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The Midnight Sky — George Clooney’s meditative adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight — contains ambitious visual effects work that claimed the top prize of outstanding VFX in a photoreal feature as well as a second trophy for its model of the spacecraft Aether during the April 6 Visual Effects Society Awards.
Clooney portrays Augustine, a terminally ill astrophysicist based in an Arctic research station on a dying Earth as he tries to make contact with a spacecraft and its crew to warn them of the planet’s devastation. As director, he asked the team to combine the VFX grandeur of Gravity, in which he’d starred in 2013, with the gritty work in 2015’s The Revenant. Achieving this demanded a range of VFX techniques, including photoreal CG imagery to put the astronauts in zero gravity; cutting-edge virtual production techniques and practical effects to help place Clooney on the dying Earth; and innovating facial performance capture.
One of the Netflix movie’s most striking moments is the death of astronaut Maya (Tiffany Boone), who is fatally wounded during a space walk and dies while bleeding inside the spacecraft in zero gravity. Calling this scene the “trickiest,” Clooney says: “I knew what I wanted from it. This came right down to the effects guys and saying, ‘OK, I want this blood to be a ballet. I don’t want it to just be drops of blood floating in the air. I want them to move like we see them move when they’re up in the space station when they squirt water in the air and drink it. It has this life to it.’ “
Matt Kasmir, who shared VFX supervisor responsibilities with Chris Lawrence of lead VFX house Framestore, acknowledges that “the balletic blood scene was one of our most challenging sequences. We had to replace the set digitally, as we wanted to have the scene constantly rotating. This also led to many of the spacesuits being reanimated and re-created in CG and animated to help with the zero-gravity performance. Many of the cast’s facial performances were also CG. Once all of these were rendered, we used a fluid sim[ulation] to generate the blood and how it moved in zero gravity, then hand-animated it to give us the choreographed ballet.”
Says Lawrence: “Much attention was given to the blood choreography and look and feel, with a combination of simulations and delicate animation, to give the moment a poetic beauty,” he says, adding that Clooney’s notes on the blood droplets were quite specific, including the color (“not too shocking”); the individual positions and amount of blood; and their physical behavior, including the speed of movement and the way in which the droplets interacted with other objects.
The team knew facial capture was needed early on as Felicity Jones, who plays the astronaut Sully, was pregnant and couldn’t run or do wire work. They employed Anyma, a facial performance-capture system developed by Disney Research Studios, for the zero-g work as well as for a scene in which Sully is running on the surface of K-23, an imaginary moon circling Jupiter. Here, Jones’ digital performance was added to a body double. “The CG is only as good as the performance played by the actor,” says Kasmir. “While everybody was having their performance captured, the other castmembers sat round them and sparred lines back and forth, all directed by George.”
This story first appeared in an April stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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