Halon Creates Visualizations For 'Ad Astra'
Karen Moltenbrey
October 11, 2019

Halon Creates Visualizations For 'Ad Astra'

The name of the film,  Ad Astra ,  may be puzzling at first. It is short for “ Per aspera ad astra , ” or “Through hardship to the stars.” Considering the film’s plot, it is befitting.  

In Ad Astra, a space thriller, astronaut Roy McBride embarks on a mission across the solar system to find out what happened to his missing father, who disappeared some 16 years ago on a mission into deep space associated with The Lima Project. But to do so, McBride must log some heavy-duty miles – first to the moon aboard a commercial shuttle, then to a remote base aboard a spacecraft that will take him to Mars, and then, hopefully to The Lima on Neptune.

The voyage is perilous, as McBride and those accompanying him battle space pirates as well as a mutinous crew, which involves a zero-gravity fight to the death. 

Of course, with such a science-fiction/fact film, experts were called on from NASA as well as other space agencies to lend their expertise and knowledge. To assist in the technical details pertaining to the visual effects, however, the filmmakers called on Halon Entertainment, which worked alongside VFX Producer Allen Maris and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoyteman to create Director James Gray’s unique vision of the stars and beyond. 

Halon utilized several advanced technologies, including real-time rendering, for postvis and previs of several key sequences. For Halon’s postvis supervisor, Casey Pyke, this is the first film he’s worked with that was shot on film – a new experience and challenge in the digital age.

Here, Pyke provides his insights on the project.

On Ad Astra , Halon provided previs on several sequences throughout the film, while techvis centered around the opening antenna scene (as McBride leads a team building the world’s largest antenna to locate advanced alien life), stuntvis for a fight in zero gravity, and postvis across the length of the film.  

The film didn’t have a huge budget, so previs and techvis helped production know they could get what they needed out of the sets they were building. For example, production built a 30-foot section of the antenna and needed to know the camera angles they could get and the size of greenscreens they would need based on those angles. And our postvis work helped editorial and VFX creatively explore camera angles for all-CG shots, like the scenes of rockets traveling through the solar system and digital-double shots for the end sequence in the rings of Neptune, and visualize what VFX could look like integrated into the plates they shot.

We used Autodesk’s Maya and (at times) Epic’s Unreal Engine for previs (though UE was nearly for nearly every postvis sequence. We also used Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes tracker for camera tracking during postvis, as well as Boris’ Mocha, and Adobe After Effects.

Previs lasted three months, and we were on post for about four months. Both teams consisted of five people. 

Aesthetically, Ad Astra was different from a lot of shows that come our way. On a lot of shows, the camera is all over the place, but the filmmakers were always pushing to keep the VFX feeling grounded. We would give them options for shots from very grounded to more dynamic, so they could see what was available to them. But most often it was the shots that could be achieved in the real world that won out.

When the space plates were shot, they were filmed against a black screen instead of a green or blue screen. This cut down on the amount of light reflecting on the actors and made for an amazing look, but took a long time to roto and even required some guess work about what was a limb and what just the black background. That was a challenge.

Because of its rapid turnaround time, visualization helped the filmmakers explore ideas and make decisions before a lot of money was spent during the shoot or on fantastic VFX shots. And on a film this size, I think it’s especially useful. 

James, the director, was involved in the visualization process and worked with the vis teams to craft his film. Because of this, the final shots are very close to what we had done in the visualization stage. And it’s always great to know that  your work had an impact on the film.