Interview: Production Designer Jim Bissell and VFX supervisors Chris Lawrence and Matt Kasmir on their process and inspirations of creating ‘The Midnight Sky’
George Clooney is back behind – and in front of – the camera after successful films like Good Night, and Good Luck. and The Monuments Men with his Netflix sci-fi epic The Midnight Sky. This story of a scientist trying desperately to reach a space mission from the Arctic Circle to warn them of worsening circumstances on Earth boasts stunning visuals, both on Earth and in space. I had the chance to speak with production designer Jim Bissell and visual effects supervisor Matt Kasmir and Chris Lawrence about this daunting technical feat and the layers of work required to make it all look right while still making logical sense.
Abe Friedtanzer: Before we get into specifics, I’m curious what was built, and what was created with visual effects?
Jim Bissell: We designed the spaceship first, and then decided where we were going to go. We built almost all the habitats that the astronauts were in, the ones with gravity. The sleeping pods, the virtual room, the command center, and the various pods where the astronauts worked. We built the central axis of the ship that was weightless, that allowed them to get to the transition pod where they went in and out of gravity and did the extravehicular walk. As far as the exterior goes, we built a placeholder, in other words, the large masses were there to move along. Matt and Chris provided all the detailing of the exterior of the ship, but the basic geography of the ship was represented for the actors to react against. The very specific pieces they were working on, like the radar and the beginning of the arm, there were components of that that we completely detailed out, but for the most part, Matt and Chris handled the rest of that.
Chris Lawrence: It was a lovely process, actually, because it was very collaborative. One of our art directors, a chap called Jonathan Opgenhaffen, was embedded with Jim’s deal and realized that digital model. He was able to bring aspects of visual effects acumen to it but also to work with Jim to realize his vision. It was a really good, highly collaborative process.
Matt Kasmir: We were using virtual camera, and it was something you used just as much as us, Jim. You would come down and look at various models that you were designing in 3-D. You could actually throw a camera on and walk around, and that could inform you for positioning. It wasn’t just the space. We looked at Barbeau before it was constructed digitally using the cameras. It was a fantastic collaborative experience.
JB: I think that’s one of the nice things too, that almost all art departments now work in 3-D. You’re constantly dealing with spaces and the major physical elements you’ll be dealing with in shooting, and you’re always looking for what always needs to be built versus what a visual effects team can do a lot less expensively. I think that’s been the case for about ten or fifteen years. It was especially true on this show. Going back to Jonathan’s contribution, a fabulous art director by any right, whether you’re a visual effects art director or just a conventional art director. One of the things that we had in the design of the ship was the notion that the ship itself addressed issue of gravity through centrifugal force. We designed this baton that spun around that allowed the crew members to experience some form of gravity for their entire journey. The notion was that, rather than what we’re used to seeing in space movies, where they put this large metallic device and sort of spun it around, was actual inflatable habitats with this exo- and endoskeleton that were topologically optimized, and gave it that really incredible organic look. We wanted to mimic the look of topological optimization but you had to really explore to get it right. We wanted it to look very functional but at the same time it had profound dramatic imagery as well, which was, when you look at it, from one perspective it’s a penis with two testicles, and from another perspective, it’s a uterus with ovarian sacks. It’s spinning around, constantly marking time, so it’s about life and time, and death and rebirth. Big issues, big themes, but all in a spaceship that’s ultimately very practical, and could conceivably be designed that way in twenty years.
MK: If something is topologically designed by an algorithm, it’s essentially very hard. Us as humans, we don’t tend to design things that are organic. We tend to like straight lines. It’s a bit like coming up with a random number – it’s impossible. There’s always logic in what we do, even creativity. I think that was hit on beautifully.
JB: We always talked about, Matt and I, in the very beginning, this large constantly swooping around in the background when they were doing their EV work. Even just exterior shots of the spaceship going through space, there’s something really haunting about it, and lovely and beautiful and fragile. It’s reflective of life itself and our own planet spinning through the cosmos.
CL: I always love that shot that’s super wide and against the starfield and then it mixed through to the snow and it was this beautiful mirror image, this visual metaphor for how fragile that ship was as it went on.
AF: Without giving too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, there’s a scene with blood that happens on the ship. There’s something very frightening about it but it’s also not so violent in a way. What were your intentions there to make sure it was realistic and also sort of terrifying?
MK: In the script, it was just a gas leak. A hole in her suit, and she suffocated. George felt that it had been done, and we had seen that. We had been looking at stacks of material shot on the International Space Station, etc., of fluids in space, and we had this seed of an idea, what if she bled to death, and the blood became a ballet? He wanted to play out this death scene, and it’s quite a long scene. It’s silent – there’s no dialogue, so the music is going to be integral. Alexandre Desplat was working on this fantastic score. It had to be visceral and beautiful, and tie in with this music. There were so many challenges within that sequence alone. We had three people on a cramped set with wires in suits. Before we could even start on the blood, Chris and our team did such a great job. There are CG faces in it, the majority of the space suits are CG, there are CG set extensions. We made the decision in editorial to rotate the scene throughout that entire sequence, which meant we were often running out of set, and also we were clipping performances.
CL: Not to mention the blood itself, which was a challenge. The simulated emergence of it in that one sequence in particular. There was quite a lot of very fine tweaking of it as we went through the sequence and editorially it tightened up. Everything was very carefully placed. As Matt said, a ballet.
MK: Another reason that I liked it is Max Solomon, our animation supervisor, took great care in animating the blood. The whole thing passed through all of the disciplines. It was beautifully lit and choreographed. The one thing George wanted was that this isn’t a horror film. This can’t be scary. It has to be beautiful. It has to be intimate. Don’t detract from this moment. It’s this silent moment, as well, apart from the music. It was a huge leap of faith for him. He didn’t see it in all its glory until three days before its delivery. There wasn’t much room to wriggle.
Q: As Augustine makes his big trek, those scenes were very intense. How much of the weather was filmed and what was created? What were some challenges in creating it?
JB: From the very beginning, when I talked to George at the onset of pre-production, he really wanted to make a movie that was a combination of Gravity and The Revenant, which meant he had to be out in the cold. Getting out in the cold, there’s no guarantee for snow anywhere. We started shooting in October. The scouting strategy was, look for a place where we can have it all. There are very few places in the world where you had the option of making sure you have something when you shoot in October, especially now with global warming. We looked at British Columbia. The glaciers there are accessible, but only by helicopter. Iceland was the place that really had the most accessible glacier. We picked an area that had a wonderful variety of spectacular terrains that were all within reach of a central base camp. We camped out there, and a lot of what you see is real. It’s real weather, and real ice. It’s blowing snow, not real snow. Matt was incredibly blessed with good weather. When he went to go shoot some of the plates for the volume screens that we were going to use for the Barbeau set, he was the only one who got snow. For the most part, while we were up there, we got a lot of wind. Some really spectacular footage.
MK: What was really great about being out there was that we locked down a look. One day in particular, these ice storms would come out of nowhere. Like Jim was saying, it never snowed but it would whip up the ice particles. It was like a sandstorm. We all had to tie bits of string to each other, in case we fell down crevasses or got lost. That locked the look and created a massive challenge. We then had to shot loads of pickups on stage in London. I have a massive phobia of shooting snow on stage, because I always feel like you can’t get the light on it. We also created a sky panel on the wall to get a diversity of light onto the snow, and then with SFX, we filled the room with the same volume of wind and atmos that was in Iceland. It reached a point where everyone was struggling to tell what we shot where. The only difference was George’s mustache, because in Iceland it was slightly shorter and had real ice in it.
AF: What science fiction films served as inspiration for the look and feel you wanted to have?
JB: It’s interesting, because George did not want it to look like anything else. That meant we had to use the existing culture language of science fiction films and play against type. The way that I approached that problem at the very beginning was, I looked at The Martian and all the things we’re used to seeing. You look at Alien and Star Wars and they just ignore the whole problem of artificial gravity. The characters there take gravity pills, and then suddenly it’s solved. We wanted to look at it in a way that addressed the very real problem of astronauts in twenty years who are going to do deep-space exploration, and that’s that radiation is a big problem. Artificial gravity also is, because weightlessness just tears people’s bodies apart. Long-term space exploration is just going to kill people, and that’s the antithesis of what we’re trying to do. I speculated that one of the ways to address the problem in a financially and physically realistic way was the use of these topologically optimized structures as well as inflatable habitats. They’re lighter, and less expensive. If the inflatable habitats actually use newly developed fabrics and layers, then it protects against radiation, and contains the atmosphere. You have a big bag of gas, sailing around in a circle and giving yourself enough artificial gravity that your body just doesn’t deteriorate the way that it does if it’s in weightlessness. That’s what dictated the look, and as we mentioned earlier, as we developed this topologically optimized exoskeleton that keeps the thing from flying off into space, you use the same structure on the endoskeleton, which is what holds on to different floors. You can see on the set that you have this endoskeleton that supports the lightweight floors that they’re walking on, and the rest of it is just another layer of fabric on the inside. I love what Matt did during the debris field, when the debris would hit the cloth and you saw those ripples. That was all visual effects, but it relates the exterior to the interior and shows how the ship was designed to absorb that sort of thing, as opposed to being a hard surface.
CL: Cinematographically as well, Martin’s vision probably went along similar lines. I don’t think we were thinking, it needs to look or be directly influenced by these movies. I didn’t want to tread on old ground. You want to improve and innovate. This show was shot on 65mm, delivered at 4K. There was an amazing richness to the sets and photography that we were getting back that we wanted to be very faithful to with the CG. For me, it became about imbuing the starfield and the Milky Way with all that incredible detail. Similarly, the digital additions to the exterior sets that were interplaying with what Jim was doing, and making sure that the material richness was there, and that you could feel all that detail and weave that Jenny Eagan (costume designer) had come up with. It was about being faithful to those design aspects and that cinematographic vision. We don’t go for that very hard space light. It was softer, you wanted a slightly more filled-in world, a cinematic world, to complement the 65mm media.
MK: Absolutely, and Martin Ruhe’s photography played quite a clear role. It had a pace with slow cameras. Apart from zero gravity, which stood out even more, because suddenly these were the few cameras that were traveling, that were rotating. It was the few occasions that we actually used steady cam. Everything else on Earth and in flashbacks was pretty much locked, and just utilizing this huge canvas. I love Martin’s framing, because everyone was sitting in a tableau. It was all about the space around people rather than the people. This wasn’t a traditional disaster or space romp. It was an introverted and quite lonely film. Everybody was isolated in their own little worlds, even on board the Aether. Jim came up with the hologram photographs, a place to ground them. But they all had their individual spaces. Even though they were connected, there was a sense of isolation, a space you could go to.
AF: It’s a very impressive technical achievement. Thank you all for sharing this with me today – I feel like I learned a lot, and there’s so much more to think about now with this film.
The Midnight Sky is now streaming on Netflix.
Select images courtesy of Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX