Method Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon in 'Ad Astra'
October 8, 2019

Method Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon in 'Ad Astra'

20th Century Fox and New Regency’s Ad Astra follows the suspenseful and high-stakes journey of one man’s mission through the solar system to find his father and save mankind. From Director James Gray and starring Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride, the space saga explores the cosmos through original storytelling and elegant visuals. Gray called upon Method Studios to create space vistas and interstellar action sequences grounded in realism, including a dangerous lunar rover pursuit.

As McBride and his crew begin their journey to the outer reaches of the solar system, their jumping-off point is the moon, which is home to several ports with varying land and aerial craft. In addition to helping establish the moon location with CG environments, Method crafted an intense sequence in which McBride’s crew is attacked by railgun-wielding space pirates while traveling between the moon ports via lunar rovers. Realizing the complex sequence was done through careful coordination between Method VFX supervisors Jedediah Smith and Ryan Tudhope, along with on-set VFX Supervisor Aidan Fraser, Gray, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and overall VFX supervisor Allen Maris. Live-action footage served as the foundation for the sequence, with Method transforming footage shot on a soundstage against black screen as well as footage shot in the deserts of the southwestern U.S. using a stereo rig outfitted with an ARRI Alexa XT camera with a modified sensor to capture infrared light, and an ARRIFlex motion-picture film camera. One hero rover was filmed on set, and Method augmented the footage with two CG support rovers that were keyframe animated.

“The rig that Hoyte put together was a pretty crazy, interesting creative idea. It was kind of like a native stereo project, but instead of capturing two different camera views, we were capturing luminence from one camera and color from the other camera,” said Smith. “The infrared footage made the desert look more like the moon: the sky was black and the ground appeared brighter, mimicking the moon’s atmosphere and lighting. First, we neutralized the color and exposure of all plates, then we used Foundry’s Ocula toolset to align the film footage to the infrared footage. Once we had the two plates aligned, we blended the luminence from the infrared plate and the color from the film plate, and then added our CG moon environment behind.”

Method artists also referenced NASA archives for footage of the Apollo missions, which provided inspiration for creating the distinct lunar environments as well as how objects behaved in the moon’s low gravity atmosphere. “Realism was important to James, so we based our CG work on scientific reference as much as possible, while also taking some creative license to ensure the visuals were cinematic. The moon appears silver from our vantage point on Earth, but through our research, we discovered that the terrain actually varies quite a bit in color and behavior. We cover a large distance in the lunar rover sequence, so we mapped out key features of the terrain from the moon base through to the dark side of the moon as a starting point and built out the full environments from there.”  

Artists also created or enhanced the reflections in every spacesuit visor and rover window, accounting for accurate lighting based on the sun and stars, as well as rover headlights as the crew headed to the dark side of the moon. Gray’s intimate, close-up filming style for the sequence influenced more prominent visor reflections that help unfold the story.  

“Working on this project was such a pleasure and gave us the opportunity to experiment with some out-the-box approaches that ultimately created elegant imagery,” concluded Smith. “James always had insightful direction for what would visually enhance the narrative, and the whole Method team delivered standout work to achieve that vision.”

In addition to the lunar rover pursuit, Method also created the sequence where McBride conducts a spacewalk from his spacecraft The Cephius to the abandoned Vesta ship. Artists developed the look of the ship and surrounding environment and built assets in CG, then composited in live-action footage (also shot against a black screen). Method also worked on a small sequence that takes place in the underground tunnels of the Mars port, extending and enhancing the location tunnels to make them appear more vast.