CG Talent and Technology in Space
January 5, 2021

CG Talent and Technology in Space

For the feature film The Midnight Sky, demanding out-of-this-world visual effects were needed to bring the story to the screen.  The Midnight Sky follows Augustine (George Clooney), a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully (Felicity Jones) and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe. Clooney directed the adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s acclaimed novel, which is now streaming on Netflix globally. 
While the film features some big names in front of the camera, behind it is an even more impressive roster. Framestore assembled a sci-fi dream team to join Production VFX Supervisor Matt Kasmir – Academy Award-winning VFX Supervisor Chris Lawrence (Gravity, The Martian), Animation Supervisor Max Solomon (Gravity), VFX Supervisor Shawn Hillier (Star Wars: Episodes II and III) and Graham Page (Interstellar) – to deliver nearly 500 shots across studios in London and Montreal for The Midnight Sky

The team was tasked with supporting the story through VFX that seamlessly complimented the cinematography by DOP Martin Ruhe, creating high-level CG facial replacements, building the Aether ship and interior, as well as “sick Earth” and it’s foreboding environment. 

Clooney admitted that his role as a stranded astronaut in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (for which Framestore won the Academy Award in Best Visual Effects) helped him to conceive some of the space sequences, telling Vanity Fair, “once you’re in the antigravity kind of world... up isn’t up, and down isn’t down.” To emulate zero-G and help sell a pregnant Sully floating in space (Jones was actually pregnant at the time of shooting), digital face replacements were required for the wide, full-CG shots, totaling 30 shots in the standout Space Walk sequence.

Incredibly high resolution Anyma scans were combined with cutting-edge proprietary shaders to create convincing high-res digital faces, which were then keyframe animated. “The Anyma capture for the performance gave us an animated mesh of the actor that you can use to drive animation,” explains Page, “but there’s a lot of cleanup work for that to be usable – especially around the eyes and the mouth.”

Adds Solomon: “The head motion and eyelines were adjusted to work with specific actions and the position of the camera. In some shots it was quite nuanced, enhancing eye darts and blinks, while in others we made broader changes to head angles and eyelines. Considerable sensitivity had to be used though as it was surprising how quickly small adjustments made shots feel broken.”

The Aether ship, housing the crew returning from their reconnaissance to Jupiter, was designed by Jim Bissell, production designer of E.T. fame, with the support of Framestore’s art director, Jonathan Opgenhaffen. Drawing from the studio’s archive of spaceship parts, Aether evokes the futuristic feel of the film while staying grounded with the tangible technology of today. Using parts of the ISS, existing NASA technology and cutting-edge 3D printed technology, the team was then able to focus on the details and texture of the ship to make it realistic. 

“The buzzword was topological optimization,” explains Opgenhaffen. “The ship’s components had to work practically; it’s beauty stems from its functionality and availability of existing and emerging technologies.” 

The team also created nuanced, ominous imagery to imply the idea that something has caused this global catastrophe. “Sick Earth is a huge character,” notes Lawrence. “It’s purposefully left ambiguous so you ask questions without necessarily receiving answers.” 

Layers of clouds, some curling towards the sky mirroring fingers reaching up to space, are the main aesthetic cue. “It’s not a natural phenomenon, so there’s a bit of speed that is visible from space; we played around with FX passes in comp to create additional movement,” adds Hillier.

The shoot of Augustine on Earth took place in Iceland, with 70 mph winds and freezing temperatures, although the actual amount of snow posed some problems. “Unfortunately when they went to shoot the plates, a lot of the snow had melted so we had to replace it,” explains Hillier. “We’d worked on snowy landscapes recently for the first season of His Dark Materials, but we really had the opportunity to push our snow shaders further to hold up in all of the close-up shots of the snow moving across the surface of the ground, with the light scattered through it.” 

Pre-production Supervisor Kaya Jabar, then at The Third Floor London, led a virtual camera shoot of the set before designing a virtual LED shoot plan for screens in the observatory. Working closely with Lawrence, Jabar’s team created a suite of tools using Unreal Engine to tie together a virtual camera and an LED screen simulator that was accurate to the exact panels used on the day.

Says Jabar, “I do believe that we were amongst the first people to plan it that way. I just applied the logic that if we can virtually plan a shoot and show you what will replace a greenscreen, then we can do the same with LED screens.” The VFX on The Midnight Sky needed to be as seamlessly integrated, photoreal and realistic as possible. 

“Ultimately, George wanted the drama to be grounded,” adds Lawrence, “The language of the film, especially in those moments you’re with George stuck in isolation, is emphasized by the static locked-off camera and beautiful composition of the scene. It was a nice place to be in; to compliment the filmcraft rather than going all out in showy VFX.”