A ballet of blood and 3D printing: Behind the visual effects of The Midnight Sky

The debut of The Midnight Sky on Netflix might be one of the quietest premieres of George Clooney’s career, with the sci-fi drama arriving on the streaming service shortly after a pandemic-limited theatrical release. Despite that lack of buzz, the gripping, atmospheric film was named one of the year’s best movies by the National Board of Review and is a contender for an Academy Award nomination for its breathtaking visual effects.

The Midnight Sky is directed by Clooney and has the actor portray a terminally ill scientist who must embark on a dangerous journey through the Arctic Circle in order to let a returning spacecraft know the Earth is no longer habitable due to a recent global catastrophe. Felicity Jones portrays a crew member on the Aether, a massive, deep-space exploratory vessel returning from a journey to K-23, a fictional moon of Jupiter capable of supporting human life.

Digital Trends spoke to Graham Page and Shawn Hillier, the VFX supervisors from Oscar-winning studio Framestore who were tasked with bringing the movie’s unique vision for both long-term space travel and an environmental apocalypse to the screen. From the Aether’s forward-thinking use of existing tech to the intense meteorological nightmare Clooney’s character endures, The Midnight Sky taps into a wide spectrum of visual effects artistry to tell its story.

Digital Trends: There are so many amazing visual effects elements in the film. Which elements did you and your teams primarily focus on?

Shawn Hillier: It was like two films in one. There was the space and the Earth. We decided to divide it up, with one team doing all the stuff on Earth — or as we called it, “Sick Earth.” So in Montreal, we took care of the stuff on Sick Earth — the CG for the buildings, snow environments, and the look of the Earth itself, both on the surface and from space.

Graham Page: In London, we handled the majority of the shots out in space.

Let’s talk about the Aether first. It has such a unique look, from the interior, clothlike hull to the exterior arms and 3D printing machines, to the way it rotates and moves through space. What was development like on that element of the film?

Hillier: With Aether, it was a bit of joint effort. The ship is just so big. They wanted the ship designed and built by the time cameras were rolling, because they wanted to film as much in-camera as possible. It’s on the screens in so many scenes, so all this TV footage had to be prepared prior to them shooting.

Page: Framestore’s art department was led by Jonathan Opgenhaffen, who worked directly with Jim Bissell, the production designer. [Opgenhaffen] started off with pieces of the real International Space Station and sort of kitbashed those into the design with Jim. The idea behind the design was that Aether had to be created quickly and be somewhat sustainable. Time was of the essence to make this spaceship and this trip. They have to go out in space for a long time, and going through meteorite storms and everything else, so it needed a shield structure that could fix itself. That’s where the 3D printing came in: So much needed to be done in space.

The 3D printing-friendly design on the outside was then mirrored on the inside, so the structural elements holding the big baton arms outside the Aether can also be seen inside the pods and living quarters. There are also some parts, like the airlock, that have a more traditional design aesthetic to them. [Opgenhaffen] did a massive amount of design work, and then delivered to us a sort of conceptual model, which was used for previs [digitally mapping out scenes prior to filming] and the screen images Shawn mentioned.

How much of the Aether’s design is grounded in existing technology?

Page: We went back and studied a lot of references from the ISS, space travel technology, 3D printing on Mars, and 3D printing using these big robots. The majority, if not all of the materials, are grounded in some kind of reality. Framestore has a history of working on this type of thing with The Martian and Gravity, so there’s a knowledge base at the company when it comes to spacecrafts’ solar panels and the Kevlar cloth all around the ship — what it looks like and how it reflects light — and so many other elements.

Hillier: What was really interesting for me was looking at all the 3D printing reference out there. I didn’t realize the scale of things that are already getting 3D printed.

Page: [In the film], there’s a satellite dish they take out of something like a briefcase. That unfolding satellite dish is based on real technology developed to make radar smaller and more compact. So many things were based on references they picked out and wanted to include instead of just making something up.

Tell us about the look of Sick Earth, because we never learn exactly what happened, but seeing the world through the eyes of Clooney’s character and seeing those meteorological maps from space is enough to make it clear something has gone very, very wrong.

Hillier: Again, that was Jonathan [Opgenhaffen] in our art department who initially came up with the concepts for the look of Sick Earth from space. When we talked about it, we’d wonder, “What kind of phenomena we relate it to?” They didn’t want the audience to know what was causing this catastrophe to happen, whether it was chemical warfare or something else. Generally, when we look at the Earth from space, we don’t really see much movement, but they wanted to amplify that, so we pushed that movement a bit. There was a great foundation for that look, and we just started taking a layered approach where we started with the base on Earth as an environment, then doing effects over the top of that with some plumes coming up from the Earth and such.

VFX artists on space-based projects often mention that spacesuit helmets can be problematic due to reflections and such, and require a lot of VFX work people might not realize. Was that the case in this film?

Page: Yeah, they shot without helmets to avoid reflections of the cameraman or big lights, so we had to replicate the reflections of the world around them [when we added the helmets]. And it does bring up problems you don’t necessarily think about beforehand. One thing we added into a lot of shots is what happens behind the camera. You wouldn’t normally need to animate what happens behind the camera, but [with the helmets], you need to show the baton moving or parts of the ship that would be outside the camera’s view. That added an extra level of detail, and with everything like that, you also have to consider the level of reflection so you didn’t have a reflection covering people’s eyes or such.

There’s a creativity involved in in designing a reflection so it doesn’t mask the performances of the actors. So much of the film’s story is about the actors’ performances and their eyes. There were a handful of times when they shot with helmets on, and that was a great reference for how they should look and how the glass reacts to light.

The scene inside the ship’s airlock that involves a lot of blood in zero gravity is both beautiful and really disturbing. What was that scene’s evolution like? 

Page: George [Clooney] referred to that scene as the “ballet of blood.” One thing I’m really proud of is that whole sequence was actually shot really tight, with close-up cameras on the actors, but they later wanted to change the camerawork on it. They decided they wanted it to be a sort of floating, rolling camera through the scene, so that meant we had to extend the characters and extend the backgrounds and basically rebuild almost all of those shots. So in most of the shots, it’s all CG people except for the faces, but in some of the shots, it’s even the faces, too. For around two minutes, you’re watching an almost fully CG environment with fully CG suits.

There was fantastic reference for the shot from what they did in-camera, but there was also lot of really fine, detailed cloth work that had to be done with visual effects to match the reality, among other things. We put hairs on the costume, worked on the creases in the costume, did work on the helmets — all of these things to try and make it look as real as possible and hold up when you look at it closely. … You wouldn’t watch the scene and think you’re watching a fully CG scene.

That’s a great segue into my next question for you. Is there a particular element of the film most people wouldn’t realize you had worked on despite the challenge it presented?

Hillier: We spent some time developing a photorealistic wolf, and when we put a real wolf and CG version side by side, people had a hard time figuring out which was which. Later, for the scene with George and the wolf, he ended up wanting more atmosphere, so we added some effects snow blowing around. Earlier, they shot some scenes on location along with what was shot on the stage, and the ones on location had more snow, so we started adding more effects snow into the shots from the stage. [Clooney] really liked the wolves being almost covered, so we ended up playing it a bit more subtle with them. The intensity of that scene with the wolves still played really well, though, even though it was played more subtle.

Page: We did quite a few face replacements. There’s a handful of shots where Felicity [Jones] was pregnant and she couldn’t travel, so they shot with a double in some shots. One of the last shots in the film has Felicity looking out over the landscape of K-23, and we did all this work replacing the double’s face with Felicity’s face. Some of that work was heavily involved, but hopefully the work’s pretty invisible. We hope you don’t see it.

Hillier: There’s also a shot where George is walking out of the Barbeau Observatory and they wanted to change the camera on it. We already built a CG version of the building, so we just cut George out of the original shot and put him into the CG asset from a new angle. So when you look at that shot, he’s actually the only real thing in that shot. Everything else is CG — the building, the snow, everything blowing around. It cuts between that shot and stuff they filmed on location, and it works really well. Those little moments where we had to match perfectly into the surrounding live action footage worked really well. The team was fantastic.

Like a lot of projects, The Midnight Sky was affected by the pandemic in some big ways behind the scenes. How did it affect your work? Did the experience teach you anything new about the work you do?

Page: The majority of the film and the work by the artists was created through this new, unknown methodology, and it’s quite incredible — as an industry — that everyone is doing this right now and it’s just kept going. Just a few weeks before this started, I was working on set. We had a few remote workstations, and they failed all the time. So the idea of having a thousand artists working remotely that way was terrifying. But necessity breeds invention. People realized there were tools available to allow everyone to see what people are working on and share screens and discuss things. And that really made it possible to keep the industry going in this totally new methodology.

Hillier: Yeah, we just got started [on The Midnight Sky] when the pandemic hit. We were all nervous about what was going to happen and if this film was going to be impacted or not, but I was really impressed with our whole team — all the artists, the production team, and the support team — who got us up and running. We thought we would be operating at 50- to 70-percent capacity of what we’d be at in the office, but it actually felt like we were at 100-percent capacity. Everybody was giving it their all and doing fantastic work, so I’m very proud of the team and what they’ve accomplished here — especially when you consider how so many of the visual effects were created at home.

Directed by George Clooney, The Midnight Sky is available now on Netflix.

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