Mars plays an essential character role in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s rugged, angry surface acts as the perfect antagonist to our hapless hero, the stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Creating a ‘Martian look’ has come a long way from the b-grade Sci-Fi of the 1950s. We now have the Mars Rover slowly plotting the surface and the skies of our closest planetary neighbour, giving us a better idea of how it actually looks. As a result, the accuracy of science fact must now mesh more seamlessly with the aesthetics of science fiction.

Presently we cannot get a film crew to shoot on location there, so the next best thing was to combine live footage from the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan with greenscreen shots from the massive soundstages at Korda Studios in Budapest.

Ridley Scott turned to the Moving Picture Company (MPC) to be the primary VFX vendor on the film, and tasked them with transforming these very Earth-bound shots into the alien landscape of Mars. The Montreal and London teams worked on 425 shots, which included all the surface shots. Much of the environment development was overseen by London VFX Supervisor Tim Ledbury and CG Supervisor Sebastien Gourdal. In collaboration with other superb VFX vendors - Framestore, The Senate VFX, Dynamic Effects Canada, Clear Angle Studios, FBFX, Argon Effects, Territory Studio and Fluent Image - MPC put together this VFX feast in an astoundingly short 24 weeks.

CGSociety talked to MPC’s VFX Supervisor Anders Langlands from his Montreal office about how they helped make The Martian.

Langlands began his career at MPC London in 2003 as a shader writer for movies like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Since then he has held many positions including R&D Lead, Head of Lighting and CG Supervisor, during which time he helped develop MPC's physically based lighting and shading workflow and toolset. In addition to his work on The Martian, he has contributed to Clash of the Titans, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, X-Men: Days of Future Past, to name just a few. In short, this guy knows what he’s talking about!

The initial big concern for Langlands and his team was how Mars should look. They started by researching photographs from the Mars Rover.  However, they did not reveal absolute answers.

“Sometimes there is natural color,” said Langlands, “sometimes NASA tweaks them to fit in with the perception of what Mars looks like. They can be incredibly beautiful, or look a bit boring. There is very thin atmosphere; it’s very hazy, so it can look like a very overcast day at times.” 

Langlands and his team knew that they were going to shoot greenscreen in Budapest and live footage in Jordan.  “Jordan is our backdrop, which provided us with naturally beautiful photography. An alien landscape here on Earth, However, the most obvious element to tackle was the sky because Mars doesn’t have a blue sky.”

Richard Stammers (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Prometheus), the chief VFX Supervisor, worked in Shake doing a serious of color tests on the original footage. He experimented turning the sky into different colors, to see what was possible. From the ochre we would expect to silvery grey and even bright green. These iterations were given to Ridley Scott to choose from.

However, if you change the color of the sky, you will still have spill over the landscape to worry about. “You don’t want to remove all that blue,” said Langlands, “because that natural variation and atmosphere gives you a sense of scale. If you try to grade it all out then you just end up with something that looks like you just put a tobacco filter over the lens or an old sepia photograph.”

This is where 2D Supervisor Lev Kolobov and Compositing Lead Alex Cernogorods from MPC’s London office comes into the picture. They worked closely with Stammers to discover a way they could deal with this spill and subsequently pipeline the solution. Kolobov and Cernogorods came up with the ‘Earth to Mars’ tool, which is an ingenious despill tool on steroids! 

“He could isolate the color of the sky,” said Langlands, “and also pick up the color of the reflected skylight in the landscape. This tool was a series of expressions and grades that could isolate the sky in different percentages. So, we didn’t have to resort to rotoing everything or try to key the sky from the landscape.  That gave us a huge amount of flexibility. There is a bunch of different colors we went with for the sky across different sequences; sometimes more silvery grey, or greenish or bronze-copper. We increased the amounts of contrast in the sky to make it more dramatic. Ridley (Scott) tends to film things in strong contrast, so that fitted in with his look.”

You cannot get two more different locations than a greenscreen in Europe and a desert in the Middle East. How on Earth, or Mars as the case may be, did they match that? 

“That was something that Richard spent a lot of time with Daruisz Wolski, the DP, getting right. Dariusz just wanted a single light source on stage, which was a huge and powerful bank of spots that created a relatively hard light. It was fitted to one corner of the stage at a specific height.”

This height was calculated during scouting, where Stammers and Wolski worked out the best time of day that gave the best light on location. The ‘magic hours’ turned out to be 8.30 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. 

“Those were the two times of day when the light was perfect and could be reproduced on the stage. That gave them a guide to where the sunlight would be relative to the Hab.”

The ‘Hab’ was the series of buildings that Watney lived and worked in. It was built on stage in Budapest to recreate where the sun was going to be in Jordan during the time of year of the location shoot. 

“Sticking with those magic hours meant the light lined up very well for both location and greenscreen shots, despite one being an interior thousands of miles away from the exterior.”
MPC also added extra elements like the enormous Olympus Mons and volcanoes in the foreground. They also created extra rocks and the ever-present dust. “Ridley wanted dust devils. We had a tornado machine that we shot a lot of elements from. We also used fluid simulations, so we could get more complex movement, such as when he was in the driving shots. Ridley also wanted to add moving clouds into the skies, which wasn’t something we considered at first and had a very specific idea of what he wanted to get.  It really did help to sell the alien nature of the landscape.” 

Ridley Scott is famous for his intricate and useful feedback. He does sketches over printouts of the original plates and paints what he wants to appear. These are affectionately known as ‘Ridley-grams’. “They are fantastic, especially early on when we were figuring out what elements we wanted -like he wanted a mountain in the background and painted it, so we made it like that.” 

Original plate



Of all the magnificent Lawrence of Arabia-esque scenes in The Martian, none were more dynamic than the storm sequence. MPC recreated this destructive tempest using a combination of practical and CG effects. The distant storm shots were full CG using Houdini and Flowline simulations. When the characters were in the storm, much of that was practical with a little CG thrown in for good effect. 

“They had huge fans set up on stage blowing smoke and packing material around to create realistic looking debris and dust. Most of our work was adding more to the foreground; trying to thicken it up and make it look even more dangerous. We combined the original frames with NUKE particle work and dust elements from our library to add more layers. Some original shots were very empty and others were very full, we made it more consistent throughout.”

VFX is not only useful for storm-like destruction, but also the invisible shots that bring reality to the unreal. A prime example of this is MPC’s flawless work on the astronauts’ visors.

“I think that was some of the trickiest work,” said Langlands. “To get it right the film crew shot with visors in and visors out, depending on how well we could get away with it and how close the camera was going to be. Ridley likes to shoot with lots of cameras and does very long takes and recombines everything in the edit, which meant that you didn't know exactly what was going to end up in the movie.”

When there weren't any visors, MPC used a complete 3D representation of the environment around the Hab, which they built from location photography. This enabled them to capture reflections on the visor itself. There are a lot of shots where the crew are working doing their geological work. “Watney is working on the pathfinder and you are close enough to see the reflection of his hands in the visor, in those cases we roto-animated the astronaut’s performance and did a full CG render of them to capture the appropriate reflections in the visor.”

The Martian is a big movie, which ticks so many boxes. Firstly, it’s been developed from great source material in the form of Andy Weir’s modern classic. Secondly, the outstanding cast managed to capture not only the drama but the all-important humor of the book.  Thirdly, Ridley Scott … need I say more? And the cherry on top of this delicious movie cake is the VFX. Everything from the expansive Martian vistas to the intricate and invisible effects found in the reflection of the visors were simply sensational. Anders Langlands and MPC, I salute you and thank you for helping to make a great book into a great movie!

Image credit: 2015 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.