It’s been a transformative year for the art of visual effects, demonstrated not only by the increasingly ordinary and realistic depiction of advanced technology or destructive superpowers, but also the elaborate recreation of mundane details like office curtains, or space station floor tiles. Two-time Oscar nominee Richard Stammers was tasked with both the mundane and fantastic as visual effects supervisor on Fox’s The Martian. Kevin Baillie faced entirely different difficulties for Sony’s The Walk, using an enormous number of effects to recreate normal life in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Industrial Light and Magic’s Russell Earl, a three-time Oscar nominee, had the opposite job of delivering highly visible effects for two critical scenes as VFX supervisor on Marvel’s Ant-Man.
Adapting Andy Weir’s novel The Martian came with challenges beyond hitting narrative beats. The story of stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damons), struggling to survive the harsh Mars environment for three years while awaiting rescue, is notable for its rigorous scientific accuracy. That’s something the film’s VFX team strived to live up to, consulting with NASA scientists and other experts in creating plausible depictions of Mars and of the future of space travel. “Getting there involved a number of challenges,” says Stammers. “Mars… is so much more subjective.” While there are thousands of photographs taken of different parts of the planet, they were all shot with different cameras over decades, and the film was given widely different treatments when developed. The result is that despite the documentation, a clear idea of what it’s like on the planet is difficult to nail down with precision.
“Even simple questions like, ‘What color is Mars’ sky?’ (were difficult),” says Stammers. “Mars has an atmosphere that is laden with dust and, depending on how you treat the photographs, that sky can be yellow, sometimes gray, sometimes almost blue.” Ultimately the decision came from director Ridley Scott to split the difference between strict accuracy and audience expectations and opt for more familiar red and gold colorations.
“That gave us a better starting point,” Stammers says, citing as a reference the Jordanian desert, where several weeks of establishing photography took place. “The color is very similar to some of the ground on the Mars photos. Once we could match the ground, it told us what we needed to match for the sky.”
Less technically challenging for The Martian VFX team was creating the Hermes space ship that rescues Watney. “The references we could call upon there are more tangible,” Stammers says. “We know what the International Space Station looks like, we’ve seen so many different pictures taken there. Creating a realistic or plausible view with scientific accuracy that is worthy of NASA approval is probably the most rewarding part.”
A Tiny Blockbuster
The effects team at Industrial Light and Magic came to Ant-Man well after filming was completed, called in to create the effects for two of the film’s most iconic scenes: the battle between Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and the trippy “Quantum Realm” scene, which was an exciting prospect for veteran Russell Earl. “For us, that was a big opportunity to try different things, to create something people haven’t seen before,” he says.
In the scene, Ant-Man becomes so small that he essentially falls between the cracks in the universe. “Ant-Man is shrinking but also traveling towards the camera,” Earl says. “If you were making size and perspective a part of it, he would be further away the smaller he got, and as he grew he would get larger.” Ordinarily, scale would be created by depth of field or using ordinary objects blown up to immense size. “Here you have these weird things where it doesn’t feel like he’s shrinking or moving. You completely lose that whole sense of perspective you would get. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, and once we got into laying out the shots it became apparent that it was a very tricky thing to sell.”
The battle with Falcon, in which Ant-Man grows and shrinks multiple times, required different techniques. Mostly, Earl’s team drew from the aesthetic of macrophotography—which captures tiny objects at larger-than-life-size—to create the scene’s look and feel. “Everyone’s familiar with shots of insects, or close-ups on flowers,” he says. “How you do that is you take a bunch of photos and rack through the focus on the camera because the macro lenses can only take so much detail at such small distance. Those pictures then get combined and you layer them together to get the sharp image.”
Kevin Baillie has spent much of his career making super-charged effects on such franchise films as Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, but for The Walk he and his team instead worked to make those effects as invisible as possible. The task not only was to recreate 1970s New York City, but also its most iconic buildings: the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The film is about the real-life story—also told in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire—of how Frenchman Philippe Petit walked a tightrope he illegally hoisted between the then-unfinished buildings in 1974. “Recreating the Towers was one of the most nerve-wracking things we had to do because of the cultural and emotional hold they have for people,” Baillie says.
Another overarching challenge was to achieve realism in The Walk without the effects becoming a distraction for the audience. Citing films from his childhood that used effects more sparingly than is the norm now, Baillie says his goal for The Walk, “was to let (the effects) live in the background… It’s all about the image on the screen supporting the story rather than being the story.” To accomplish this, he and his team “built 1974 New York from the ground up—every hot dog vendor and so on had this sort of hand-touch.”
The process even extended to the tiny details. Photos from the lifespan of the buildings were examined, along with original blueprints, yet the VFX team quickly discovered that if the blueprints were followed exactly, the resulting digital recreation looked obviously fake. “There is a certain amount of humanity in architecture,” Baillie says, adding that it’s due to everything from the time of day a component was made to the technique of a given construction worker. The production factored various imperfections, as well as such mundane details as the drapes and couches in the World Trade Center offices—visible, incidentally, only in the 3-D version of the film—to make the rendering of the buildings feel real.
“In order to make you feel something, you can’t draw attention to the fact that it’s fake,” Baillie insists. “It was a unique pleasure being in a place to not only create seamless visuals, but also have the film so completely transport people that they’re reacting and getting sweaty palms while watching.”
To see a scene from The Martian, click play below:
To see a short featurette from Ant-Man, click play below:
To see a short featurette from The Walk, click play below: