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How The Martian’s filmmakers turned a Jordanian desert into The Red Planet

Every year, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. This year, each and every nominee offers its own unique inside look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams must use to pull off the visual spectacles that make for a big-screen blockbuster. In recognition of these five films — and one of our favorite Oscar categories — we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast, and taking a closer look at what made them stand out.

Previously, we looked at the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, with its artificially intelligent robot that challenged our understanding of what it means to human, as well as the post-apocalyptic wasteland created by filmmaker George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road. Now we look at Ridley Scott’s outer-space survival drama, The Martian, and what it took to send Matt Damon’s resourceful astronaut to Mars without leaving Earth.

In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) travels from Earth to Mars, only to find himself stranded on the Red Planet for more than 500 days before being rescued in a daring maneuver that sends him hurtling through the atmosphere in a rocket without a roof. Despite all of the action that takes place in deep space, however, it’s what occurs on the ground as Watney learns how to live on the alien planet that’s at the heart of The Martian.

While the film goes into great detail to depict the lengths Watney goes to in his quest to survive on Mars, things were similarly complicated on the other side of the camera for The Martian. Along with replicating the experience of walking on the surface of the planet, Scott and the film’s visual-effects team also had to find ways for the audience to experience the Red Planet through Watney’s eyes.

The team responsible for the Oscar-nominated visual effects in The Martian was led by overall visual-effects supervisor Richard Stammers, with assistance from VFX supervisor Matt Sloan. The workload was shared by a long list of VFX production houses including MPC, Framestore, and The Senate, with filming at the Korda Studios soundstage in Budapest and the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan.

Before the production process could shift into high gear, however, the team had to reach an agreement on one very important question: What color is Mars really?

“There’s still a lot of debate about this,” explained Stammers in a 2015 interview with FX Guide. “The images that NASA has produced have more of a neutral color balance on them — that is, they’re in Earth color tones. And there’s also been different cameras used to take Mars photos with different lenses and treatments, so you don’t really know for sure. … So we took all the images we liked, color balanced them all to be in the same ballpark as each other, and put that in the same color tone or white balance as the scout images of Wadi Rum.”

Maintaining consistency when shifting between a sound stage and on-location shooting can be tricky, and after monitoring the desert location chosen for the shoot in Jordan, it was decided that early morning (around 8:30am) in Wadi Rum provided the best combination of sun position, shadows, and sky conditions to serve as a reference point for the film’s version of Mars. Using that environment as the jumping-off point, the team was able to generate previews of the lighting and other conditions on the planet’s surface from Watney’s location at any time of day.

Taking the simulation another step, MPC combined the aforementioned model with elements of the extended set and the VFX-produced geography in an augmented-reality viewer that allowed Scott and the team to use tablet computers and other devices to stay aware of what Damon’s character was seeing when he looked around Mars.

“We could use the accelerometers in the devices to look around at any point on the set,” recalled Stammers. “I could go up to Ridley with an iPad and say, beyond the greenscreen this is where this mountain is, and if you panned over there you’d see that. We could pan to the exact positions and it had a really good realtime preview of what everyone expected to see.”

“I could go up to Ridley with an iPad and say, beyond the greenscreen this is where this mountain is, and if you panned over there you’d see that.”

Blending the desert location and soundstage set using color matching, AR devices, and and various other techniques were just a few of the ways the team attempted to create a seamless transition between Watney’s immediate surroundings and the stunning vistas of Mars that managed to feel both real and familiar and altogether alien at the same time. Another recurring problem had to do with the color spectrum visible in just about all of the photography on Earth and in the initial simulations.

Basically, the team found that there was just too much blue in everything.

“It seemed like a fairly simple thing just to get rid of the blue [in all of the footage], but it kills all of the other colors,” explained MPC’s Tim Ledbury, whose team ended up developing a new photo-conversion tool specifically for the film, dubbed “Earth To Mars.” The ETM tool effectively removed the blue from the footage without ruining the overall hue of the photography.

“All of the conventional tools like hue correct, keying, or blue spill didn’t give us enough control and didn’t perform well around the edges, and were not easy to implement on a large amount of shots without a lot of additional rotoscoping or tweaking,” said Ledbury of the situation that led to the development of the new conversion tool. “ETM was a way of picking out the depth hazing and the blue and bounce light and being able to control that.”

Along with all of the adjustments necessary to turn the Earth-based set of the film into a Martian landscape, the team also had to come up with some creative solutions to a unique problem posed by the film’s premise.

Throughout much of the film, Watney and many of the other characters are seen wearing protective suits with large visors capable of catching the reflection of their surroundings. In order to avoid having the audience see the film’s crew, equipment, or other elements that aren’t intended to be seen, the VFX team had to devise a way to avoid reflections while maintaining the authenticity of the visors and retaining the reflections that should appear in the visors.

“The visors were inherently reflecting our greenscreens and individual lights, bounce curtains and black silks,” recalled Stammers. “It was basically a mirror to the whole crew and stage. We had very few shots where we actually kept the visor in. Even in Jordan we took the visor out because we were seeing reflections of the crew.”

After removing the visors from most shots, MPC went back and rendered the visor effects digitally — a task that required them to simulate the reflections of the computer-generated environment around the characters as well as the actions of the actors, as visors would typically reflect their actions or those of the people around them in many cases.

“The crew are doing experiments and banging things with hammers and twisting in drills, say, and each of the visor replacements had to have a reflection of what they were doing because they were looking down,” said Stammers.

All of this was no easy task, given the need to craft realistic reflections based on a mix of computer-generated environments, motion-tracked movements by actors, and the subtle facial expressions of the actors inside the suits who are only seen through the aforementioned visor.

“When you first stick the reflections on as they should be, it does cover a lot of the faces up, so we had to do a lot of pulling back the reflection or deciding where the reflections would come — mainly avoiding the eyes,” added Stammers.

And it’s the eyes of the audience that benefit from the end result of all this visual-effects magic, with Scott’s film transporting viewers to the deserts of Mars right along with Watney and offering a glimpse of the horizon on a far-off planet.

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony will air Sunday, February 28, at 7pm ET on ABC.

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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