The three big challenges behind Passengers’ spaceship shots

PassengersRecently I wrote about MPC’s visual effects for the anti-gravity swimming pool scene in Passengers after talking to overall VFX supervisor Eric Nordby. MPC had plenty of other challenges to solve in the film, too, including how to realize scenes of the spacecraft, the Avalon.

Here Nordby runs down three things he and the team at MPC had to tackle specifically with the 1000 metre long ship, from design to scale and then coming up with an appropriate environment and lighting in space – something that’s harder to do than you think.

Challenge #1 – A ship design that felt like it served the story

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The story being, it’s this luxury cruise ship in space that has to also transport 5000 people as well as all of the cargo and the rest of it and not just feel like a freight liner. So Guy Dyas, the production designer, broached that quite early on. He was inspired by, of all things a sycamore leaf, which is a leaf that when it eventually falls, it helicopters down towards the ground. And it’s got this very beautiful sweeping design to it. And so that was an early inspiration, to go back to the natural world. That formed the basis of it and then we just went from there and modified the ship where we needed to modify it.

Challenge #2 – Selling scale

This is a huge challenge to visual effects, especially when you don’t have anything close by. And because we’re in deep space for the entirety of the movie we’re never really close to anything. There’s one moment where you pass by a star but the vast majority of our exterior shots are just ship and then a very, very distant star field, a star field that’s light years away. So we’re never close to planets, we’re never close to other ships. So to really wrap our heads around the appropriate scale it required some heavy thinking on what we could afford to operate, what we could afford to really add that sort of geometry component to it that wouldn’t kill us in render and the rest of it.

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And so what became the guiding principal was to art direct the shot. So we would stage the shot, and then whatever we got close to we would just pour whatever resources we had into doing a paint up and whatever we had in terms of atmosphere and all this stuff we wanted to add in order to sort of help us scale.

Challenge #3 – Exposure and speed

As a result of us being in deep space and not close to any stars, we sat down with Rodrigo Prieto, the director of photography. A large portion of the movie is in exterior space and we wanted to pick his brain on how he would see that. We’ve seen some incredible work lately, both Interstellar and Gravity and others. We’d been going with this very, very high-key harsh light that immediately you get a huge mileage out of because it feels very NASA-like, it feels like what you would see in actual space photography – a very blue, harsh, one light, intense fall-off shadow. And so we talked about whether or not that was a possibility for him.

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Well, firstly, it would be a complete cheat because we’re not close to any sun, and secondly, he didn’t like the fact that it would be a very ugly light for the amount of stuff we had in this movie. It would have pulled away from what he felt his overall lighting design was going to be, which I thought was great because it allowed us to create this lighting dome which was based on essentially a nebula as opposed to any single source, which we kind of designed with a very soft ratio that was more similar to how Rodrigo was lighting the interior of the ship.

The next big part of that challenge was, how do you get that to look real?, because obviously exposure-wise when you’re actually shooting astral photography you’re actually photographing nebula and distant galaxies and there are such extraordinarily long exposure times nothing we’re going to do is going to be in that world. And so we really had to strike a balance of what we thought felt overly designed or under designed.

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So we created a continuum of images for Morten and Rodrigo before we shot a frame of film, and we went all the way from extraordinarily stylised Guardians of the Galaxy-like – a very colourful world that worked so well for that movie to just International Space Station space walk photography. And we just talked at length about everything in between and found our area that we felt comfortable with. And then from there we could backpedal and start to paint up our space-scapes and then try to get some depth in those space-scapes and create this absolutely massive build that would form the setting for the entire movie.

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