on set

“Capa flies backwards.”

Between the moment those three words came out of Alex Garland’s mind and the moment the resultant image goes into yours, they’ve passed through the hands of several hundred people.

I was at my desk when my colleague Phil’s mobile phone rang. When he hung up, he said, ‘That was Julian (Spencer, the Stunt Coordinator). They are going to re-shoot that shot Alwin did the other day. He wants me to go down to Stage 11 to help him out.’

“That shot Alwin did” involved Alwin Kuchler and Cillian Murphy both getting into harnesses connected to a track on the ceiling and being ‘flown’ around the set at very high speed. After watching it back, Danny Boyle wanted to see if they could be flown around any faster. The special effects crew in charge of the wirework tinkered with the rigging for a couple days to speed the whole thing up.

Before the main unit filmed it a second time, Julian Spencer got Kim, one of the stunt women, and Phil to help test out the new, speedy rigging. Whereas Kim is used to and trained in harness work, Phil was a complete novice. He seemed to be enjoying himself, however.

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They got Phil and Kim in the harnesses and up in the air. Julian wanted Phil to film the whole thing so that he could show the tape to Danny to see if it was fast enough. Along with being suspended several feet in the air and pulled along several kilometres per hour, Phil had to try to keep Kim in shot, keep the camera steady and stay facing in the same direction.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

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The first time they tested it, Phil and Kim ended up rotating about 90 degrees and were travelling sideways rather than forwards. No good. Next, Julian ran alongside them to try and keep them heading straight, but they were started out too quickly which jerked them both forward and up and meant that Phil wasn’t able to keep Kim in shot. No good. They tried again, starting off slowly, but they weren’t moving fast enough. Next, Phil wrapped his right arm around the wire Kim was on to try and keep the camera stable, but their wires were moving in opposite directions so Kim’s wire bumped him around too much to keep a steady shot. They were lowered for a rest while the effects guys thought about what they might be able to do about keeping the camera steady. After a few minutes they decided to connect it loosely to Kim’s wire so that the camera always moved with her, yet Phil had to still make sure she always stayed in shot. Phil and Kim were hoisted up again. They were flown across the studio several more times, Phil filming the whole time. All in all it took about an hour to get about 20 seconds of footage that Julian thought was good enough to show to Danny.

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Phil and Kim were lowered and got out of the harnesses. Julian watched the shots back a few times then we all headed to Stage 5 where the main unit was filming. We walked in while they were setting up. About 10 seconds after we arrived, Danny walked by on his way to speak to one of the actors. Julian told him they he’d just done some tests with the new rigging and if Danny had a moment he could watch it. Phil opened up the view finder and Danny watched about 5 seconds and said, ‘Good. Thanks.’ and went back to work. And that was that.

In the end they rigged up the camera to the wire which was holding Cillian and Alwin never went up again- not having two people one the wires allowed Cillian to travel much quicker and get the shot Danny wanted.

The film was processed, synched up, digitised. It will be edited, graded, sound dubbed. It will be duplicated and distributed. It will be threaded into a projector, the lights will go down and for a brief moment in the film you will see Capa fly backwards.

2014 Update: Here’s a behind-the-scenes video on stunts featuring Julian Spencer

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One of the things that’s been perplexing me lately is this:

Why sometimes blue screen, why sometimes green screen?

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Obviously, as a film set in space, there are going to be quite a lot of computer graphics done in post-production over the coming months. Some of the shots will be entirely computer generated – when you see the whole of the spaceship, for example- other scenes will be a composite of live action and computer generated imagery – one of the characters doing a spacewalk or one of the sets extended digitally. The latter composite shots need to be filmed with the live action in front of either a blue screen or a green screen so that the computer generated images can easily be added in place of the blue or the green.

When filming started, Stage 8 and the Airlock set both had blue screen. ‘Normal,’ I thought, ‘Blue. Normal.’ Then suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, Stage 8 and Stage A had green screen.

Why? Why green? Wasn’t blue good enough?

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Right now it’s gone really mixed-up and crazy- there’s one studio which is entirely blue screen with no set, another studio which is entirely green screen with no set, but with an enormous model, and one studio which has a set, but the walls are all green screen.

I know that both blue and green can be used to separate the live action from the background image, but I had no idea why both were being used on this film. The man to ask is the Visual Effects Supervisor, Tom Wood. This is what I learned:

The first choice is always blue as it is very easy to isolate because blue doesn’t appear in flesh tones (which, incidentally, are made up of a combination of red and green). Blue screen has been used on the ‘Sunshine’ sets where the actors are wearing certain costumes which contrast very nicely with the blue. As you will remember from one of the photos in my post about the costumes, however, the actors are sometimes wearing blue. Hence the need for green screen. Doh.

Another more technical reason for choosing green over blue is that the film speed being used on ‘Sunshine’ (500, film nerds) would make the blue go a bit too grainy to get a good key edge, which is the defining line between, in this case, the live action and the computer generated imagery.

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If you have a close look at the above green screen image you can just make out some little pink dots on the green wall (you might need to look at the bigger image). Those are the ‘tracking markers’. Sometimes the tracking markers are made by using red LED lights, sometimes, like in that photo, they are made of an X of florescent pink gaffer tape with an ever-so-slightly different colour pink square at the very centre.

Tracking markers are used by the Visual Effects department as a guideline to re-create the real camera move with a digital (or virtual) camera move. For example, let’s say there is a two metre tall actor standing two metres away from the camera and the computer generated image behind him will stretch off for 100 metres into the distance. Then let’s say that Alwin Kuchler moves the real camera one metre down to the actor’s waist height, and five metres to the left yet the camera is still pointing up to the actor’s face. The people in Visual Effects need to have some way of seeing the movement on that green or blue screen in the background so they can match that movement in their effects. As they know the distance between and the exact positioning of the tracking markers AND they know the distance between the camera, the action and the tracking markers they can work it all out.

Apparently, no one ever says, ‘Hey, you did the tracking in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’? Wow, I just love your tracking work’!’ after seeing a film, so the job of working out the tracking can be a thankless one. So, next time you see a film with computer generated imagery, think of those poor people whose job it is to cover a set in tracking markers or those poor people who are stuck in a dark room for months on end going bug-eyed looking at those markers on computer screens. On ‘Sunshine’ there are going to be between 600 and 700 shots with digital effects, approximately on third of the film… that’s a lot of tracking markers… My guess is that there are at least a couple people here who really don’t want to see another tracking marker at all for a while after this finishes filming…

The tracking markers are much easier to see on this blue screen image, but as there’s some top secret filming going on, I had to pixelate it (2014 update: obviously I can show you now).

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Brand New Set

There is a new set in town, baby, and, boy, is it amazing! I only just saw it for the first time last Friday… On the call sheets it’s called ‘Int-Stellar Bomb’- the interior of the Stellar Bomb.

Bomb_setIt’s a massive set- the biggest on the film- filled with an oil-like substance made by the Set Decorating Department. Obviously, oil itself wouldn’t be ideal on set, so they made it out of safe materials: cellulose, water and aniline dyes. They mixed it all together in different huge vats and then drizzled out the gloopy mixture to fill the entire set.

Running above the lake of oil are two catwalks on which the action takes place. I can’t tell you what ‘action’ exactly, but I can tell you that Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis were filming there yesterday, though the rest of the filming is going to be Cillian on his own.

We had some physicists come to visit last week- two of whom Cillian spent time with at CERN Particle Physics Lab in Geneva to prepare for his role. As we walked along the catwalks on the Stellar bomb set they said, ‘It’s just like being on shift’, because the set felt so similar to one of their experiments.

The inspiration for the ‘lake’ on this set was the Super-Kamiokande Neutrino detector in Japan. Of course, you all know that’s where they have been detecting and studying neutrinos. And, of course, you all know that neutrinos are produced in nuclear reactions in the Sun. Considering that several million billion neutrinos flew right through your head while you’ve been reading this sentence, one can only imagine how difficult it’s been to detect and study them…

Open Up

I was working at my computer, headphones on, listening to my Sunshine playlist (Bob Marley ‘Sun Is Shining’), when everyone in my office started getting up. I took my headphones off. ‘Is it happening?’

‘It’s happening.’

“It” involved pyrotechnics. My headphones were off and I was out of there in seconds. There’s nothing that gets everyone here more excited than when stuff gets blown up.

Every time there are big, explosive special effects on set, it’s always kind of like a class trip- we go outside, pair up with friends, get all giddy, everyone looks slightly different because you aren’t seeing them sitting at their desk… and, of course, the bad kids hang out at the back smoking cigarettes…

We headed straight down to the set to watch as the Special Effects crew did the final set up.

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As they got closer to being ready, we all had to leave the set and go outside to watch on the monitors. Hey, let’s play a ‘Where’s Wally‘ type game. Can you find Alex Garland? (Yes, I’m expecting another email from him now… but I don’t consider it a photo of him if I can’t see his eyes. ;)

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We waited and waited. Not realising we’d have to wait so long, we hadn’t all worn our coats. We started to get cold so shoved our hands into our pockets and jumped around a bit. We passed the time by talking about the last couple special effects explosions, describing them for people who had missed them. Suddenly, firemen appeared and jumped into action connecting hoses to the fire truck and taking them into the studio. Whenever there are explosions, firemen are required to be on hand in case something goes wrong. Of course, the special effects team spends several hours setting up the explosions so that nothing will go wrong, but the firemen need to be there nevertheless.

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Within minutes, the cameras were rolling and we were told to cover our ears.

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BANG! After all of the waiting around, it always seems to be over so quickly. I immediately ran up to the studio door to take a photo and was promptly yelled at because… well, basically, the set was on fire, it hadn’t been made safe yet and only special effects crew and firemen were allowed in.

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The risks I take for you guys… I don’t know…

The fire was put out in seconds and the studio filled up with smoke. It smelled like someone had just blown out a candle.

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Everyone said goodbye to each other and slowly wandered back to real life feeling slightly let down. The explosions are never quite as big and exciting in real life as they are on film…

Still we’ll all be out there again for the next one hoping for an even bigger bang.

Stubble=Stress

When filming started way back in September, pretty much all of the men were clean-shaven. There was the odd beardy, but, you know, one doesn’t expect anything other than that from the Special Effects department. ;)

A few weeks ago, however, I started to pay attention to the shaving habits of the men around me when I got my first glimpse of stubble. I deduced very quickly that on a film set stubble=stress. I noticed that when a normally very clean-shaven guy was having a difficult time, he’d not shave for a day or two until the stress had passed and then he’d turn up for work with cheeks as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

After a week or so of the odd stubbly day here or there, I noticed that several guys would turn up to work clean-shaven on Monday morning, but by Friday would have a pretty full beard on the go. They didn’t shave at all during the week, but would leave their shaving until the weekend so that they could start the new week afresh. I decided that the moment men stopped shaving on the weekend and started turning up to work on a Monday with a beard that things will have tipped over the bristly edge and really started to get stressful.

Last week, for the first time, I noticed several beards on Monday morning. They’ve been doing six day weeks, 12 hours filming each day and, frankly, I’d guess that the last thing anyone wants to do on their only day off is waste any time at all on shaving. Not everyone has succumbed, but a large percentage of the men are, at the very least, stubbly for several days per week…

Alex Garland, however, has been cultivating his ’stubble look’ from day one… so no one really knows if he’s stressed or not. Veeeery clever move on his part. Very clever.

The only two men I’ve noticed who have *never* had stubble:
Andrew Macdonald and Danny Boyle…

I’m afraid, however, I have no data available on the women-on-production’s legs.

380 THz (3.8×10^14 hertz) to 750 THz (7.5×10^14 hertz)

Danny_Alwin_lightsI’ve written a bit about how Alwin Kuchler, the Director of Photography, is playing with light in just about every shot. He’s had lights and lasers shining directly into the lens. There are lens flares, burn-out and distortion… He has filmed some of the most astonishing shots that look as if they’ve been through Visual Effects already yet he’s only used light…

One only has to spend about 10 minutes on set before one hears the name ‘Reuben’ called out in a German accent. It’s Alwin calling Reuben Garrett, the Gaffer. Alwin always wants more light.

When I’m on set I often hang around Stephen ‘Math’ Mathie, the Lighting Desk Operator. The lighting desk has a nice big monitor so I can see what’s happening on camera… even if it’s Alwin lying on the floor with a light meter…

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Today, I asked ‘Math’ how many lights he thought have been used on the film. As one would imagine on a film about a mission to the Sun, shot entirely indoors on eight different sets, there are going to be a lot of lights. He said that there were a few thousand:

1000 on Stage 5
200 on Stage 8
50 on Stage 11
150 on the Airlock
1000 on the Oxygen Garden
600 on the Flight Deck
2-300 on Stage A

He said this was a higher than usual number as instead of using ‘film lights’ they are using mainly practical lights. The sets are built with lights in them- in the ceilings, the walls and the floors- and those are used instead of big lights on stands… which is a good idea as there isn’t any room for them on the cramped sets anyway. This means that the lights are already set when they arrive and it’s then up to Reuben and Math to work out exactly what the lights need to do for each shot… And then, of course, for Alwin to ask for more…

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Celebration and Goodbye

Today is Hiroyuki Sanada’s birthday. 御誕生日おめでとう, Hiro! He wasn’t filming today, but arrived on set for a bit of birthday cake.

Not only is it Hiro’s birthday today, but it’s also his last day on the shoot. It’s rather sad actually. The cast has really become a tight knit group and now one of them is leaving. Whenever I speak to a cast member about how they’re getting along, they all talk about how they lived together for a while before they started filming and how they did activities like scuba diving and a Zero G flight to prepare for their roles as astronauts, but which helped to bond them. They always talk about how close they’ve become… and Hiro is no different. When talking to him, I sensed that he really will miss his fellow cast members rather a lot and was already talking about when he will be back.
Hiroyuki has been in more movies than one can possibly imagine. He’s a superstar, a megastar, an MBE, for goodness’ sake. Still, he is the most charming, delightful man you could ever hope to meet. I really hope this isn’t the last we see of him.
又ね

How Do You Build A Spaceship?

First, you need to think about the purpose of the mission.

Go.

Then, you need to think about whether or not it will be launched from and land on Earth or from low Earth orbit.

Go.

Then, you need to think about whether it has passengers and/or payload.

Go.

Then, you need to think about living quarters, communications, electrical and computer systems, life support and how they are accessed.

Go.

Then, you need to think about how it can be easily built and maintained.

Go.

And if you are Mark Tildesley the Production Designer, before you are good to go, you’ve got to think of all of those things in several different ways.

First, in order to be believable, Mark has to think of designing a spaceship as if it was for the real world. The credibility of the film would crumble if the design of the ship was fundamentally wrong- for example, if the ship was a big cube and the characters talked about the smooth launch from Earth. Reading about and studying spaceflight and spaceship design, and talking to engineers, astronauts and scientists is vitally important. Mark’s office is full of books and images on space, spaceflight and spaceships. The walls are plastered with photographs of the International Space Station, inside and out. He immersed himself in ’space’. Most importantly, for this film, he has to think about the fact that it’s going to the awesome, boiling beast that is THE SUN.

Second, the film takes place in the future, 50-60 years in the future. Mark has to read up on technology and the future to get an idea of what, realistically, might be possible (let’s just say you aren’t going to see any replicators or tractor beams in the film). He also has to look back to the past to try and get an idea of just how much our world has changed over the past 60 years to see how much it might change in the next 60 years. For example, we still have cars that are “cars” rather than personal helicopters or hovervehicles, and though the design has been streamlined and the technology of the cars’ system has advanced, someone from 60 years ago would still recognise it as a car. Mark’s designs need to be recognisable, yet realistically, technically advanced.

Third, Mark needs to think about the aesthetics of the design- basically, it needs to look really cool. NASA engineers just have to make something functional and if they stumble upon an iconic design then so much the better (did you know that the external fuel tank on the Shuttle is orange not because it looks cool, but because to paint it white would add 500kg in weight?). Mark has to create a functional yet iconic spaceship, no questions asked. Otherwise what will they put on the T-shirts and coffee mugs?

Fourth, he has to think how this spaceship is going to be built in seven different buildings on a film studio lot. Unfortunately, there isn’t a studio here that is about one kilometre long so that the whole ship could be built as one big set. He also has to work out how much filming will be done on each set, how long it will be needed for each block of filming.

Fifth, he has to think about how it’s going to be used in the film. He needs to go over the script with a fine toothed comb and work out the layout of the ship, what the characters need to do in each space, how they get to each section, how many of the characters’ private cabins need to be built, how much ‘corridor’ needs to be built for each different set…

Sixth, he needs to think about how each set is going to be filmed – a tiny, little, enclosed room with no space for more than one person might not be ideal for a film crew. He also needs to think about special effects and CGI. How are they going to make the actors ‘float’ on this set? How are they going to “extend” that set so it looks like it’s a mile wide? Is every bit of the set going to be filmed or can just a small section of it be built?

Seventh, he needs to think about how it’s actually going to be manufactured. There isn’t a big shop called ‘Movie Spaceships Galore’ that he can just walk into to get everything he needs. Every panel, every rail, every floor surface, every nut and bolt needs to be sourced or manufactured. And that’s just the shell of the set.

Eighth, he needs to think about how it’s going to be built. Does every set need to be finished at the same time? Is there any way that one stage can be used for more than one set? How many people will it take to build this (over 200, as it happens)? Will it be finished on time?!

Ninth, he needs to think about the smaller stuff – how it’s going to be lit, where the lights will be placed, what props are needed and where. There are the monitors, the switches, the sockets, the cables which make it start to look like a working spaceship. Then there is everything from pieces of paper with formulas scribbled on them, to the kitchen, to cupboards filled with medical equipment, to all of the idiosyncratic ’stuff’ that makes one character’s bedroom different from another’s.

Tenth, he needs to think about the outside of the spaceship. How does it move? Where are the thrusters? Where is that thing mentioned on page 98?

Along with all of that he’s also got to think about how much it’s all going to cost (a massive amount, right, Andrew?!) and how to get it all done within the budget.

The whole process, from beginning to end, is entirely collaborative. He oversees and liaises with several different departments, all in charge of various different parts of the spaceship- the Art Department, Set Dressers, Props, Miniatures, Special Effects, Visual Effects… and I often see him in Accounts. For more than a year before filming started Mark has been working directly with both Danny and Alex to create a believable, functional, iconic spaceship.

It’s actually so iconic that all I can show you are these little bits…

 

corridor153c4f70def937.jpg spaceship153c4f7158de4e.jpg spaceship253c4f718d42f1.jpg spaceship353c4f725e4b44.jpgspaceship453c4f721c38e9.jpgBomb_set

 

Incandescent

Even though the set is closed to the likes of me this week, I got a chance to talk to one of the actors last night to find out how everything was going. He said:

It’s hot.

Take that literally and/or figuratively.

2014 Note: In this post I was referring to Mark Strong. I wasn’t permitted to mention his name nor his character’s name nor did Danny allow me on set when Mark was filming. I did break that rule one time and snuck this photo of him though.

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Lord of Darkness

I might go on about Danny’s brilliance as a director and, yea, sure, I probably fawn over Alex and his brain a lot, but do you want to know who blows my mind? Alwin Kuchler the Director of Photography (DOP).

There are a very few films I’ve seen where I am awed by or even notice the DOP’s work. Every shot Alwin does, however, is a piece of art. I’ve been on set when after Danny calls ‘cut’ there is this murmur that spreads ‘how does he do that?!’ ‘that was remarkable!’ ‘Alwin is amazing’. Sometimes after watching a shot on the monitor I’ve actually been left speechless.

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Apparently, the company who process the film got in contact to say there was a problem- the shot was all blurry and burnt-out or something – and were taken aback when they were told ‘no, there’s no problem, that’s how it’s supposed to look.’

There isn’t a single shot I’ve seen that can be called ‘normal’. He’s using and playing with light in such a way that it distorts the shots. He’s shining lights and lasers directly into the lens. He’s shooting through warped glass. He’s using reflective materials and shining extremely bright lights into it. There are flares and burn-out and over-saturated colours. Yet still… it’s dark…

Alwin Kuchler, the Lord of Darkness.