'The Martian' Production Designer Talks About Working With NASA for Realistic Look

"This was near-future, not futuristic. Everything had to conform to their latest technology and research and development programs," says three-time Oscar nominee Arthur Max.
'The Martian,' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Will the third time be the charm for production designer Arthur Max, a longtime collaborator with Ridley Scott and New York native who has earned Oscar nominations for Gladiator, American Gangster and now The Martian?

To tell the survival story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who is stranded on Mars after he’s presumed dead during a storm, Scott, Max and the filmmaking team traveled to Wadi Rum (incidentally, also known as the Valley of the Moon) in southern Jordan, which was their location for Mars. It was a familiar “backlot” to Scott and Max, as it was also used for Prometheus. After principal photography, more rock formations and volcanoes including Olympus Mons were added with visual effects, while the sky was also replaced.

For the hab, the rover and the like, Max did meticulous research and got the information right from the source: NASA.

“Anything we put on the screen that had a NASA logo on it had to be approved,” he explains. “That included the Hermes (spacecraft), the airlocks, corridors and crew cabins — anything we designed. This was near-future, not futuristic. Everything had to conform to their latest technology and research and development programs. We wanted to get it as real as possible."

Max continues: "First, I went to JPL. They have in their Pasadena facility a Mars landscape test area where they test road vehicles to see how they would survive on the terrain, and they also have a duplicate of the Curiosity Mars rover.”

The next stop was Johnson Space Center in Houston. Noting that the team there is planning the next Mars mission, Max says, "they were talking about anywhere from 2025 to 2030 sending an unmanned robotic supply mission. They have various elements in development. That includes a hab, a rover, a crew capsule. We were allowed to have a look; they are engineering prototypes. There’s a lot of engineering and design elements that they are working on. My job really was to put it together and give it a look, since it’s a work in progress for them."

As he found out during his visit, NASA has occasionally taken a cue from Hollywood as well. “They told us in our initial discussion that they look to filmmakers for design inspiration,” Max relates. “From Prometheus they really liked the derelict alien ship control desk (laughs) and they used the concept of that for a test panel at one of their facilities. I never saw it — it wasn’t in Texas.”

With NASA and private entities such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX looking to the Red Planet, Max finds it all "fascinating — the adventure and exploration of the unknown. The people I spoke to are certain that they’ll find some form of life. There’s water there. And even on Earth in extreme environments life has emerged."