kept for the underwater sequence handled by ILM.

One of the LED walls was 35 feet high and 110 feet long, while another was 25 feet high and 30 feet long, which curved around the second story window. “The whole idea of it was to allow the filmmakers, like Martin and George, to frame shots including reflections and exterior elements even though they were on an interior set. Because the windows were such a huge portion of the frame, it was a great opportunity to use that emerging tech as a way of improving the storytelling and enabling them. It was fully tracking the camera and would parallax correctly to infinity.”

 

A prominent facial feature is the bushy beard of Clooney coated with snow. “That is all George,” laughs Kasmir. “Even his eyebrows. It was hard jumping between the live-action Arctic footage, where we were freezing, and the stage. One day the windchill factor was minus 40. Ice forms quite naturally on the beard, so comparing that ice on his beard to a waxy hair and makeup trick onstage was one of the giveaways. We had to fix a few of those. Often the only way for us to tell where we captured the shot was by looking at George’s beard!”

“We had a good split [among the vendors],” remarks Lawrence. “Framestore London did the spacewalk, which was single biggest effects sequence. Framestore Montreal did the Arctic environment and a few additional space shots including Sick Earth from space.” ILM did the sinking pod sequence, which was the second biggest action sequence. “George being gung-ho when we went to Shepperton, he could do his own underwater stunts,” states Kasmir. “George was a practical element, and the ice and sinking pod were digital which ILM did a good job of. One Of Us tended to do all of the more outlandish creative briefs. There was a hologram room which wasn’t a traditional hologram room. It was like a treasured memory that was photographed from Earth that was projected so you could go and immerse yourself into it. Because they’re away from the Earth for five years and this was a way of centering them. Mitchell [Kyle Chandler], our flight engineer, has a simple breakfast scene with his family. Maya’s treasured memory is a brownstone step in New York with her best friends and sister. It wasn’t something you could interact with, but was meant to be a beautiful filmic moment.”

The virtual production stage utilized for constructing the Arctic environment.  

The LED walls utilized plate photography captured by Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Kasmir. 

As for whether the little girl that accompanies Clooney onscreen is a real or not, Kasmir remarks, “Spoiler alert! She’s a figment of his imagination. I was discussing this with George. There’s a world where his character has been dead inside as well. It’s all up for grabs. It’s a cerebral film. That’s the great thing about this. We only ended up doing about 700 shots, and it’s quite an intelligent drama. It’s emotionally captivating.

 

“It’s the opposite of our usual visual effects spectrum that we work on,” says Kasmir, “which is a lot of things crashing around the place and aliens trying to eat everyone! Ultimately, it’s about the existence of humanity and what we do or don’t do that decides whether that continues in the long term,” observes Lawrence. “It’s quite a dark subject, but uplifting.”

Matt Kasmir, Visual Effects Supervisor

Chris Lawrence, Visual Effects Supervisor

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