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The Best Effects in The Martian Are the Ones You Don't See

When you watch The Martian, obviously you know it’s a big visual effects film. But many of the effects themselves are not as obvious. Director Ridley Scott didn’t shoot on Mars (shocker!) so, to make where he did shoot look like the red planet required the kinds of effects you never really think of.


Enter Moving Picture Company or MPC, a company that did about 400 effects shots in The Martian. Their primary job was to make Jordan, where Scott shot the film’s exteriors, look like Mars which meant changing not only the environments but the skies and everything around it.

“It looks like Lawrence of Arabia,” said Anders Langlands, when asked about the original footage they had to work with. Langlands is the visual effects supervisor of MPC’s Montreal office, one of two that worked on The Martian. He talked to us about the surprising, hopefully invisible, effects work in the film.


When someone sets out to make a movie, there’s plenty to worry about. Very rarely is the color of the sky is on that list. But if you’re making a film set on Mars, that’s a huge deal. “One of the first problems was to figure out a grading process to turn photography we shot on location in Jordan into a Martian environment,” said Langlands. “It was basically taking the place that was shot, [layering] color grades on the sky and the ground in order to get it from a blue sky to something that looked Martian.”

But what does “looked Martian” actually mean? Well, MPC went straight to the source. “We looked at a lot of the NASA photos from the rovers - some of them from Mars - and there are interesting colors you get in there,” he said. “But a lot of the time it just looked like an overcast day in a desert on Earth.” Instead Ridley Scott wanted all different colors in the skies at all different times. “Sometimes more green-ish, sometimes it more like a coppery or bronze-y color and so we just had to figure out what the color was going to be and what the right mood was going to be for Ridley,” Langlands said.


There’s also that iconic orange color to the environment. That too required some massaging. “We normally go through a grading process, digitize all of the shots together and then the final color choices are applied in DI (which stands for digital intermediate),” Langlands said. “So we were just basically trying to get that balance between the Earth and the sky to work and to feel like a more-Martian environment. The final color grading [is] quite orange.”


So that’s the sky, the land, and then there’s the in-between. Scott wanted lots of different and dynamic environments on this version of Mars, such as mountains and volcanoes. When Langlands and he team asked Scott what he wanted all that to look like, Scott would draw what the crew came to call a “Ridley Gram.” “He’s famous for doing his little sketches which are sort of really cool Ridley-grams,” Langlands said. “We’d ask ‘What do you want the background mountains to look like in this shot?’ And he’d sketch out a little diagram of what they wanted. So you just literally match that and he’d be happy”


The air was also an issue, specifically dust, but not in the scenes you think. In fact, the big dust storm at the beginning of the film was mostly done with practical effects. It was shot against a black backdrop as huge fans sprayed what looked like harmful debris at the actors. But later, MPC layered in more and more dust and debris to make it look “even thicker and faster and more dangerous.” Beyond that, there’s dust in almost every other scene too.

However, none of those effects came close to being the biggest problem. And true to form, the biggest problem is one you probably would never think of. “I think the trickiest thing we came across was actually the reflections in people’s visors,” Langlands said.

Illustration for article titled The Best Effects in iThe Martian/i Are the Ones You Dont See

On a big movie set like The Martian, there are so many crew members, cameras, microphones, cranes and more floating around, when you shoot against a piece of glass, all of that reflects. And you can’t have that. “We had a lot of cases where we had to do some tricky replacements and just manually paint out crew members and cranes and replace them. Sometimes we’d just take the visor out completely and replace it with a CG one. And then we’d use the environment to generate new reflections that matched what would actually be there,” he said.


In the end, Langlands believes they were able to achieve a look that makes Ridley Scott’s film different and unique from other films in the genre. “What we always want to do is try to do something a bit more unique,” he said. “And certainly in this case I think with all these different elements Ridley wanted to add to the shots, we came up with a unique look for it.”

Image credit: 2015 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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