Place Settings
February 10, 2016

Place Settings

In the January/February 2016 issue of Computer Graphics World, we look at the demanding work by environmental and visual effects artists whose work on  In the Heart of the Sea  and  The Walk  had to transport audiences to a different era, a specific time and place in history, so the story line of the film could unfold in exhausting detail.

In the last quarter of 2015, three other films required similar attention to detail. Bridge of Spies required an accurate re-creation of a real-life period locale during the Cold War . The frigid landscape of Mount Everest during the ill-fated March 1996 trek had to be replicated. The Martian, meanwhile, provided a barren backdrop of desolation based on scientific data mixed with artistry.

The Martian


Imagine finding yourself accidentally left behind on a desolate planet Mars. That is the predicament Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself in when the crew is ordered to leave the Red Planet as a storm wreaks havoc during their expedition. Believing their colleague dead after being hit with debris, they follow those instructions. But Watney is alive and must struggle to survive.

A number of studios – among them, MPC (450 shots) and Framestore (380 shots) – contributed to the film’s 1,000-plus visual effects, which spanned Mars, Earth, and space. In particular, MPC handled the Mars surface work, and Framestore the space environments. The Senate VFX worked on earthbound shots (NASA, window views, and so forth). 

“The script has a lot of resemblance to the book [by author Andy Weir] — obviously a great deal of the story takes place on the surface of Mars,” says MPC’s Richard Stammers, VFX supervisor on The Martian. “So we knew that whatever happened, we’d be creating Martian landscapes, and the Ridley [Scott] take on it is that there must always be something beautiful about it. It’s not only a terrifying planet, but subtlety beautiful, too.”

Mars on Earth

According to Stammers, finding a location on Earth to stand in for Mars was not easy. After exhaustive scouting, they settled on Jordan, which “has some stunning landscapes.” Most of the Mars sequences, though, took place in a studio in Budapest. 

“We had a huge, 360-degree greenscreen, one of the largest greenscreen stages in the world, actually, where we re-created a section of the surface of Mars and the HAB where Mark Watney has to survive for a long period of time,” says Stammers. “We could shoot in any direction. It was important that we got the look of that right and matched it with our preferred location in Jordan.”

As Stammers explains, the crew replicated the terrain in Jordan on a limited scale, with the goal of shooting most of the movie on stage and then later doing wide shots in Jordan. “We had to make sure our studio shoots matched identically with our location shoots that we were going to do later,” he adds.

While Jordan was an ideal location, it still needed digital tweaks to substitute for the Red Planet. “Jordan is a beautiful setting and had really nice colors for Mars, ranges of reds and yellows for sand, and beautiful mountains. Unfortunately, everything is covered in tuffs of grass. There are these bushes that, no matter where you go in the entire landscape, you can’t find five square meters of desert that doesn’t have some tumbleweed grass growing somewhere,” says Stammers. “So, [erasing] that was one of our biggest tasks.”

While the crew was able to shoot beautiful landscapes, the artists had to replace a good deal of the ground with a cleaned-up version. In addition, they added rocks, craters, and similar features to make it look more “Martian” in terms of what audiences would expect to see. To this end, the artists consulted reference photos from NASA missions to Mars.


While Framestore’s work included the build of the Hermes spaceship and the climactic end sequence, the studio also was responsible for the overall look of Mars throughout the film. With a key opening shot and various space establishers, it was important to strike the balance between accuracy and cinematic beauty.

Framestore knew it would use the same technology as for the Earth in Gravity, consisting of a volumetric render of extremely high-resolution texture information combined with dust and atmospheric clouds. The challenge lay in finding adequate reference material for Mars. 

“There’s not much color photography out there,” says Framestore’s Chris Lawrence, VFX supervisor. “We used a combination of photography and satellite data, in a fairly novel way, to get everything we needed.”

Unlike the Earth, with its surface of blues, greens, and browns, “Mars is a dusty, reddish planet,” says Lawrence. “Our first attempts were very realistic but lacked the interesting variation of color and contrast found on Earth. The movie demanded something more vivid, so we spent some time on a creative journey to show the variation in features, surfaces, and textures – all of which also had to fit with the live-action footage shot in Jordan, plus the scenes at launch stage in the lower atmosphere.”

The colors were in constant debate, as were the volume and style of clouds used within the atmosphere. Says CG Supervisor Neil Weatherley, “We added light clouds to the surface, to echo the dust clouds; above that, we worked to create something that would add the depth we wanted, without importing the fluffy white variety we’re accustomed to on Earth.”

According to Stammers, the team took a little artistic license from Ridley’s direction to create some of these clouds. “We made them sort of brown and red, as if there are streams of dust caught in high-altitude winds blowing across the surface of Mars, which is not completely out of the ordinary,” he says. “But I think the way we treated it was probably a little more romantic than [real].”

Scott’s direction in that regard was based elements he shot for a commercial he worked on approximately 20 years ago, notes Stammers. “He had fast-moving clouds in the sky, made up of sea spray blowing off whitecap waves and a very strong wind, and these very interesting textures of strands of white water being blown off the top of waves, which he used upside down, as a sky texture,” Stammers explains. “He told us to look at that as a source of reference.”

In the end, the artists used those fast-moving streaks of fine-textured clouds that “had really nice internal movement,” Stammers says. “It definitely helped the look of the movie. It’s really stunning.” 

Furthermore, three key geographical features were used on the planet’s surface: the Olympus Mons, Schiaparelli crater, and the Valles Marineris, a 4,000 km Grand Canyon-style feature carved alongside Mars’ equator. Though not all narratively called for, their addition again helped to ground the film’s story in a space reality. “Our hope is that the three landmarks are recognizable to audiences already well versed in all things space,” says Weatherley.

“The heritage of the book – Weir’s detailed research, the input of real astro-scientists throughout, the refining of the science – just reinforced our desire for authenticity,” adds Lawrence. “It was nice to be able to feature real touch-points in this context.”

Post Managing Editor Linda Romanello contributed to this story section.


It’s a dream for so many: climbing Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world. But in 1996, that dream turned into a nightmare as two expeditions struggled against extreme conditions when a fierce blizzards strikes, stranding the climbers and their guides as they ascended or descended from the summit. As a result, eight people died, making it the deadliest day at that time on the mountain.

The movie, Everest, is an emotional tale based on the tragedy. Director Baltasar Kormakur set out to make the film as authentic as possible, reading as many books and accounts as possible, and meeting with those involved in the tragedy. Giving audience “a sense of place, Everest in all its glory, might, and danger” was paramount. He wanted audiences to feel like they had almost climbed the mountain themselves.

Filmmakers had to brave the elements to bring the story to the big screen, with on-location shoots in Nepal and Italy. However, it’s not like you can just climb Everest and start shooting – the climb is always dangerous, claiming a total of more than 250 lives. 

In addition to shooting on location in Nepal, on the foothills of Everest, the crew also filmed in the Dolomites in the Italian Alps and at Cinecitta Studios in Rome and at Pinewood Studios in London. In addition, they mapped out the mountain in a 3D model to use in post and to provide a location reference. At Pinewood, filming occurred in a transparent room where the temperature was set below freezing and real snow blanked the set. 

While the group did as much as possible in-camera, visual effects were needed. In all, the movie contains approximately 1,000 VFX shots from Framestore, One of Us, ILP, Stereo D, Milk VFX, and RVX, set up in Iceland to handle the majority of effects for the film. According to Kormakur, the most difficult effects shots were for the bad weather scenes, which cannot really be done practically and instead had to be constructed mainly from scratch. 

Post Writer Iain Blair contributed to this story section.

Bridge of Spies


The year was 1962, and the Cold War was in full throttle. The US and Soviets were on the brink of battle, one that in all likelihood would have meant nuclear destruction worldwide. The US was suspicious, as were the Soviets. And rightly so. Espionage was in full swung. 

It was under this pall that lawyer James B. Donovan was asked to negotiate the release of US pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy being held in the US. Frederic Pryor, a US grad student held in East Berlin, was also included in the deal. Tensions were extremely high, and the exchange almost didn’t happen. But it did, on the Glienicke Bridge connecting Potsdam and Berlin.

For various scenes, the filmmakers transformed 2014 New York City with vintage cars and street signs, storefronts, and more. Then production moved to Berlin and Potsdam (Poland), culminating in a scene filmed on the historical Glienicke Bridge. Production Designer Adam Stockhausen devised numerous sets for the historical drama. In fact, most of the movie comprises actual locations transformed in time, with the exception of interiors, which were filmed on soundstages. 

Once on location, the filmmakers transformed the site, adding period items and covering up objects that were from a later date. 

The film had two distinct looks: one for the scenes in America and the other for the bleaker Communist settings (there was also a significant contrast between the two Berlins). A large part of the movie was filmed in Poland. With so much development in East Germany over the last decades since the fall of the Berlin wall, the filmmakers had a difficult time locating 1960s-style architecture there, alternatively filming in Poland.