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The story of Opportunity, the Exploratory Rover that was sent to Mars in 2004 for a 90-day mission but ended up conducting work on the planet for 15 years, is told in an inspiring and emotional documentary that’s generating buzz this season. Amazon’s Good Night Oppy, directed by Ryan White and narrated by Angela Bassett, also is a unique example of how effective visual effects can be incorporated into documentary filmmaking.
To tell the story of Opportunity’s journey to and on the surface of Mars, Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic created 34 minutes of photoreal, fully CG shots that were combined with new interviews and archival footage. The VFX task rivaled many live-action movies. In addition to creating a pair of six-wheeled, 5-foot-2 rovers that were designed to collect geological and atmospheric samples and transmit data back to scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the ILM team had to re-create the rovers’ journey to the Red Planet, including a complex entry sequence, and then show rovers Opportunity and Spirit on Mars in various seasons and through challenging sandstorms.
“There are bits of archival footage, but to show a much grander scheme of things, the filmmakers had to rely on visual effects. It plays an integral part of the story,” says ILM’s Abishek Nair, who shares VFX supervisor duties with colleague Ivan Busquets. He also points out that while VFX play an important supporting role, “you don’t want to take away the authenticity of documentary filmmaking.”
Their work began with meticulous research. “We had tons of data and material from NASA JPL,” says Nair. “And we had tons of archival footage, [and] high-res photography which we could use as strong references to build our environments. And then we also had highly detailed photographs and technical information on the rovers.”
Busquets adds that actual orbiters provided important information. “The orbiters take altitude measurements, and we used that for the environments that we built. That data’s not high-resolution enough, so we had to fill in the gaps. But for every location that is covered in the film — whether it’s the landing site for each one of the rovers or the craters that they go and visit — it’s all actually based on real altitude data and built to scale.”
A key aspect of the story is the bond that the scientists felt toward the rovers; to that end, the ILM team walked a fine line in animating the rovers, keeping the work grounded in realism but also making it cinematic (yes, viewers’ connection to the characters in WALL-E and Short Circuit were in the periphery). “There was an interest in not necessarily anthropomorphizing the rovers per se,” says Busquets. “But if there was an opportunity to mirror the feelings and the emotions of the crew at JPL through the rovers, then Ryan was interested in that aspect.”
For instance, Nair says that the ILM team used the opening and closing of the irises on the infrared cameras on the rovers’ “heads” — “in order to portray eye blinks. The first time Oppy sees the sandstorm approaching, there’s a tight close up where she blinks but actually she’s taking photographs. We used those as opportunities to convey the emotion that the rovers were actually facing on the planet.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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