Making Mars: Framestore’s visual effects for The Martian

Following its Oscar-winning work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Framestore has created some stunning visual effects for The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s science fiction novel about a botanist stranded on Mars.

The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney, who is left alone on the planet after his fellow astronauts presume him dead during a storm. With limited supplies, he is forced to devise some inventive ways to contact earth and stay alive long enough to be rescued. It’s surprisingly light-hearted – particularly compared to recent space epics Interstellar and Gravity – and has already proved a hit with audiences, grossing $55 million in its opening weekend in the US and $45.2 million overseas.

Framestore created over 330 shots for the film, creating a beautifully vivid Mars and the gargantuan spacecraft used by Damon’s crew.

In creating Mars, Framestore says it aimed for a balance between scientific accuracy and cinematic beauty: the landscapes shown look more like the Grand Canyon than the dull, dusty and reddish-brown planet we are used to seeing in aerial photos, and there are some fantastic shots of Damon riding through the desolate landscape in his rover.

Framestore used the same technology to create the planet as it did to make the Earth in Gravity, combining a render of ‘extremely high resolution texture information’ with CG dust and atmospheric clouds. The lack of reference material posed some challenges – with little colour photography available, VFX supervisor Chris Lawrence says the team had to use a combination of satellite data and photography “in a fairly novel way” to create the desired effect.

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A view of Mars in The Martian, as shown in the official trailer (above)
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A view of Mars in The Martian, as shown in the official trailer (above)

“Our first attempts were very realistic , but lacked the interesting variation of colour and contrast found on earth. The move demanded something more vivid, so we spent some time on a creative journey to show the variation in features, surfaces and textures,” he adds.

The VFX team also created CG versions of three key landmarks on Mars: the Olympus Mons, a large volcano which measures around 16 miles high and 374 wide, the Schiaparelli Crater, which measures over 280 miles across and the Vallis Marineris, a 4000km long series of Canyons which runs along Mars’ equator. The geographic features aren’t integral to the story, but Weatherley says he wanted to create landmarks which the film’s audience might recognise.

CG footage is combined with live action scenes which were shot in the Wadi Rum in Jordan (which was also used to film Mission to Mars, Red Planet and The Last Days on Mars).

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Green screen shot of Kate Mara’s character Beth Johansson staring out to space from a window of the Hermes. Image: Framestore
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The final image, showing the Hermes’ solar array wings

As well as its work on the planet, Framestore created some spectacular visual effects for the film’s closing sequence (we won’t give anything away) and created the Hermes: a colossal 225-metre spacecraft used by Damon’s team, and the biggest and most complex spaceship Framestore has ever created.

The Hermes is twice the size of the current International Space Station (a size the company says was determined by early pre-vis and production design, as well as the space that would be needed to carry supplies for such a long mission), and its design is based on existing spacecraft. Like the ISS, it is a modular structure, ‘based on the knowledge that it would theoretically need to be launched in stages and pieced together in orbit’, says Framestore.

Creating the ‘solar array wings’ (a set of large solar panels attached to the Hermes) was particularly challenging, says CG supervisor Neil Weatherley, as they are made from several layers of metal, plastic and silicone which  reflect and refract light.

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The Hermes
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The Hermes, as shown in the official trailer for The Martian, shown above

“We had to take a realistic point of view – we’re not used to seeing solar panels in space, and they do look quite strange compared to our earth view. It was a real challenge to replicate something that looks inherently unnatural to us,” he explains.

It’s another fantastic piece of work from Framestore, which builds on the company’s groundbreaking effects for Gravity. Other visual references include 2001: Space Odyssey, while Scott was inspired by Chesley Bonestell’s sci-fi illustrations from the 1950s and 60s, says Framestore.

The Martian is out in cinemas now.

Credits

Director Ridley Scott
VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers
VFX Framestore
VFX Supervisor Chris Lawrence
CG Supervisor Neil Weatherley
2D Supervisor Bronwyn Edwards
Animation Supervisor Dale Newton

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