THE MARTIAN: Neil Weatherley – CG Supervisor – Framestore

Neil Weatherley joined Framestore in 2001, he began as assistant technical director and became CG supervisor in 2014 on EDGE OF TOMORROW and PADDINGTON. He worked on many projects such as CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE GOLDEN COMPASS or THE DARK KNIGHT.

What is your background?
I studied computer graphics and animation at Bournemouth University before joining Framestore in 2001. I started as a assistant technical director and worked up to lead technical director on films like THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE DARK KNIGHT and PRINCE OF PERSIA. I then moved over to New York in 2010 to work in our commercials division where I stayed for 3 years before moving up to Montreal to help setting up the film office there. I moved back to the London office late 2014. The most recent films I’ve supervised have been EDGE OF TOMORROW and PADDINGTON, both in Montreal.

How did you got involved on this show?
It was a project that really interested me mainly due to the Ridley Scott factor. The subject matter was also something I hadn’t really worked on before, especially being one of the few people at Framestore to have not worked on GRAVITY! I definitely knew it was going to be a challenge but I also saw how good a chance it would be to be a really good movie.

How was the collaboration with director Ridley Scott and VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers?
I think we had a very collaborative relationship with Richard, he was always very open to our suggestions and input and personally I really enjoyed working with him. Due to working on several his movies he has a really good idea of what Ridley wants and could give us a good steer before submitting anything for director reviews, this meant we knew when we’d show work to Ridley it would be what he wanted/expected. This meant there was a lot less back-and-forth in terms of getting shots finalled, which was really important with the volume of shots and the time we had. He would come over for reviews and all of us felt it was a very good relationship with the entire production team, certainly one of the most collaborative and positive I’ve experienced.


What was their approach and expectations about the visual effects?
The main thing was to make sure the effects weren’t flashy or overtly ‘sci-fi’, they had to be grounded in a reality that meant even though it was a huge spaceship it had to feel like there’s a possibility it could actually be built. 2001 was a big reference for us from the production and we always had those iconic shots and look at the back of our minds. But also we had to keep in mind it needed to follow some existing NASA technology and aesthetic.

Can you describe to us one of your typical day on-set and then during the post?
I was only on-set for a couple of days but it was during the filming of the end sequence of the movie where Lewis goes out to rescue Watney so we had the two actors on wire rigs with huge green screens. Ridley would sit in a tent on the side with a huge bank of monitors and could choreograph each camera from there, it was a real pleasure to watch how he worked and how he managed that.

When in post our days consisted of a lot of dailies! The supervisory team would split them between us, dealing with the quicker turnaround tasks in the morning like animation, lighting and tracking so the artists to get back to addressing comments. With the afternoon spent mostly on looking at comps as there was a lot to go through. the stereo nature of the show also meant we had to have separate, more technical sessions to check stereo-alignment and cleanup of the filmed plates as well as the tracking.

What are the sequences done by Framestore?
Our two main assets were building the Hermes and working on any sequences involving that, as well as creating Mars as seen from space (as opposed to the shots of Mars on the planet’s surface). The Hermes work included all the set extensions for interior sequences when the actors were on the wire rigs and bits of set were removed that needed a CG replacement. We also did the end ‘rescue sequence’ which included both our main assets as well as digital-doubles for some full CG shots, as well as quite a few shots where we kept the actors face and replaced the body.

How did you approach the creation of the Hermes?
We approached the Hermes in a similar way as if we were building it for real, we split it up into modules and built each one separately but using similar themes or shapes throughout. We knew from the start the framing of the asset would go from wide shots of the entire ship right down to close-ups where we’d see the details, as well as needing to match the small sections of physical set that had already been built for the shoot. The art department on the production side supplied us with concept images alongside more technical blueprints and some low resolution digital models. We’d build on this base by adding in details and all the things that sells the scale of the ship down to things like bolts, mouldings, truss work, electrical boxes etc. All of which we always tried to base as closely as possible on existing technology, all to help with the authenticity of the ship.


Can you explain in details about the creation of this ship?
We started by making sure we had an early version of each module first so we could look at the ship for its general shape and silhouette, and also start dropping it into early versions of the shots and anim so see how it looked. Once these first-pass models were complete we’d go through each one adding details, truss-work etc until we felt it had enough in there to hold up to close inspection. We had a Maya scene where all of these sections would be loaded into a rendered as a fly-past which we’d regularly render along with the individual sections. One particular repeating motif we picked up from the set was the panelling seen on the corridor sections, we’d use this to clad certain sections throughout the ship to carry that design along it. Whereas the ISS is very much an international effort and each section tends to have a look depending on which agency designed it the Hermes was NASA throughout so we had a common language. Some of the most detailed sections were the airlocks at the front of the ship and also just behind the gravity wheel. Again these had been built on set and we knew we’d have shots where we’d need to extend these so they had to be built to match down to the shape and size of the bolts going around the circular doors.


How did you manage the lighting and render for the Hermes?
It was quite a challenge to keep the lighting of the Hermes realistic as well as making it cinematic and interesting. Whilst it was in deep space you only have one light source which is a very hot sun and then nothing else to really add bounce light, so it can end up very contrasty and not what we wanted a lot of the time. So we had to take some creative license in terms of fill lighting. The general look of the ship was intended to be quite slick and clean, as it would’ve been built in space we didn’t feel there was a need to add much dirt or ageing which you normally would do with an asset of this size to help with the scale. The solar panels were certainly the section that took the most work in getting the look, we built them in a realistic way so there are several layers of geometry in there each one with a different reaction to light, a mixture of translucency, reflectivity and solid sections gave us a very realistic reaction. We’re so used to seeing solar panels on earth reflecting blue sky we have a perception of how they look so it was interesting trying to keep them looking believable when only reflecting the blackness of space. We found it interesting how much easier it was to light the Hermes when it was near Earth and you could have that slightly familiar blue glow on it from the planet rather than the strong red we got when lighting it near Mars. It’s such an unfamiliar lighting condition for us to see it’s a real challenge to get it right.


Can you tell us more about your collaboration with the NASA?
NASA were more involved with the production designer, Arthur Max, than us. We certainly used NASA as a reference for the Hermes build, any structural or design elements we always tried to reference back to NASA technology or design so we had lots of their imagery up around us as a reminder.

How did you handle and created the Zero G shots?
There were two approaches to those shots – one where we would be painting out wires, rigs then rebuilding the missing parts of the body or set which is the more traditional way. The other was either using a complete digital replacement for the actor, normally on the wide shots or where you wouldn’t see faces. Or keeping the actors faces and match-moving a digital body around and below that. That way we could reduce any feeling of them pivoting around the wire rig or being affected by gravity. It was tricky for animation as they’re used to acting out scenes themselves as reference, obviously pretty difficult to simulate zero-g so an office chair on wheels was often used!

Can you tell us more about the gravity wheel?
The gravity wheel was the section of the Hermes that was most removed from anything currently built, so it was the module we had to be the most creative with, along with the engine at the back that is not seen very often. The look of the ship was always supposed to be sleek and have that long, corridor-like shape so the gravity wheel is a bit of an obvious exception to that! One of the rooms was built as a set so we had that shape and size to follow, which did mean it was the only bit of the ship to have real flat faces rather than the cylindrical look. We didn’t want to leave those faces plain as that does lead to it looking like a model, but at the same time we didn’t want to add be too much extraneous detail for no reason. It was a real balancing act.


Mars is seen many times from space. Can you tell us more about its creation?
There’s quite a lot of images of Mars when we started looking for reference but most are CG ‘interpretations’ or tend to have some sort of color treatment on. We wanted a very realistic starting point so we started concept work using imagery from NASA and Indian satellite. Once we had that start we realised we needed to make the planet more filmic and interesting, there’s a lot of shots where Mars is our background so everyone was keen to make it look as stunning as possible whilst not sacrificing the realism. So we used two sets of high-resolution NASA data – MOLA (Mars Orbital Laser Atlimeter) and HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) which gave us a mapping of the surface details down to an accuracy of about 50m. We wrote some custom software to use and render this data on the fly rather than create geometry for the whole planet. To enhance the planet we created a library of craters, ridges and mountain ranges which we could mix into the surface wherever we needed to add detail. The entire end sequence is set over an actual geographic feature of Mars called Valles Marineres which is a 4km long canyon which we’ve recreated to a pretty accurate degree. We’d hope any scholars of Mars would recognise this and the other main features!


How did you use the Framestore experience with Gravity for your space sequences?
A lot of the team worked on GRAVITY so, in particular the modelling department, could draw on that experience when creating the Hermes. They already had quite a good grasp on the language of the ISS and the component parts of that, what does what etc. This meant when we were building our asset we could talk in terms of real-life technology which made things a lot easier. We also had to do several shots of Earth from space so we had already hit the problems and pitfalls of creating such a huge, familiar asset.

Can you tell us more about the shooting and the creation of the space exterior shots?
They were shot with the actors suspended on rigs in front of large green screens, the shots were extensively techviz-ed so the rigs could be made to follow that previz. For the shots that were up against the Hermes, for example when Beck does his spacewalk to plant the bomb, Ridley was supplied with a setup called a simul-cam that allowed him to see real-time approximation of the CG assets on a screen using the camera movement from the operators. This allowed him to compose those shots with a much clearer idea of how it would look once in a CG environment. Once we picked them up it was a case of first deciding if everyone was happy with the physical performance and if that could be replaced with digital-doubles if necessary. We would then need to paint out any rigs and set up the shot with the Hermes and a starfield our animators used to exaggerate a sense of tumbling or travel.


How did you work with the team of MPC?
Our sections of the movie were fairly isolated from each other, the exception being Mars where the look of the shots MPC were working on for the surface had to tie in with what we were doing on the in-space shots. In this case Richard Stammers was the link and would ensure both teams were on the same path.

Is there any invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
I think the set extensions we did are (hopefully) pretty invisible, for some shots we ended up replacing a lot more of the set than was intended as we were pretty confident of our work holding up. Also some of the digi-double shots are pretty seamlessly cut into shots involving the real spacesuits.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge I felt was to deliver a stereo show of that complexity in what was a relatively short post schedule. Not only that but ensuring we kept the quality up to the standards we set ourselves, and also those set by Richard and Ridley.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The end sequence was probably the trickiest to pull off, and prevented a lot of people from sleep at times! As well as all the technical challenges of the sequence which was going to require heavy renders and all our assets on screen at once, we also had the creative challenge of keeping a sense of drama and tension throughout the rescue and a brief of having an almost balletic, choreographed feel for the tether that surrounds Lewis and Watney. I think that sequence contained a bit of everything we were doing on the movie, so Mars, Hermes, digi-doubles, dynamics, set-extensions etc…


What do you keep from this experience?
The short time I was on set was a real highlight and watching someone like Ridley Scott at work and his enthusiasm for it. The creative process of working with him and Richard afterwards was also rewarding especially all the time we spent developing Mars and then seeing the final results as a huge believable planet on screen.

How long have you worked on this film?
I started work on the show in December 2014 and we finished in September of this year.

How many shots have you done?
We delivered 338 shots in the end.

What was the size of your team?
I think at it’s peak Framestore had about 170 people on the team, but averaged around 130-140.

What is your next project?
I’m currently working on JUNGLE BOOK: ORIGINS for Warner Brothers.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Afraid they’re rather on the predictable side but when I was younger it was the original STAR WARS trilogy, as it was for a lot of people of my age, that I can clearer remember being slightly obsessed with the idea of creating a whole universe around that central story and just the imagery of it all. Then when I was older it was TOY STORY and JURASSIC PARK that were the two movies that got me into the possibilities of computer graphics as both a story-telling medium and as a way to create a real visual spectacle and that sense of wonder. It was those two movies that made me choose the course I eventually did at Bournemouth.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Framestore: Dedicated page about THE MARTIAN on Framestore website.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2015

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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