“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.


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.


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.


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

Set Graveyard

The end of principle photography is coming soon and already several of the main sets, including the Airlock and the Oxygen Garden, no longer exist. Walking around the sets is a bit sad right now. I go in fully expecting to walk into the spaceship and instead it’s either the wooden shell of the set with the props and set dressing removed or it’s been changed into something else – the studio where the Oxygen Garden was is a huge blue screen room, the Airlock set is now…er… something else. ;)

The Oxygen Garden is the only set to which I felt an emotional attachment- it was green and alive, not like a film set at all. I would go in for a wander around every few days when they weren’t filming in that set. I’d look at the bamboo trees, the tomato plants, the beans, the carrots, the corn, the cabbage… It was so peaceful and relaxing, just me on my own in the garden in space… but now the remains of it are sitting outside at the back of Three Mills waiting to either be taken away or destroyed.




The other week I watched as a big grapple smashed up part of the set. It wasn’t enjoyable at all…


Sure, there are a couple new sets- the Stellar Bomb set is the biggest- but they aren’t the kind of place you’d go to hide, nor the kind of place that you fall in love with. They aren’t anywhere as beautiful as the Oxygen Garden.
Don’t tell the props department, but I took home a fern from the Oxygen Garden… so I always have a memory of it.

Update 2014: a few more ‘graveyard’ shots.




#0000FF #00FF00

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

Why sometimes blue screen, why sometimes green screen?


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?


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.


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).


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…

Don’t Be Light

Shed some light on (a problem)

See the light

Light at the end of the tunnel

Bright idea

To be bright

I see what you mean

To see eye to eye

The answer flashed before his eyes

Mind’s eye

All of those little phrases have to do with knowledge, intelligence and the mind. Not surprisingly, the phrases which imply a lack of knowledge have to do with lack of light or an inability to see:

A shot in the dark

Remain in the dark

A shadow of doubt

A blind spot

A hazy notion

Even the period of time in our history which is considered to be an age of great ignorance and lacking great cultural and scientific achievements is called The Dark Ages.

In pre-classical Greek they used the same word, phaos or phos, for both ‘light’ and ‘eye’ and Aristotle considered the eyes to be the gateway to the intellect. Other ancient Greek words related to phaos and phos are: phantasia “appearance, image, perception, imagination,” phantazesthai “picture to oneself,” phantos “visible,” phainesthai “to imagine, have visions”.

Our words ‘fantasy’, ‘fantastic’, ‘phantom’, ‘phantasm’ – all of which have to do with ’seeing’ something in your mind- come from the Greek word for ‘light’.

Hey, we don’t even have to stick with the Greeks. In Latin, the word for light was lux or luc-. Today when we use the word lucid it can either mean, essentially, to be sane, or we can have a lucid dream, which is when we know we are dreaming. Sanity and the knowledge that we are experiencing a phantasm are all connected to ‘light’.

The metaphor that light is knowledge is as clear as day.

What is light though? What is this thing that we need in order to know, to understand, to… be?

Light is a particle known as a photon. It’s a wave of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength which is visible to the eye.

And if Sunshine is refracted through a prism, it is broken down into a rainbow.


Interview With The Bad Astronomer

One of the best astronomy websites out there is Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy (2014 update: here is Phil’s old site). Phil is an actual, real-life professional astronomer who started Bad Astronomy in 1998 to right some wrongs about space science which he had noticed on TV and in films. He says, “As television and movies have become better and better at shaping our views of the world, it is becoming more and more important that we understand what it means to be scientific. Like it or not, those that understand science and technology will always have the advantage over those that don’t. If everyone had even a basic grasp of scientific principles, this planet would be a better place.”


I must point out that, contrary to what a non-science fan might think, Bad Astronomy is by no means dull or dry. Phil’s blog makes me laugh out loud and I can easily lose a couple hours (at least) on the messageboards which are as fun, funny and lively as any others out there, and more popular than most. One of my very favourite sections of Phil’s site, however, is the ‘Bad Movie’ page. Phil reviews films based on whether or not the astronomy contained in them is good or bad. Example: ‘Contact’: Good movie with basically good astronomy. ‘Men In Black’: Good movie with some bad astronomy. ‘Armageddon’: Just bad all around.

The other day I decided to Skype Phil to have a chat about Sci-Fi, bad movie science and travelling to the Sun…

Have a listen.

Space Food

The first person to eat in space was the first person to travel there… which was…. Anyone? Anyone?

Right. Yuri Gagarin.

During his 118 minute, one-orbit-around-the-Earth mission on the 12th of April, 1961, Gagarin experimented with eating solid, pasty and liquid foods as he remained in constant radio contact with the Earth. No one knew whether it would be possible to actually swallow in Zero G, they thought perhaps the food would catch in the throat. Yuri Gagarin, however, had no trouble eating, even though they evidently hadn’t thought of presentation when it came to preparing the meals.

Russian cosmonaut food from the 1970s. Photo from NASA.

Russian cosmonaut drink from the 1970s. Photo from NASA.
Russian cosmonaut coffee with milk from the 1970s. Photo from NASA.

Soon after Gagarin’s flight, the Americans were in space. Mercury astronauts were also confronted with unappetising meals made of bite-sized cubes, freeze dried foods, and semi-liquids in aluminium tubes. They reportedly had a difficult time rehydrating the foods, found the food-in-tubes unappealing and discovered that the crumbs from the bite-sized cubes were a threat to the on-board equipment.

Food kit used by Mercury astronauts. Included are packets of mushroom soup, orange-grapefruit juice, cocoa beverage, pineapple juice, chicken with gravy, pears, strawberries, beef and vegetables and other assorted food containers. Photo from NASA.

By the time of the Skylab missions in the early 70s, American space food was relatively sophisticated. Skylab had a freezer and a refrigerator, their food trays doubled as warming devices, they ate with a fork, knife and spoon (all of which were held to the tray by magnets when not being used) and they even had a dining table.

Skylab food. Out of tray, starting from bottom left: grape drink, beef pot roast, chicken and rice, beef sandwiches and sugar cookie cubes, In tray, from back left: orange drink, strawberries, asparagus, prime rib, dinner roll and butterscotch pudding in the center. Photo from NASA.

The three members of the prime crew of the first manned Skylab mission dine on specially prepared Skylab space food in the wardroom of the crew quarters of the Skylab Orbital Workshop (OWS) trainer during Skylab training at the Johnson Space Center. They are, left to right, Scientist-Astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin, science pilot; Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, pilot; and Astronaut Charles Conrad Jr., commander. Photo from NASA.

These days eating in space is easy and routine. Meals take 30 minutes to an hour to prepare- some foods need only to be rehydrated using either hot or cold water produced by the Shuttle Orbiter’s fuel cells. Though they don’t have a freezer or refrigerator as Skylab did, they do have a forced air convection oven used to heat their meals. Their eating utensils include a fork, knife and spoon as well as a pair of scissors to cut open packages. They even have condiments- including mustard, ketchup, hot sauce and liquified salt and pepper.

Selection of food available on the ISS. Photo from NASA.

Mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka is using chopsticks to eat his meal on the middeck of the Discovery during the STS 51-C mission. A food tray is floating on his lap and another is attached to the middeck lockers. Photo from NASA.

In the future, on missions to Mars, extended stays on a Moon base, perhaps even a mission to the Sun, they will require a much wider variety of foods to prevent boredom with mealtimes and to discourage dangerous weight loss. Foods with an extremely long shelf life and high nutritional value, such as dried pulses, nuts and seeds, will be an absolute requirement.



Extended space missions will have to rely fairly heavily an advanced life support system in order to grow fresh food and to replenish oxygen supplies. Fresh fruit and vegetables not only enhance the flavour of meals in space, where often people’s sense of taste is dulled, but they contribute to the need for antioxidants which help to combat the effects of radiation.


A New Word

I’ve invented a new adjective. And I’m using it.

suttirat (soo’-tir-at) adj
1. Passionately concerned with details. I’m getting all suttirat about my photos.
2. Methodical in one’s approach. I need to be more suttirat in order to do it.
3. Generally just cool. That’s just so suttirat.

Suttirat Anne Larlarb is the Costume Designer on ‘Sunshine’. She’s in charge of everything that the actors wear- clothes, shoes, spacesuits, accessories, comms units.

Suttirat’s office walls are completely full of reference images- photos of astronauts, space suits from various eras, samurai warriors, club wear and bizarre dresses that even Isabella Blow would think were outrageous. There are even two pictures of lizards. Not sure what they are there for. She has several books filled with sketches of uniform, spacesuit and comms unit ideas, though my very favourite thing in one of her books is the flow chart showing what each character is wearing in every single scene. I want a large colour copy of it to frame and put on my wall. The writing is tiny and neat, and from far away it looks almost like a circuit board design. It’s beautiful.


The comms units are a cool and geeky bit of kit. Suttirat got her inspiration for them from her Mac laptop, iPods and Army dog tags, which is evident when looking at them- two separate, but virtually identical sections with a ‘breathing’ blue light and rounded corners. They aren’t, however, just bits of plastic on string- they are actual, working communications units. The actors speak to each other through them instead of just ‘pretending’ or having someone just standing off-camera reading lines. For example in one scene, Mace in the Flight Deck might ask a question of Corazon in the Oxygen Garden. When they are filming in the Flight Deck and Chris Evans is on-camera, he asks his question then Michelle Yeoh, who may be sitting off-camera, will reply and her voice will come out of Chris’ comms unit. Though Suttirat designed them, they were made to work by the sound department.


Suttirat had the characters’ uniforms made in a factory rather than have them made in-house. She wanted them to have an industrial feel to give the impression that they are space-agency-issued rather than film-costume-designer-designed. She said that there are little flaws in the stitching that she would have never done had they been made in-house, but, to her, the flaws give the uniforms a much more realistic look.


The costume department is filled with racks of costumes. Each character has their own section which is divided into different stages of the film. As films are shot out of sequence, one needs to be fiercely organised in order to make sure the whole thing runs smoothly. Wanna know how just organised the costume department are? They sew little bits of embroidery floss into the different characters’ socks in order to tell them apart. They are *that* organised.


I love that.

Stand In

It can take literally hours to light a scene. In order to light it properly one needs to have someone actually standing there to light. Rather than have the actors waiting around, getting exhausted and bored, they use stand-ins.

Stand-ins are not doubles, they don’t necessarily look like the actor they are standing in for, but they tend to be roughly the same height and are issued with a copy of the costume the character is wearing in that scene. All of the stand-ins have been members of the crew- Runners, an AD, even someone from Craft Services have been stand-ins. It honestly isn’t the most exciting job- standing there for hours and hours while Alwin Kuchler works his magic.

Anna, Floor Runner, “lying-in” for Rose Byrne.

On any given day you can tell immediately who is a stand-in. The costumes are so recognisable that you don’t even need to see someone close up to know that they are ‘in costume’ and you can often tell instantly who they are standing in for by what they are wearing. The outfit Sue, the 3rd Assistant Director, is wearing in this photo tells me instantly she’s standing in for Michelle Yeoh.

Sue, 3rd AD, looking cool as Corazon.

Last week, I was walking along outside the main building when about 30 metres ahead of me I saw Dan, Cillian Murphy’s stand-in, walking towards me. Dan had to get extensions so that his hair resembles Cillian’s more. Dan isn’t particularly pleased with his hair and can usually be seen wearing a hat. As he was walking up to me, I realised that he didn’t have his hat on and wondered why that might be. Could he have lost his hat? Did he run off set so quickly he forgot it? Could someone have taken it? As he got closer to me I realised… it wasn’t Dan. It was Cillian.

Dan, Floor Runner, with hat covering his Capa-like extensions.

Sneak Peek

Chris Gill cut together a bunch of shots to show the crew in the little cinema here at Three Mills. I went in during my lunch hour to have a look. Oh. My. Goodness. It was excellent! Everyone who saw it was very excited afterwards. It cheered up the mood enormously – everyone’s been ill or tired and the filming has been going very slowly- so seeing the amazing work everyone has been doing was exactly what was needed. It showed everyone that it was all worth it.

My husband, Brian Cox, was visiting the set. Just after lunch, we were chatting to Alex Garland and a couple other people when Michelle Yeoh walked up. She had 10 minutes before she was needed on set again and wanted to know if she could watch what Chris had cut together. We all went into the edit.

We sat down on the sofas and Michelle told Brian that she’d like him to write her a little explanation of the science behind ‘Sunshine’. She said she’d been asked to explain a few things about the film in an interview and she only had her memories of his lecture to go on. He promised her he’d write one that would be easy for her to explain.

Dan, one of the Floor Runners, got a call that Michelle was needed in a couple minutes, so Mark the Assistant Editor started playing the edit on the big wide screen telly. *BAM*! Everyone stopped talking and watched.

It finished. Silence.

“I want to see it again!” Michelle loved it… and everyone else said, “Yeah! Me, too!” So we watched it again. I’m sure Michelle would have watched it a third time, if she hadn’t had to go film.

Even though there’s no story to Chris’s edit, it was exciting, action-packed, energetic and full of menace. Amazingly though, the film hasn’t been graded, the wires are still in shot, Chris hadn’t included any of the brilliant acting scenes and there’s no CGI- so no ‘big space shots’. It’s definitely not the case that ‘all the best bits are in the trailer’ because that stuff hasn’t even been filmed yet.