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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…

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.


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…


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…



Chicken and Rice

I’ve never worked on a film before. Apart from the thrills I get from seeing Danny Boyle in action, ‘discovering’ the remarkable Alwin Kuchler Effect, falling in love with Mark Tildelsey’s designs and chatting to the cast… if I’m completely honest, it can be really rather boring. There is a lot of standing around. Some days it’s taken literally hours to set up a shot… so hours and hours and hours of standing around…and waiting. Yes, the end result is amazing and beautiful and makes me go all gushy about Alwin, but, boy, it really can be boring.

I’ve just come back from the airlock set… I was waiting and waiting and waiting for a scene I’ve been waiting weeks to happen… I’ve seen the animatics for it, seen the stunt rehearsals, spoken to every single person involved in creating the shot and today is the big day when it’s finally going to be filmed.

I waited. And waited. And waited. Danny and Alwin were deep in discussion with Richard Conway, the Special Effects Supervisor. Then they had a rehearsal with the actors. More discussion. Another rehearsal. Discussion. Rehearsal. Discussion. Technical rehearsal. Discussion. More discussion. Then Troy Garity, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans and Cillian Murphy were stood down while there were more discussions.

Cliff wandered off the set. He has a way of just…. disappearing… and no one ever sees him leave.

One minute Chris was there, the next… gone.

Cillian went back to his dressing room, probably to listen to music.

Troy stayed on set and started reading a magazine. He’s not been feeling particularly well for the past few days. He’s come down with the same illness I have, so I chatted to him for a while about fresh ginger and sweat lodges then we compared symptoms- he’s only just got over the headaches, my cough is worse than his.

More discussion on set.

I decided to go out and get some fresh air and a drink. I bumped into Alex Garland, had a chat and then wandered back in.

Nothing had been filmed.

I spoke to a couple of the people on production about the script, Alwin’s shots, Cillian and Hiroyuki Sanada (specifically: the changes from early drafts; how amazing Alwin’s shots are; how being able to stare at Cillian all day, isn’t such a bad job to have; how Hiro is missed by everyone). One of the Special Effects guys came up to me to get my email address because he wanted to send me some photos to put up here.

Still nothing was filmed.

They’re now eating dinner…


They’re running behind- three days? four?- and must complete four different shots by the end of today. They’ll finish very late tonight… and I won’t be here to see it.

How Do You Build A Spaceship?

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


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


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


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


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


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

Filming Has Started

“Fifty years from now, the sun is dying, and mankind is dying with it. Our last hope: a spaceship and a crew of eight men and women. They carry a device which will breathe new life into the star. But deep into their voyage, out of radio contact with Earth, their mission is starting to unravel. There is an accident, a fatal mistake, and a distress beacon from a spaceship that disappeared seven years earlier. Soon the crew are fighting not only for their lives, but their sanity.”

Here we go…