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April 12
2021

ISSUE

Spring 2021

THE RIGHT STUFF: BALANCING MODERNIZATION AND PERIOD AUTHENTICITY TO ACHIEVE SERIES BLAST-OFF

By CHRIS McGOWAN

The Mercury Seven astronauts hold a press conference for their mission to achieve the first American manned spaceflights, portrayed in The Right Stuff series, with visual effects by Zoic Studios and DNEG. (Photo: Gene Page. Image courtesy of National Geographic, Disney+ and DNEG) 

Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Stetson, VES, had two major motivations for wanting to work on The Right Stuff, an original National Geographic series for Disney+. One was that at a young age he followed the exploits of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts, who are portrayed in the show. “With my friends, I looked to the evening skies to try to spot Sputnik or Echo 1 or other satellites flying overhead. My father was an engineer working on tracking radars used by NASA for the space program,” recalls Stetson. Then, in 1961, “Alan Shepard flew into space for the first time. The test pilots, astronauts and rocket engineers were all national heroes, the stuff of dreams.” 

In addition, Stetson worked for Special Visual Effects Supervisor Gary Gutierrez on Philip Kaufman’s theatrical version of The Right Stuff, which was released in 1983 and, like the series, was based on the 1979 Tom Wolfe book. The Philip Kaufman movie didn’t fare well at the box office but earned critical acclaim and eight Oscar nominations, winning four Academy Awards. Stetson had known about The Right Stuff series project for more than a year and been wishing he could work on it. “But I was always committed to something else and just one step away from being able to get involved. So, in June 2020, when Executive Producer/director Chris Long and Supervising Producer Joshua Levey invited me to join the team, I was super excited. It was a very happy surprise.” 

Zoic recreated this massive Mercury Atlas rocket for an unmanned test-flight. Both CG and matte paintings were used for the rocket, test-flight and rocket failure. (Images courtesy of National Geographic, Disney+ and Zoic Studios) 

“The Redstone rocket standing at Cape Canaveral as a museum piece, whose surface is now pocked with 60 years of weathering and paint layering, needed to be translated into CG as a clean, new, freshly-painted missile in 1961, revealing the simplicity of its geometry and construction. The visual effects teams strove to show that what are aeronautical antiques today were the technical state of the art back then. And that state of the art was simple, elegant, and utterly dangerous.” 

—Mark Stetson, VES, Visual Effects Supervisor 

Stetson joined the project as a Visual Effects Supervisor while the series was in post-production. Zoic Studios was the primary VFX house, with DNEG joining in May. Matthew Bramante was the Overall Visual Effects Supervisor for the entire season, while Dan Charbit was the Visual Effects Supervisor for DNEG, which “focused mostly on Alan Shepard’s first space flight, from launch to splashdown,” according to Stetson. 

One of the challenges for the series was that the collective memory of those events is “grounded so much in the historical footage,” according to Stetson. “The stylistic choice to give the series a fresh look with dynamic camera moves sometimes led to gut feelings that the shots didn’t look authentic. We found that the difference between giving the series a look achieved with modern cameras and production equipment, compared to the less dramatic historical reference footage, sometimes caused negative reactions to the VFX shots that were hard to explain and, once identified, hard to resolve. 

“I had to find the balance,” Stetson continues, “and sell the differences between physical reality, period authenticity and a modern photographic and editorial style aimed at a modern audience. We did everything we could to achieve technical excellence and convey the collective gestalt of the period and the events.” 

Test pilot Cal Cunningham (Tyler Jacob Moore) moves from bluescreen into the cockpit of a test plane and winds up with an F-104 composited behind him. (Images courtesy of National Geographic, Disney+ and Zoic Studios)

During production, Bramante visited many of the real locations and studied first-hand many historical artifacts of the period, amassing a library of reference photography and scans. “NASA was also very forthcoming with access to their archives,” Stetson observes. “But all this reference required interpretation. For example, the Redstone rocket standing at Cape Canaveral as a museum piece, whose surface is now pocked with 60 years of weathering and paint layering, needed to be translated into CG as a clean, new, freshly-painted missile in 1961, revealing the simplicity of its geometry and construction. The visual effects teams strove to show that what are aeronautical antiques today were the technical state of the art back then. And that state of the art was simple, elegant and utterly dangerous.” 

One challenge for the filmmakers had to do with the size of the Mercury Redstone rockets used for the Mercury Seven’s suborbital flights. “To an audience brought up with huge historical rocket launches like the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle of later years, the exhaust plume of a Redstone rocket was pretty puny,” says Stetson. “We had to make sure we captured every bit of dynamic detail we found in the film footage of the real event. We wanted to raise the drama, but not at the expense of realism and historical accuracy.” He adds, “In showing the simplicity of the rockets, and the relatively diminutive scale of the early missiles in particular, the teams were careful to interpret historical footage and the existing artifacts.” 

Regarding other rocket details, he notes, “Perhaps the trickiest thing to get right was the cold frost on the sides of the rocket fuselages filled with super-cooled liquid oxygen, and the clouds of mist flashing off of them as they stood on the launch pads. The historical footage showed many different looks, depending mostly on lighting, ambient temperature and humidity. So finding the look that was right for the series required a lot of exploration.

It took a number of tries to arrive at a sim that convincingly portrayed the large scale of the steaming rockets in the detail of the turbulence and wind speed. Beyond getting the dynamic simulations right, the most unexpected challenge came from the difference between modern camera moves chosen for the series and the more static footage from the more cautiously-placed cameras capturing the real events 60 years ago.”

All the rocket exhaust and ground interactions were achieved in CG, primarily as sims, according to Stetson. For the Episode 103 Atlas Rocket test flight and explosion, “both CG and matte paintings were used to create the rocket, gantry, launch pad and background. Close attention was paid to tracking camera footage of rocket explosions of the period and those looks were incorporated into the shots. Notably, the CG rocket flying prior to the explosion is almost identical to historical footage of the event – if the archival footage had been cleaned up and up-res’d to 4K, they would probably look the same,” says Stetson.

“In Episode 108, the environment surrounding the launch pad, the retracting gantry, the rocket and capsule and of course the launch effects were all VFX. All the views of Earth from space were painstakingly re-created as matte paintings, as the angles were too specific to permit use of NASA photography. Even in tight close-ups, the Mercury Freedom 7 capsule exterior was CG. The surface of the South Atlantic and all the splashdown elements were all CG,” Stetson explains. For that episode, he comments, “I found working with Dan Charbit and his team at DNEG, plus NASA spaceflight consultant Robert Yowell and all the filmmakers, to be so inspiring and uplifting. It was very satisfying to be able to help map out the shots of the flight from personal memory, shared research and collaboration with the teams. The search for accuracy in the storytelling and the depiction of events in the shots, combined with awesome craft in the element creation, lighting and compositing of the shots made for a breathtakingly beautiful finish to the season.”

Visual effects also were crucial for the period look throughout the series. Stetson notes, “A big part of the look of the series is the color palette used for the Florida locations, with those amazing pastels and the costumes and hair design. In terms of maintaining an authentic period look for the series, VFX helped with the usual paintouts to remove modern people, cars, signage, buildings, road markings, etc. And then in the larger matte-painted views around the launch pad, period reference was closely followed. Beyond the period look of the series, we worked in VFX to convey the themes of the period as well. There was an emphasis on capturing the freshness and technological hubris of the period, contrasting with the skin-of-their-teeth escapes from disaster along the way.” 

A number of places outside of Florida in the series were CG. For example, the production never filmed at Edwards Air Force Base or any locations in California – in Episode 101, the Mojave Desert background environment and all the aircraft for the F-104 sequence were entirely created in VFX, according to Stetson. So was the shot in that episode of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge in the montage of people gathered across the country to watch the launch. In addition, he explains, “The winter scenes of Christmas in Virginia were shot in Florida and transformed with VFX.” 

With so much historical footage and the 1983 feature film for reference, “the treasure trove of material sometimes led to conflicting ideas of how the aerial sequences should look,” comments Stetson. “These had to be resolved to give the series a consistent look as established by the production design and cinematography.” As part of that process, Stetson had long discussions with aerial consultants Carl Pascarell and Budd Davisson “about atmosphere, the historical environments, weather, preferred shooting conditions as they pertained to CG lighting, and flight dynamics of the aircraft. My biggest challenge was to get all these valid viewpoints to work together to support the filmmakers’ vision and the style of the production design and cinematography,” he says.

The Mercury Redstone rocket that would carry the first American into sub-orbital space is integrated into the CGI launch pad structure, which is then brought to full CGI life with detailing and lighting. (Images courtesy of National Geographic, Disney+ and Zoic Studios)

“The passion of all the filmmakers for the material and the story was wonderful to embrace. The VFX teams were committed to making all the shots as perfect as they could,” comments Stetson. “The war stories of the aerial consultants were awe-inspiring. And just being able to spend serious time reviewing all the reference footage, stills and histories from the period was so enjoyable. That the filmmakers sought to rekindle the heroism and hope of the time for a new, generational audience makes me very happy. Revisiting The Right Stuff was a dream fulfilled.”


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