The Martian, Ridley Scott's movie about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet, is pure science fiction. But “Ares: Our Greatest Adventure,” the viral teaser released by creative consultancy 3AM to promote it, strays far closer to science fact.
In what the The A.V. Club described as “one of the cooler cross-promotional moves in recent history,” the four-minute short enlists real-life astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to present a mock-documentary about the fictional mission to Mars.
The opening shot of the Martian landscape, created by VFX facility MPC, comes from the movie itself. But for the effects that form the heart of “Ares: Our Greatest Adventure” – the holograms and nebulae that appear around Tyson, and the shots of the Mars-bound spacecraft – director Ash Thorp turned to up-and-coming Polish VFX house Juice. It was a decision that was to take Juice and its team of effects artists on their own greatest adventure yet.
The Adventure Begins
That journey began in February this year, when 3AM creative director Chris Eyerman contacted Ash Thorp with what Thorp describes as a request to put together a “covert ops team of really high-level professionals to create spectacular visuals on a very small timeline and a conservative budget.”
A designer and art director known for his work on movies like Prometheus,
Ender's Game and
Total Recall, Thorp was a natural choice to oversee the futuristic UI elements in “Our Greatest Adventure.” To bring his ideas to life,
Thorp turned to his old friend and collaborator, Juice art director Michał Misiński.
“I like to work with very smart, intellectual people who think on their own,” says Thorp. “I knew Juice was hungry and wanting to prove itself – and this was the perfect proving ground.”
From the Winter Olympics to Outer Space
Already well known as a print and interactive design agency, Juice had achieved widespread recognition as a visual effects facility through its work on the title sequence for the BBC's coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics. But “Ares: Our Greatest Adventure” was a step up in scale. At the time work began, Juice's Warsaw studio consisted of just 12 workstations: fine for idents or cinematics work, but far from ideal for the movie-quality assets required by the project.
A case in point was the model of the Hermes spacecraft, created by leading UK VFX house Framestore for use in The Martian itself, and running to around 700GB of data. “It was a pretty heavy asset, especially for a company like Juice that hadn't done heavy visual effects shows before,” says veteran effects artist Jakub Knapik, who was brought in to act as VFX supervisor for the project.
It took Juice over three weeks to convert the base asset to a form it could use internally. “We approached the problem classically,” says Knapik. “I cleaned up all the elements, and analyzed which could be reduced in density. We also downscaled some of the textures that wouldn't be visible in our shots from 4K to 2K, but we never got down to very low resolution, so we still had the detail to do close-ups.”
By the time Juice had finished, the Hermes model had been reduced to around 70GB – a tenfold reduction, but still not small enough to import whole into 3D software without causing a crash. To work around the problem, the team divided the geometry into chunks and exported each one in the Arnold renderer's native file format. “I've used Arnold for many years, and I knew it was capable of holding up against really heavy assets like this one,” says Knapik.
Even so, the shots – many of which were rendered at 4K resolution to preserve the small details on the Hermes, before being scaled down to 2.5K for delivery – still exceeded the capabilities of Juice's do-it-yourself in-house farm, forcing the studio to rent a further 50 machines from a cloud rendering service.
Fortunately, the look development of the shots proved more straightforward. Since Framestore was still working on the effects for The Martian, Juice had no final-quality references from which to work, but still found that its choices of lighting and shading closely matched those of its larger collaborator.
“When we got the final comps from Framestore, we had to add some small lights on top of the asset like they have in the movie, and to change the color temperature of the solar panels, but that was it: we were really close on our first try,” says Knapik.
An Artist-Driven Software Pipeline
Another key visual effects challenge was to create the nebulae that appear behind Neil deGrasse Tyson in the early sections of “Ares: Our Greatest Adventure,” and which are also projected onto holograms of the fictional Mars mission's crew members.
Most of the work was done in Softimage, using its ICE effects toolset. “We started with some really cool setups, but they were heavy on render time,” says Knapik. “We knew we wouldn't be able to avoid rendering full volumetrics with raytraced shadows, so we rendered out single frames at high resolution, then projected those textures onto cards in 3ds Max to render out the final shots.”
The crew members and their space suits were sculpted in ZBrush, while other UI elements, such as the holographic model of the solar system that appears in front of Tyson, were created in Cinema 4D and pre-comp’d in After Effects, before bringing into Nuke for final 3D compositing.
“It sounds a crazy mix, and from a supervision point of view, it is pretty crazy, but that's how Juice works,” says Knapik. “We have artists using many different tools – and Juice is built around artists.”
Onwards to Greater Adventures
On its release, “Ares: Our Greatest Adventure” became a viral hit, racking up over a million impressions on YouTube within a week, and gaining praise from critics and scientists alike.
“It was great hearing that Ridley Scott really liked it, and that Neil Tyson loved it,” says Ash Thorp. “I'm not a star-struck kind of person, but he's someone I really admire as a human being. My daughter and I were big fans of Cosmos [Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Tyson's science documentary series] before all of this happened, so it's also a special thing for me as a dad.”
Meanwhile, Juice is ramping up to tackle even larger VFX projects in future. “I'm a visual effects guy. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that Juice is really capable of it,” says Knapik.
“We enjoyed [“Ares: Our Greatest Adventure”] much more than we were predicting, and working with Ash was a blast,” adds Michał Misiński.
“Ares: Our Greatest Adventure” can be seen on the Ares: live YouTube channel (