By KEVIN H. MARTIN
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By KEVIN H. MARTIN
On its planet-hopping voyage ‘up-river’ to the ends of our own star system, filmmaker James Gray’s Ad Astra, the Fox, New Regency and Plan B release from Disney, follows Army Corps of Engineers’ Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) on a voyage into the infinite darkness chasing down his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), last seen in the vicinity of Neptune.
To realize his vision, Gray drew on the efforts of several visual effects vendors, including MPC, Weta Digital, Methods Studios, MR. X, Vitality VFX, Brainstorm Digital, Atomic Fiction, capital T, Territory Studio and Shade VFX, with Halon providing previs and postvis.
MR. X was tasked with the film’s big open taking place in low Earth orbit. “We handled those shots seen in the trailer with that big antenna 80,000 feet up,” MR. X VFX Supervisor Olaf Wendt explains. “McBride is working on it when a mysterious surge damages the structure, knocking him off. Production’s art department generated quite a bit of concept illustrations for the antenna, a small section of which was created as a full-size set piece that Brad could be seen climbing.
“We spent awhile conceptualizing the core components, using the International Space Station as one of our touchstones, which is reflected in the materials selected,” continues Wendt. “While the antenna is supposed to be a fairly new structure, things weather from sunlight up there differently than on Earth, with ablation patterns differing due to particle winds from the sun impacting structures. Delving into that aspect while getting close to something that could be built with future tech were principal focuses for us.”
Gray’s dedication to a gritty realism aims, in some ways, to go beyond the 2001: A Space Odyssey benchmark and groundbreaking sci-fi/space films since. “His vision required a different feel,” allows Wendt. “He was very clear about having this not look like just the next space picture. Keeping it grounded meant being brave and photochemical in look. There’s a very earthy feel to his work, even before Lost City of Z. If you watch The Yards, it is just steeped in an analog feel. Another element to juggle here is the heightened aspect of a cinematic image, which can be a big factor.”
After being dispatched on his mission, McBride’s first stop is the moon, where he comes under attack from pirates while en route to his next launch vehicle. Method Studios handled the VFX for this sequence, which featured principal photography shot on location at Dumont Dunes in the Mojave Desert. “Fortunately for me, this grueling shoot was supervised by another Method Visual Effects Supervisor, Aidan Fraser,” says Compositing Supervisor Jedediah Smith [Method’s Ryan Tudhope also supervised part of the shoot before leaving for another project.] “I heard many stories of buckets of ice being used to keep actors and cameras cooled down in the desert heat! Director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema had an interesting idea to make the photography of the desert look more like the moonscape. He used a stereo rig when shooting many of the wide shots, employing an Arri 435 film camera along with a modified Arri Alexa recording in infrared. When those were married together we got a very striking and stark look that strongly evoked the photography we all know from the NASA Apollo missions.”
Ad Astra isn’t the first film to utilize infrared shooting to aid in realizing an otherworldly countenance. That honor goes to 1980’s Galaxina, shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey, which filmed location exteriors on Kodak’s since-discontinued Ekachrome infrared stock. Providing enhanced contrast and delivering bold highlights, Van Hoytema’s digital infrared approach delivered a controllable vision of the extreme conditions on our airless satellite. “Some shots only utilized the infrared camera,” continues Smith. “For those, we had to colorize the footage so it would all cut together, rotoscoping every different material on the rovers, from the metal foil to their red hubcaps.”
The lunar sequence prep commenced with a study of NASA’s Apollo archive photos on Flickr. “We spent a long time trying to analyze what makes the moon look so strange and alien,” Smith recalls. “The texture and complexity of the surface is something we studied closely. No air means no wind, which means no erosion. Features on the surface are formed by eons of meteor impacts. To mimic this look we created a base model with the main features of our terrain, then developed a procedural lookdev system to create craters of varying sizes [in] high-resolution detail and a random scattering of rocks. We used Substance Designer and Houdini to drive displacement in our Katana/Renderman lookdev, lighting and rendering pipeline. Part way through the show, the client added a few wider aerial shots to help make the action clearer. Those full CG shots were a great opportunity to show off our moon surface environment. We animated rovers, astronauts, and also simulated dust trails and tire tracks, to help tell the story of the pursuit.”
“[Director James Gray] was very clear about having this not look like just the next space picture. Keeping it grounded meant being brave and photochemical in look. There’s a very earthy feel to his work, even before Lost City of Z. If you watch The Yards, it is just steeped in an analog feel. Another element to juggle here is the heightened aspect of a cinematic image, which can be a big factor.”
—Olaf Wendt, Visual Effects Supervisor, MR. X
“The [pirate] rover goes into a spin before plunging into a giant crater. We got to be really creative with the layout here, placing the rover so the crater wall was behind it in the background, which let us play the drop moment visually as it falls inside, while seeing the pirates stop along the lip of the crater.”
—Jedediah Smith, Visual Effects Producer
“[The pirate rover hit by gunfire] was a full CG shot involving rigid-body simulation for the vehicle, plus simulations for all the dust and debris kicked up on the surface and the simulated engine explosion. Later in the sequence, missiles are called in to put an end to the remaining pirate rovers. We created a full CG shot showing two missiles flying overhead, leading to a massive explosion.”
—Jedediah Smith, Visual Effects Producer
During the chase, a support rover becomes disabled from gunfire, while another explodes after taking a hit to its engine. “That was a full CG shot involving rigid-body simulation for the vehicle, plus simulations for all the dust and debris kicked up on the surface and the simulated engine explosion,” Smith reveals. “Later in the sequence, missiles are called in to put an end to the remaining pirate rovers. We created a full CG shot showing two missiles flying overhead, leading to a massive explosion. One of our FX artists had found reference footage simulating a meteor impact in a vacuum. The parabolic shape and behavior of debris were very strange compared to what we’re used to seeing on Earth. We showed it to our client, Visual Effects Producer Allen Maris, and he loved it, so we had a really good target to work towards.”
McBride’s rover takes a hit from the pirates, sending it spinning out of control. “The lower lunar gravity would make traction more difficult,” explains Smith, “so the rover goes into a spin before plunging into a giant crater. We got to be really creative with the layout here, placing the rover so the crater wall was behind it in the background, which let us play the drop moment visually as it falls inside, while seeing the pirates stop along the lip of the crater.”
The trek out of the crater reveals the terminator line separating day and night on the moon. “Once they are in shadow, we play things realistically dark, only seeing the console lights, the play of headlights on the ground and the starfield overhead,” says Smith. “Then they reach the second spaceport that houses the Cephius, the ship that will take them on the next leg of their journey. We took the plate shot on location at a military base and added a large spaceport with solar panels and supporting structures.”
The other huge challenge in the sequence involved the visors of the spacesuited combatants. “These helmets were very much in the style of NASA’s Apollo program, with visors like mirror balls that reflect everything,” states Smith. “While they were shooting closer views on stage, tinted visors were used that would color the reflections while making the faces within look more gold and green. But when they realized this impacted being able to see the talent clearly, a switch was made to clear visors, so those shots required us to treat everything to get that gold-mirror look.”
That proved to be a multi-step process. “First, we had to treat what was seen inside the visor,” Smith remarks, “making the faces darker and greener, and then add reflections for the lunar terrain environment. In some instances, that meant animating other characters who were in proximity. This required a massive rotoscoping effort to separate all the layers, then combine everything in a photorealistic way. All of the stage shots were shot on black with a single distant key light to try to mimic the lighting conditions on the moon. While it did help with realism in the end, it was a huge amount of effort in roto and compositing to get the edges looking nice over the bright background moon surface that we added to these shots.”
After leaving the moon, Pitt’s ship encounters the Vesta, an abandoned vessel. “They suit up and spacewalk over to it, which production shot on stage against black, so again there was a huge amount of rotoscope,” reports Smith. “The client was very interested in realism, and the plates they shot reflected that, with a really harsh strong single key light. We ended up cheating a bit, adding some fill to keep it from being totally black. The comping challenge was addressing the edge treatment with finesse, plus incorporating our CG Vesta – which was blended with production’s practical hatch element – as a reflection on the visors.”
The ending sequence again involved MR. X, working in collaboration with MPC. “Our toolset has undergone some refinement in how we handle the sharing of elements, which is what happened here with MPC,” notes Wendt. “Asset sharing between VFX companies has become the norm. While there are efforts to come up with standardized scene description and shader languages, it’s still quite a bit of work to move assets from one company to another and have them look the same. Color is much less of an issue these days, as we have very mature tools in that area.”
A number of shots feature a nuclear blast taking place in space. “We saw some shaky 16mm footage of nuclear tests done high up in the atmosphere from decades back,” Wendt recalls. “This took place well above the cruising altitude of jets, and had a very distinct and unique look that we kept in mind while generating a rather elaborate gas-dynamic simulations to get a sense of naturalism. James was after a very stark effect, so it felt a little weird at first, as he felt we had gone a little too sci-fi for him. The toughest development on that process was in the way the layers were applied.”
MR. X simulated the blast with individual layers rendered separately. “We began with those conventional gas dynamics, then broke the blast up with other elements, trying to get specific desired filaments,” Wendt elaborates. “With each phase separated, we found success when recombining them in an unconventional way, evolving the final as a kind of frozen look we introduced into the gas sim, which worked for us and also doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before. We made an effort to duplicate and retain the fluctuations from that real blast, because they gave us interesting churning patterns, but that involved figuring out how to keep them going long enough to register, plus treating them in a style appropriate to the picture, which called for a certain elegance. While we’re trying to keep things realistic, we are also matching to something art-directed and lit to create a heightened emotional experience. The black hole in Interstellar is a great example of something [with] a very solid scientific basis, but is also quite beautiful and appropriate to that particular story.”
Wendt considers Ad Astra to be “an ideal project for us, as it allows us to focus our efforts, as opposed a show with several thousand shots. I think the division of labor on this project allowed the houses to develop and refine looks that serviced the filmmaker’s needs very specifically and, I hope, successfully.”