Space-Age VFX
Linda Romanello
February 8, 2017

Space-Age VFX

Passengers , Morten Tyldum’s ( The Imitation Game ) latest project for Sony, may not be the director’s first trip around the block, but it is his first walk in space. A different sort of sci-fi adventure, the film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, tells the futuristic story of the  Starship Avalon’s  120-year voyage to a distant planet called the Homestead Colony. During the journey, two of the 5,259 passengers aboard the spacecraft experience a malfunction in their hibernation pods and are prematurely awakened – 90 years from their destination.  

To help create the expansive space environments, Tyldum enlisted the help of DP Rodrigo Prieto ( The Wolf of Wall Street , Argo, and Brokeback Mountain ) and Editor Maryann Brandon ( Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), an Academy Award nominee for cutting Star Wars: The Force Awakens , as well as VFX Supervisor Erik Nordby and MPC VFX Supervisor Pete Dionne. Here, Nordby and Dionne discuss some of the film’s greatest visual effects challenges with Linda Romanello, managing editor of Post , CGW ’s sister publication.

What type of work did you completed for Passengers?

Nordby: The VFX work for Passengers falls into three main categories: full-CG space exteriors, including the expansive Avalon ship model and many shots of full-CG astronauts; extensions of practical environments – the grand concourse, cafeteria, hibernation bay – and key CG set pieces involving large-scale FX simulations.

How many VFX shots did MPC complete for the film?

Dionne: Roughly 1,150 from a total shot count of 1,400.

What type of direction did you get from Director Morten Tyldum for the VFX on this film?

Nordby: Morten hadn’t previously done a VFX film of this scale before, but he is a very adaptive and driven director. He has an amazing grasp of the image, composition, and story. All we had to do is make sure the VFX were substantially supportive of the story and meshed well with the photography, and he was immediately fluent with the process.

What did some of the key sequences entail, and what did MPC complete for the film?

Nordby: The opening of the movie was something that was added late in the post process. Morten wanted to accelerate the feeling of jeopardy put upon the ship as it travels through an asteroid field. With only three months to final the entire movie, we activated a focused postvis team and put together the 12-shot sequence in a matter of weeks. Once the studio approved the funds, MPC peeled away some senior talent from their ranks to get the shots done in time. Since the sequence touched most departments, it was a real testament to the benefit of a larger studio that can absorb a sequence with such breadth, without impacting the rest of the delivery.

Another key and exciting sequence is the pass-by of a red giant star (utilizing the gravity to help accelerate the Avalon). It was very important that the star had appropriate scale and depth. This was created by multiple layers of fluid simulation, each representing a respective layer of stellar structure: photosphere, chromosphere, and the corona. Playing off of this surface were large flares and prominences driven by FX. Proper scale was accomplished by dialing in the exact amount of evolution with the simulations, so the star felt massive but deep and alive.

What were some of the biggest challenges working on Passengers?

Nordby: Very clearly the biggest VFX challenge was reproducing a large volume of water in zero-g and near zero-g environments. There were two fundamental issues we had to overcome: One, how does water behave once gravity cuts out? Two, how to best photograph the necessary elements of Jennifer Lawrence, who is trapped in this water? 

Tackling the look of the water started with grabbing whatever research already existed. Luckily over the past two years, they have started experimenting extensively with the behavior of water in small quantities on the International Space Station. This material was freely available and formed a foundation for the FX team to start with. A secondary challenge, but almost equal in importance, was the audience’s expectations. It is always a delicate thing to accomplish when you need to create something physically real when your audience doesn’t have a large amount of unified reference. It was for this reason that we pushed the water into many different scales of water bubbles and spray. The large bubbles tell the story, the smaller bubbles, spray, and aeration work as anchors for the audience to latch onto and allow the scene to ‘feel’ real.

Shooting Lawrence in this terrifying situation required the help of Dan Sudick and his SFX know-how. He built several tanks, one drop tank that was hung from an enormous crane above our set, and a 14-foot cube with optical glass for hero close-ups. 

The entire sequence relied heavily on robust previs and techvis. It was also shot in two chunks, which allows a second pass of postvis to find any elements we might have overlooked. We grabbed those on the second pass.

Dionne: This scene was quite a challenge for us. In addition to the massive technical and creative demands of drowning Jennifer Lawrence inside of zero-gravity water, we also had to respect the dramatic intensity of the scene and never distract from her powerful performance. This fact became very relevant after we completed the first blocking of the water simulations. This blocking was very cool and physically realistic, but the simulations and shading were so visually complex that we completely overshadowed Aurora's struggle, which was so important to the scene. So we started a process of simplifying the form of the water, having it move much slower and calmer, with much less fine water structure present, as well as reducing the overall strength of the refraction in the water shader to allow us to better read her action and performance within the water. In the long run, this ended up giving us something that felt quite large, unnatural, and unstoppable, which elevated the feeling of inevitable peril that the scene required.

How did this film differ from some other sci-fi/space-based projects you (or MPC) has worked on in the past?

Nordby: A huge part of the VFX work in Passengers involved the environment of space. It is the fundamental setting of the movie and the backdrop upon which our story relies as a constant foil. Historically, the look of space in film falls on a continuum somewhere between the cold, austere look of actual astrophotography and heavily stylized vistas with false color and inaccurate scale. The look of space in Passengers pushed closer to the former rather than the latter, falling close to naturalistic and real with a bit of forgiveness built into the exposure. 

Since the film takes place in deep space and we’re never close to any bright celestial objects, the lighting design needed to cheat an overall exposure lift. Together with Rodrigo Prieto ASC, the VFX team constructed an overall dome that featured a softer lighting ratio driven by hand-painted star and nebula maps – very different than the typical high-key space lighting more recently in vogue. This created a softer, more natural light that held a lot in common with Prieto’s interior lighting design, adding the distinct advantage of lighting continuity throughout the entire film. If palettes, or intensities, changed, the VFX team and Prieto made sure they changed together – both interior and exterior setups – to keep the audience engaged and not distracted.

Technically, the very large canvas of space was a full sphere of multiple 16k maps stitched together. It was built up and comprised many layers of stars, space dust, nebula, and clusters. The nebula were painted as a series of cards to help give a very subtle feeling of parallax and depth. Everything was constructed with high dynamic range, giving full control over exposure [and enabling us to] keep space as photographic as possible. These maps were then responsible for driving the scene-referred lighting for our ship and CG astronauts.

How closely did you work with the director, DP, and editor? 

Nordby: The core creative team on Passengers was myself, Morten, Rodrigo, Maryann, Jon Spaihts (writer), and Guy Hendrix Dyas (production designer). Through preproduction, shooting the movie, and all the way until the final shot, this team grappled with all the large-scale creative issues.

What were some of the key software tools you relied on for this film?

Dionne: Our primary modeling software was Autodesk’s Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush. Texturing was mainly completed using The Foundry’s Mari. We used The Foundry’s Katana for look dev and lighting. We rendered primarily with Pixar’s Renderman, and we used The Foundry’s Nuke for all compositing.

The exterior space shots of the ship are gorgeous! Were they physical models or CGI? 

Dionne: MPC inherited this incredible fundamental design of the Starship Avalon by Production Designer Guy Dyas. The helical form of the ship not only justified the artificial gravity present throughout the spacecraft, but it also gave us an opportunity to inject further functional purpose into each of the three blades. Each blade was nearly a kilometer long, so the scale was massive. We dedicated one blade to habitation, one blade to entertainment, and one blade to cargo; then designed the exterior based on real-world references of similar structures, specifically cruise ships, mega malls, and shipping freighters. We continued to embellish the rest of the ship with additional detail and complexity, using as much real-world architectural and engineering reference as possible.

With the low levels of light in deep space and the absence of a strong keylight, we had to be clever in how we approached the lighting and shading of the ship, otherwise it would simply end up as a black shape in black space. We again looked toward real-life photographic references and found inspiration in photography of glass skyscrapers at dusk. First, we exposed space up and positioned the bright band of the Milky Way to silhouette the dark ship against it. We then allowed the shader to be a highly reflective surface that bathed the Avalon in space reflection, which further defined the form, as well as scattered thousands of little localized lights and windows across the surface of the ship to re-enforce the scale. Finally, we added a bright, warm, indirect glow from the center core, which completed the look of our Avalon in space. This gave us a lighting design that established our setting of deep space and defined the form and detail of the Avalon but without reading too fantastic or unphotographic.

Due to the scale and complexity of the asset, it was very difficult to render the entire ship at maximum resolution all at once, so serious optimization was required. We split the ship into seven separate main components, each with multiple levels of detail. This allowed us to mix and match different levels of detail for different components on a shot-by-shot basis, based on where the camera was positioned. This optimization allowed us to maintain large amounts of detail in the ship but still have it render in a reasonable time frame.

What other visual effects studios contributed to the film?

Dionne: MPC was the primary vendor, but The Senate in London and Instinctual in LA also contributed VFX work to the film.

What are your overall thoughts about how the film and the VFX came out?

Nordby: Passengers is a film caught in an interesting juxtaposition. It is a story-driven character piece masquerading as a sci-fi epic. Visual effects played a large and substantial role in the film but did so in a strong supporting role, which is unusual for this genre. VFX touched more than 80 percent of the movie, yet it doesn’t feel like a VFX film. 

The canvas of the film was crafted early by the VFX team to focus squarely on supporting the realism of the world, never drawing more attention to the surroundings than to the characters within it. The VFX needed to feel real and consistent, but more importantly, we wanted to always flow ahead of the audience, keeping them comfortable in their understanding of the world.