Studio’s VFX team created ominous imagery of a post-apocalyptic ‘Sick Earth,’ the Aether spaceship, and zero-G for a pregnant character’s spacewalk in the Netflix sci-fi feature.
Framestore was tasked with assembling a team to provide visual effects for George Clooney and Netflix’s sci-fi adventure, The Midnight Sky. The VFX had to seamlessly compliment the cinematography by DOP Martin Ruhe. Joining VFX supervisor Matt Kasmir were Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor Chris Lawrence (Gravity, The Martian), animation supervisor Max Solomon (Gravity), VFX supervisor Shawn Hillier (Star Wars: Episodes 2 &3), and Graham Page (Interstellar). The sci-fi VFX team created high-level CG facial replacements, the Aether ship and its interior, as well as ‘Sick Earth’ and its foreboding environment.
Now streaming globally on Netflix globally, The Midnight Sky follows Augustine (Clooney), a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully (Felicity Jones) and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe. Clooney directed the adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s acclaimed novel.
“VFX were engaged to provide humanity’s existential threat,” noted Lawrence. “Thematically we sought to portray human isolation against the devastating beauty of the universe.”
Clooney admitted that his role as a stranded astronaut in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (for which Framestore won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects) helped him to conceive some of the space sequences, telling Vanity Fair, “once you’re in the antigravity kind of world... up isn’t up, and down isn’t down.”
To emulate zero-G and help to sell a pregnant Sully floating in space (Jones was actually pregnant at the time of shooting), digital face replacements were required for the wide, full CG shots, which totaled 30 in the stand-out ‘Space Walk’ sequence. Incredibly high resolution Anyma scans were combined with cutting edge proprietary shaders to create convincing high-res digital faces, which were then keyframe animated.
“The Anyma capture for the performance gave us an animated mesh of the actor that you can use to drive animation,” explained Page, “but there’s a lot of clean-up work for that to be usable - especially around the eyes and the mouth.”
“The head motion and eyelines were adjusted to work with specific actions and the position of the camera,” added Solomon. “In some shots it was quite nuanced, enhancing eye darts and blinks while in others we made broader changes to head angles and eyelines. Considerable sensitivity had to be used though as it was surprising how quickly small adjustments made shots feel broken.”
The ‘Aether’ ship, housing the crew returning from their reconnaissance to Jupiter, was designed by Jim Bissell, production designer of E.T. fame, with the support of Framestore’s art director, Jonathan Opgenhaffen. Drawing from the studio’s archive of spaceship parts, Aether evokes the futuristic feel of the film while staying grounded with the tangible technology of today. Using parts of the ISS, existing NASA technology, and cutting-edge 3D printed technology, the team was then able to focus on the details and texture of the ship to make it realistic.
“The buzz word was topological optimization,” explained Opgenhaffen. “The ship’s components had to work practically; it’s beauty stems from its functionality and availability of existing and emerging technologies.”
The team also created nuanced, ominous imagery to imply that something had caused this global catastrophe.
“Sick Earth is a huge character,” noted Lawrence. “It’s purposefully left ambiguous, so you ask questions without necessarily receiving answers.”
Layers of clouds, some curling towards the sky mirroring fingers reaching up to space, are the main aesthetic cue.
“It’s not a natural phenomenon, so there’s a bit of speed that is visible from space; we played around with FX passes in comp to create additional movement,” added Hillier.
The shoot of Augustine on earth took place in Iceland, with 70 mph winds and freezing temperatures, with the actual amount of snow posing some problems.
“Unfortunately, when they went to shoot the plates, a lot of the snow had melted so we had to replace it,” explained Hillier. “We’d worked on snowy landscapes recently for the first season of His Dark Materials, but we really had the opportunity to push our snow shaders further to hold up in all the close-up shots of the snow moving across the surface of the ground, with the light scattered through it.”
Pre-production supervisor Kaya Jabar, then at The Third Floor London, led a virtual camera shoot of the set, before designing a virtual LED shoot plan for screens in the observatory. Working closely with Lawrence, Jabar’s team created a suite of tools using Unreal Engine to tie together a virtual camera and an LED screen simulator that was accurate to the exact panels used on the day.
“I do believe that we were amongst the first people to plan it that way,” noted Jabar. “I just applied the logic that if we can virtually plan a shoot and show you what will replace a greenscreen, then we can do the same with LED screens.”
The VFX on The Midnight Sky needed to be as seamlessly integrated, photoreal and realistic as possible. “Ultimately, George wanted the drama to be grounded,” commented Lawrence. “The language of the film, especially in those moments you’re with George stuck in isolation, is emphasized by the static locked-off camera and beautiful composition of the scene. It was a nice place to be in; to compliment the filmcraft rather than going all out in showy VFX.”
“We had to shoot a pregnant astronaut floating in space,” concluded Clooney. “Framestore did a brilliant job with all of it.”