Sunday
Aug212011

DMP is not a porno term

Moon called for quite a few Digital Matte Paintings (often referred to as DMPs), which are essentially illustrations or photo montages brought to life with camera movement and a few tricks here and there to make them feel real and look like actual footage. We had twenty two DMP shots in Moon, and I had four days to get all of these roughed out and prototyped for the rest of the VFX team at Cinesite to then complete and get into the film. Due to the nature of these shots, I managed to get them 95% complete before I handed them over as I just basically stayed up for three days working on them solidly as it's quite rare I get to spend a chunk of time like that actually doing illustration. I had a large bank of reference images that I'd found in books and on the net, and used that as a basis for these digital paintings. Although they look quite complex they are were actually pretty quick to do. I used to use an airbrush back when I was doing my Graphic Design/Illustration degree and as anybody who likes science fiction and has taught themselves to use an airbrush knows, one of the first things you'll successfully paint is a planet. A nice, round planet with lots of graduated shading on it.

I'd been thinking about how to portray the lunar surface since the beginning of the project when the script was still being written. I knew we were potentially at risk from getting stuck in grey, boring looking areas for large chunks of the film whilst the action was taking place across the lunar surface. I can't be working on a Science Fiction film and have it look boring, not allowed. I was concerned about this and knew we would have to work hard to pull this off as we had hundreds of shots to complete and I didn't want all that work being done and people coming back to me saying it looked boring!

When we were in pre-production and working out geographically where everything was in the film, Duncan bought a limited edition light for the living room. It was a 14-inch or so "Moon" that lit up which was designed by Buzz Aldrin from his cartography from the Apollo era missions. We were having a party that weekend and were trying to make the house look a bit more presentable and so we risked electrocution by changing out the main light in the lounge and hanging it form the ceiling. It was a pig to put up as it was really solid and heavy as it was made from some kind of thick resin and was covered in little spiky bits representing the topography of the moon. Duncan got a black pen and drew an arrow pointing to the Sarang facility and marked down the Earth-facing side so you could see what was what. At a couple of points it was actually quite useful as a quick reference whilst we were lying around in the lounge eating Mexican food after getting back from the studio way too late talking about the next days shooting. It lit up really nicely, and everybody seemed to like it at the party. I hung it a bit low and every time somebody got up off one of the sofas, if they weren't aware of it, they'd smash their head on it. A lot of people brained themselves on our Moon. We left it there when we moved out so for all I know it's still hanging in that lounge. I bet the new people that moved in had no idea what it was for and just thought it was a bit weird and dangerous.

This was the first DMP image I did and I got a lot from it even though I don't think we used it in the final film. I liked the way the image keeps moving into darkness and the way the Lunar surface is defined by the rim in only a portion of the image as I think it helps give the it a sense of mass. You read the dark area at the left of frame as a big chunk of rock even though it's actually just a big dark shape. When you have very little time, it helps to try to draw smart and this was a good solution as it adds drama to the shot whilst simultaneously saving me lots of time. I know I'm running the risk of sounding lazy but I was really really tired and I always had a million things to do. I quite liked the composition of this and so I did a reverse composition and dropped some animation in there to bring it to life a bit.

I liked the way this was going and so I deceded to try a sister-shot with the earth in the foreground. Again, a quick bit of animation to bring it to life and as you can see it's very close to the final shot as it appears in the film.

It was really nice doing these shots as I pretty much had free reign to do whatever I thought looked good. Most of the DMP shots were used as spacers between scenes and so in doing these I was typically just going for a nice composition. After I'd done the reverse Earth/Moon shot I went back to an alternate version of the first one I'd done and knocked this up, which ended up becoming the shot we used for the opening titles.

I really wanted to put something more into these shots and to try and bring something new to them. Most people are familiar with photography of the lunar surface and even though in a sense it is very beautiful, there is a danger that on film when watching shot after shot in a sequence the grey palatte could easily make the film look drab. In treating the Matte Painting like just that (an illustration) whilst also keeping things photo-realistic, I had very few options to work with, so I decided to see if I could try and make things more dramatic by playing with light.

Some quick tests with gradients were all that was really needed to know that I had found something that I liked the look of. Keeping the DMP shots across the terminator where half the image is in darkness and half is in daylight gives a more interesting composition and I liked the idea of half the screen just falling off into darkness. This was good as it re-enforced what I liked about the first shot I did as I'd unconsciously established the heavy-shadowed look right from the first piece. Often when you have a series of images to do you may not realise you have solved a style-issue until you're on the thrid or fourth piece and still trying to develop things and then you start adding back in ingredients you did from the first and second and it immediately looks better. I love it when a plan comes together. Quick bit of lunar trivia here: The terminator is the line formed by the edge of the illuminated portion of the moon. Or, in other words, the edge where it falls into shadow. This was our friend in Moon as it adds drama to what would otherwise be a relatively flat shot and it saved us a shit load of work. Double win. I'm glad I worked this out early on as it would have been a painfull thing to discover later when I was going back and covering up loads of painting with big dark patches and having to admit to myself that it was an improvement. I like the name "terminator" too but I'm resisting making jokes about it which I'm sure you'll agree is a bonus.

I liked the way this helped keep some drama in the images. There's an aspect of the Moon's dark side that is often miss-understood as it's not actually "Dark". Also, there are two different kinds of "Dark". There's the litteral "Dark side" which is of course the side of the moon that is occluded from the Sun at any given time. The Moon does of course rotate and so this area is constantly moving in the same way the Earth moves from day to night in a regular cycle. However, on the Moon this period lasts for around fourteen days light, then fourteen dark, so a Lunar cycle (day) is actually 24 Earth days. Even the area in shadow is not actually pitch-black, as it would be lit by millions of stars. Without an atmosphere this could actually be really bright. At the beginning of the film we see Sam 1 up in the tower beginning his working day and checking in on the harvesters. The bright light outside is the Sun setting, which happens 28 times slower on the Moon than it does on the Earth. We put this in at the last minute as it turned out we couldn't afford to do the VFX of nice lunar views from the tower-windows and so we closed the blinds almost immediately and blamed it on the bright light. The original plan was to have these shutters open all the time so whenever Sam was in the tower we would have a beautiful lunar panorama behind him. I'd designed shutters into the set as I thought a real facility would have them and when we were stressing on-set about running out of money we just decided to close them for most of the film and then open them again at the end when the Eliza rescue ship arrives. It saved us a ton of money as each individual shot with this background in would have run somewhere between eight to twelve thousand pounds. We reconciled it with ourselves as it contributing to Sam’s sense of isolation and being closed off from the outside world and it also made the tower dark and moody which I liked.

We took a few liberties with what the lunar surface on the unlit (dark) side of the Moon might look like so thanks for not judging us too harshly on the results. I just thought the Rovers would look cool driving around in low light using their head-lights so that's what we did.

The other "Dark" side is actually "Radio-Dark" and is the half of the Moon that's facing away from the Earth. Due to the way the Moon rotates, half of the surface is permanantly facing away from the Earth and so radio signals cannot reach it. This is why Lunar Industries has to use satellites to relay the communications, as they are far enough out to receive signals directly from earth and then bounce them back down to the occluded lunar surface.

Although I was starting to like the way this was going I felt it needed a bit more so I sat down with a cup of tea for a bit of a think about it. It occured to me that the lunar mining operations on the Moon could very well, over time, cause environmental damage to the lunar surface in a similar fashion to the way strip mining affects the Earths' surface. I liked the idea of something regarded as essentially a big, dead ball of rock suddddenly appearing vulnerable to the ravaging of the big energy companies' in their relentless quest for profits. I thought this was a nice, subtle way to paint in a bit more of the canvas of Lunar Industries being a bunch of evil bastards chasing the yankee dollar and so I worked into the existing images to put some geometric shapes in there that looked like they could only have been created by machines.

This is the same image as above with the environmental damage added. I really liked this look as it's quite subtle but hopefully it got noticed in the film. One of my favourite films is Silent Running and my childhood fondness of this story is where a lot of the inspiration for Moon came from, so I'm glad that I got a little bit of an environmental thing going on in there even if it is pretty subtle. Big shout out to Doug Trumbull. We ended up having two of these DMP shots in there showing this damage, as we didn't have the resources to work into the rest of the shots as much as we'd have liked. At least we got a couple of them in there though.

It was really nice doing the DMPs as I just got cosy at my computer and settled into it. It was actually quite nice having such tight restrictions in that the moon is essentially grey and cratered and this meant that as I had such a small amount of wiggle-room to try and come up with a new look it really made me focus. I know it's not particularly cool to blow your own trumpet but I am very proud of these environmental damage DMP shots so I'll just have a little toot. Paaaarp. Out of my system.

Sunday
Aug212011

The Unknown Stuntman

One thing that keeps coming up again and again in this blog is me whining about how little money we had. I know this is going to sound clichéd but it does spur you on to be a bit more creative then you otherwise might have been. It also puts you at risk of personal injury or death when the budget won't stretch to a stuntman, your principal actor isn't insured (and doesn't like the look of what he was being asked to do anyway), and you happen to be the same size and build as him. That is how I came to be in this position. 

As we had pretty much no other choices, I ended up being the spaceman in Moon doing all the stuff that looks in no way dangerous at all on-screen but actually is. Sorry Mum if you're reading this, but when we were actually filming your little boy was a half-inch mis-step from falling ten feet and smashing his delicate, human face to bits on scaffold poles and the concrete floor.

We had two space suits made for Moon, and were both identical apart from an orange stripe on suit 2. The actual costume was lined with double-layered duvet and was hot as a bastard. To compensate for the way body heat built up and the lack of any naturally moving air inside the helmet, Bills' chaps filled a motorized fan inside the helmet chin-area to provide ventilation, de-misting on the faceplate and a cool, refreshing breeze. I'm a huge fan of Bill Pearsons' work but that fan was rubbish. It just sat there next to my chin, whirring quietly and blowing the most minute waft of slightly cool breeze roughly equivalent to a piece of dropped A4 paper. It was right in front of my face when I had the helmet on, teasing me with the promise of cool refreshment and never delivering. One time, whilst waiting to go for a take, I was in position and all alone and quiet up the top of some scaffolding straining to hear the shouted stage instructions to go. The fan was teasing and annoying me by doing shit-all. Annoyed by it's ineffectiveness, in a fit of pique I decided to show the puny motor who's boss by stopping its' pathetic drone by inserting my tongue into it. Which I did, and lost a little chunk out of the side of it. Cheers brain, nice suggestion. Here's what Mr. Rockwell thought of the whole thing the first time he tried the suit helmet on.

It didn't help with me having a little bit of hay-fever too as the duvets lining the suit were all made of feathers. It was very hard to bend and flex in (much like a real space suit so I'm told by the internet). The arms were hard to move too as it zipped up at the back and was all one-piece so when you took it off somebody had to come round the back, take the helmet and yolk off, then the backpack and then unzip you and you'd sort of shrug the suit forwards and let your arms slide out. The front of the suit would hang in front of you like a tired ghost and as it was unzipped there'd be a gust of air and all the feathers would go up my nose. I wouldn't mind so much but there was nowhere to stash a hankie, so I had a runny nose most of the time. I grew to feel a sort of kinship with Mel Smiths' character in Morons from Outer Space. It's a good look for getting chicks.

The suit was so hot that you couldn't wear normal clothes underneath it, which meant a complete astronaut ensemble of white leggings and baby-grow style top (same clothes Sam wears in the film), and the little cloth helmet. This particular item of clothing always got on my tits as it was supposed to have two little boom-mics coming off the cap like the Apollo astronauts wore, but the costume designer forgot to add them. We were all so busy that nobody noticed until we'd already filmed the little helmet and by then it was too late to change them. There wasn't much that got past me on this film but this is one of the things that did and every time I see that little hat, it makes me cringe. The whole point of that little helmet is that it's supposed to keep his communications gear on his head and the mics in front of his mouth. The absence of the boom-mics makes it completely redundant. Whenever I see it on-screen I can't help but think "nice baby-hat, space-man".

Funnily enough, a lot of the potentially face-changing danger that I was exposed to came from the suit itself. The combination of no tactile feedback, no feet-bending or sense of feeling or touch, no looking down, sideways or behind, being super-hot and misty, not being able to hear anything, weird extra weight on my back throwing my balance and generally restricted movement and vision made making a cup of tea a risky prospect. Adding that the set was up in the air suspended on chains, covered in scaffold poles and various other hard, knobbly bits that were slippery having been dusted down with grey powder to represent the fine lunar dust and it gets a bit more likely that my mum won't recognise me when the casts come off.

As if clambering all over that thing with no peripheral vision or feeling in ski boots wasn't hard enough, during the crash scenes it was cocked up at a 15-degree angle making it into a slippery slope of certain death. The suit had snowboarding boots painted white for the feet so you can imagine how little tactile feedback you get when you're just trying to walk and you can forget bending important bits like your ankles and toes. Chuck in the helmet base that completely prevents you from looking down and the overall numbness from thick gloves, hard to move arms and a helmet that pretty much deafens you to the outside world and you're good to do some stunts! 

This is one of the fantastically detailed animatics I did, which is a pretty straight-forwards shot of Sam getting into one of the Rovers through the hatch in the roof. We see this at the beginning of the film whilst the credits are coming up. Looks pretty straight-forwards right? Well it would have been easier if the set of the rover hadn't been mated to the rover cab interior as this put it right up in the air.

Anyway, I'm banging on a bit about the massive danger a bit too much now. It's not like I was fired across a canyon in a rocket-propelled bucket or anything, it was just very easy to fall and it would have been bad for my face if I had. I ended up doing quite bit of this sort of thing on Moon and probably the hardest bit to do was pretending to be in Lunar gravity after Sam falls over being sick in his space-helmet. It was all shot against green-screen and I had to spring up like I weighed about six stone in the complete space suit without any sort of rig or support. We got it in the end but I had to do it about thirty times. I couldn't take the suit off as I'd sweated all inside it and it was soaking wet but the studios were freezing and if I opened it up I'd just freeze in a couple of minutes and catch the shittiest cold ever, then just have to get back into the cold, damp suit and go again. I don't know who's got that suit now but whoever you are, if you're reading this; please don't be tempted to put it on. That thing must be absolutely minging and almost certainly a biohazard.

Here we all are, filming the shot from the beginning of the film that pairs up with the animatics above.

I didn't bother editing this clip as I thought you might like to get a glimpse of what it was like as we were actually working. So there you go, un-insured space stunts on a budget. Like I say, we ended up doing a lot of this sort of thing and the bit I'm most proud of is opening the rover-hatch and coming in at the end with my gun to finish off Sam 1 only to find him already dead. In the zero-budget spirit of things I just grabbed some of my paintball gear and took it down to the studio that day so the space-assassin is actually me with a bit of extra belt-kit and a couple of extra pouches with my trusty Tippman X7 with a tactical light with a tail on. If you look closely you can see the gas line that I just tucked into the belt so it looked like there was a bit more going on as everybody likes floppy cables and shit like that.

When you watch this scene in the film, don't feel too concerned for Sam 1. The only real danger he was in was getting a bollocking from Gerty for covering the inside of the Rover in little orange paint splats.

Sunday
Aug212011

Designing the Lunar Harvesters

The Harvester vehicles were always a central part of the script and so it was very important that they look right. Duncan and I had been discussing these theoretical machines for quite a while in the pub as many of our chats tend towards hypothetical engineering projects such as manned Mars missions and Airship routes as motorway alternatives. I find this sort of thing fascinating and try to make my vehicle and hardware designs look authentic by doing a sort of "hypothetical engineering" with the design where I actually design the vehicle from a practical standpoint and place the engine, fuel source, suspension, cockpit, etc inside the vehicle and let that lead the design. It usually results in a more believable end result than it would otherwise and it also makes it more fun and gives me a starting point in the design which tends to have the added bonus of speeding things up. I had some ideas in my head so I got straight into 3DS Max and started some initial design shapes. Once again, I am about to show you some very underwhelming artwork but, in the spirit of honesty regarding the design process, here it is.

I'll usually get right into a model like this straight off the bat as it gives me a good idea of the shapes from all angles and cameras and also it allows me to get an appropriate sense of mass. The Harvesters featured in Moon are essentially unmanned automated factories that roam across the lunar surface sifting through the top layer of lunar soil and processing it via an onboard factory. The complex and compact factory module extracts the element Helium 3 from the lunar topsoil and processes it for use as fuel. This is then loaded into a pressurised, stable container for temporary storage and pickup from the local station crew (Sam). As Helium 3 is a minority element in the lunar soil, a vast amount must be processed to fill a container. To produce roughly 70 tons of helium 3, a million tons of lunar soil would need to be heated to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). Of this million processed tons this means that 999,930 tons of it will be ejected through this machinery out of the back of the Harvester. The image below is the first and only image I ever worked up of the harvesters in photoshop. As usual, it was done very quickly before a meeting and I only got to spend an hour or so on it. To be honest I hated bashing things out this quickly as I knew it would leave me with a rubbish portfolio piece at the end. The thing is that we just didn’t have any time to finish anything off properly and we just had to run at it as fast as we could. I've promised myself that the next film I do I'll be treating myself to some proper illustration time so I've got something nice to show at the end of it. At least the design translated well on film and the end result is pretty close to the original concept. 

When the solar wind and its' rapid stream of charged particles emitted by the sun strikes the moon, helium 3 is deposited in the powdery soil, accumulating over billions of years. Meteorite bombardment disperses the particles throughout the top several meters of the lunar surface. The Harvesters' booms are designed to filter out rocks and boulders and process the valuable fine topsoil. Today helium 3 is estimated to have a cash value of $4 billion a ton in terms of its energy equivalent in oil. When a container is ready for collection the Sarang base receives notification and maintenance staff must make their way to the Harvester to collect them in the Lunar Rovers. These Rovers have special equipment to allow safe transpiration of highly pressurised fuel sources.
 Once the Harvesters have been started they cannot idle like traditional Earth-bound vehicles. Their very design means they must constantly be in motion otherwise a stall occurs and the whole factory unit automatically shuts down. Re-starting a stalled Harvester in the lunar environment is a big job so the maintenance crew of Lunar Industries stations are constantly under pressure to keep things running smoothly and avoid stall events at all costs.
The machines' actual span with both booms fully deployed is 174 feet (58 metres). These massive machines would be deployed to the lunar surface in modules and assembled by maintenance teams on-site. Lunar Industries services these machines with Trans-Planetary vehicles called "Rigs" which can be called in should the need arise. Due to the great expense this is a measure of last resort. Due the nature of their Job, Rig Crews are "no-nonsense" outfits. If you look closely at the Eliza rig design it is actually able to swap out factory modules on the harvesters by landing astride them and can even recover and drop-off entire harvester vehicles.
The helium 3 element is almost non-existent on earth but abundant on the moon and is a perfect source of fuel for fusion. This technology is real world and the theories and technologies for all Lunar Industries mining operations depicted in "Moon" are being seriously considered by NASA. We got a lot of our background for Moon from the excellent book "entering space" by Robert Zubrin. It's a very sober, logical look at how we could be moving out into space and examines both the technologies are already have and those we need to develop. If you've not read this book and are interested in space travel I'd highly recommend picking up a copy. If you're feeling lazy, here's a link to Amazon:

http://tinyurl.com/3yjqhcj

On the off-chance you're interested in what we were reading when we made Moon, here's the main inspiration behind the look and feel we wanted from the Lunar surface; the amazingly beautiful "Full Moon" by Michael Light.

http://tinyurl.com/2wz9vhk

If you want to se the specific image that first made us go "That's it, that's what we want", have a look at the sneaky-peek link inside Full Moon below and have a look at pages 100-101. This is actually a wide format double page spread single image but if you click back and forth you can kind of see it.

http://tinyurl.com/2vloa8y

The overall aesthetic of these machines was one of pure function, which led itself to an impression of mass. As the vehicles are unmanned there is no cockpit or cab. The intention was for a very industrial and functional looking machine that could be quite intimidating and bullish-looking from certain angles. My original take on it was to have a go at something that's a cross between the Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars (lovely bit of design that, cheers Ralph :), a combine harvester and a WW1 tank. The hypothetical engineering led to a service weight of just over 800 earth tons which in one sixth Lunar gravity would be just under a hundred and forty tons.
 Lunar Gravity was something that we had quite a few chats about at the beginning of the project but in the end we couldn't afford to do a comprehensive sixth-gravity take over the entire film so we just sort of left it and it went away. Nobody's ever mentioned this to me so far which I guess is a good sign. No matter how much of a stickler you might be for accuracy, you'll find yourself making these sorts of compromises in film and it's a relief when the audience is okay with it. It would be easy to say that there's some sort of sci-fi gravity generator keeping the base under comparable earth gravity but I hate things like this as the actual engineering required to achieve this is way more futuristic than Gerty or a Lunar harvester. Thanks for letting us get away with the "uploading memories" technology too, even though it is not as whimsical as the gravity generator. It's all USB2.

As I've been showing you some pretty ropey artwork so far, I'm going to put a nicer piece in now. This is a render of a 3D model of a harvester that I did as we were doing the model build. It's still rushed as it's untextured and only has two and a half days of modelling in there but it's closer to the kind of thing I'd call an actual concept piece. So there you go. The future of Earths' energy sources in a couple of rushed bits of concept art. That’s showbiz!

Sunday
Aug212011

Inside the Moon Model Shop

During the making of Moon there was a place that I'm sure many people would have loved to visit and so I thought I'd try and give you more of an idea of what it was like there. The place is Bill Pearsons' model shop on the Shepperton Studios lot and depending on your viewpoint it is either a cramped, cold, messy shed that stinks of solvents or a magical cave of tiny science-fiction wonder. 

The photo above is the prototype Moon space-helmet built at one-sixth scale and made here to fit an action-man. We also used this as a prop on the motorized action-man torso that drove the sixth-scale rover but you never really see it in the film. The plastic shapes behind it are early pieces of the helmet fresh out the vac-forming machine. The greenish piece in the background is the front-chest part where the little light was mounted. This was actually one of those lamps that mounts on ones' forehead that makes one look rather foolish. We pressed loads of everyday practical lights into service on Moon as we couldn't afford anything bespoke. The rover miniature headlights were little Maglite torches and the light inside Sams' helmet was a bike light. When the other clone finds him in the crashed rover and his helmet light is flashing it looks like an emergency light but is actually just a setting on the cycle-lamp. You know the ones that flash and are intended to stop cyclists getting their fragile bones smashed to bits by stupid drivers in low light. Those ones.

There were lots of other normal lights all over the place, including our round Ikea eight-quid lights from the lounge. The lamps on the front of Gerty were little florescent tubes that were only six inches long. 

Duncan had one of these on his desk for years because it looked really cute and it actually got used for all sort of things we filmed over the years. At one point I was working on a little commercial for a friend of ours, Aaron Stewart-Ahn. I was dressed like a futuristic ghost-in-the-shell-on-zero-money-in-a-basement type scientist with these big goggles on. The light was inside the goggles making a slit on the front of them glow, and giving the appearance of me being very much from the future. Those lights get around. As we were dressing the set with stuff from home we grabbed it one morning on out way down to Shepperton as we were nearing the end of the model build and just trying to get things looking good for free wherever we could. It ended up just sitting in the production offices for a few days. When we were doing the reccee for the pre-light (walking around the set discussing how and where we were going to install all the lighting), Gary Shaw suggested gluing the light to the front of Gerty to make him stand out a bit. It totally worked so we managed to find another and that’s why Gerty's got those lights on him. You'll notice they weren't in my CG design renders, nor in any pics of the model build. I think it's really important when you're doing things like this to be completely honest with yourself and take good ideas wherever you find them. In my role as designer I could have got all stroppy that somebody was trying to "interfere" with my design, but the Cheesy Loaf was right and I knew it. The lights made it look better on film. Nice job Reverend.

I know this pic isn't in the model shop but it does have one of the models in it and I wanted to introduce you to a few of the faces behind the models. I talk about Bill quite a bit as he was a key figure in the making of Moon and so here he is in all this Glaswegian glory leaning on the edge of our lunar surface miniature set. Bill is a very gregarious and charismatic man and is full of excellent stories about his life and times working on small, forgettable productions such as Alien. Bill's also a DJ and at the time where we were wrapping on Moon he was contemplating shutting up shop and returning to Scotland to his previous career in radio, as nobody wanted models anymore. I remember telling him that we were going to do our best to bring them back and make them cool again as I knew that miniatures that had been fed through a contemporary VFX pipeline could look really good relatively cheaply. He's a busy chap right now.

I think that Bill was pretty cynical when he first met us as we were just a bunch of guys that nobody had ever heard of with zero money trying to do a space film here in Britain and to be honest it's not unreasonable at all of him to expect our ambitions little film to fall flat on its' Moon-shaped face. It took us a while but you could see as we were proceeding that he was starting to come round.

By the end of the project everything was pretty cosy and, speaking for myself, we had a stressful but enjoyable and pretty much controlled miniature shoot. It was quite funny when we started out working together and I mentioned how cool it would be to get in Cinefex magazine. This was more a general (lofty) ambition of mine, the same way I always wanted to get some comic art in 2000AD. Perhaps I should send some samples off to Tharg. Anyhow, Bill totally poo-pahed the mention of the magazine in relation to our film explaining that they only cover "proper" (as in proper budget) films, and we basically had no chance. I couldn't disagree with him really. However, when we got the film finished, Bill called up a couple of people and all of a sudden we've got Cinefex on the phone wanting to talk to us about Moon. Turned out they'd shoved us into an issue at the last minute and moved their other stuff around to fit us in. Apparently we nicked a few pages off Star Trek. Too bad JJ Abrams. Recently we did a Moon Q&A at the BFI on the Southbank in London to mark Moons' first theatrical anniversary. Afterwards we got a bit mobbed (which always takes me by surprise), and somebody asked me to sign their copy of Cinefex. It did occur to me that if I could have travelled back in time to my original conversation with Bill and told him this information he'd have laughed and told me to fuck right off.

In the background is model maker John Lee who's been working on the harvester model. You can see by the missing front-plate on the model that he's been inside it fiddling. The miniature set was really mucky, dust masks and kneepads were pretty standard as there was a lot of cat litter sprinkled around the place and it hurts like a bastard when you go down on one knee onto a stray nodule, it's like some kind of Lego-kneel super-pain. To be avoided. 

Here we see Bill in his workshop working on Gerties' heavy-lifting arm. You might have read in my previous posts about the scary red heater with the exposed element that I was always terrified would set me on fire when I had my back to it. Check out the red glow on this pic. You can almost taste the danger. I secretly suspect that the model team liked having dangerous shit all over the place as it made them look like they were living on the edge all the time whenever anybody came to visit. Bill was one of those guys who tends to have trademark clothes and I don't think I ever saw him were anything apart from Denim. He's sort of like a Scottish cowboy but with massive knowledge of paint and glue. I loved talking to the model guys about their materials as there was so many combinations of glues, plastics and paints that worked differently and if they were put together wrong, who knows, they might give off a poisonous lethal nerve-type gas. I'm not actually joking about this. There's a whole science behind model construction that you won't find in any book and if you get it wrong you may die.

Here we see another of the modelmakers, mr Steve Howarth. Steve was the guy who built the Harvester model and also the main Gerty unit. In this picture we can see Duncan holding up the partially built rover model in the same scale as the harvester model. We built the miniatures at two main scales, one-sixth and one-twelfth.

These scales were really useful as they were immediately recognisable; Action Man and Star Wars figures. We built all three rovers at one-twelfth scale and also the harvester. We then built a single rover at one-sixth scale which had interchangable rear components and ID plates so that it could be dressed as either of the three. We also built a section of the lower side of the harvester so we could do the rover post-crash with the nice sixth-scale rover smashed into the ground. The jamming tower was built complete at one-twelfth so we could crash the harvester into it and a close-up of the base section at one-sixth.

The jamming-tower base had some really nice detail in there that the model team put in and I'm not sure exactly how clear it came across in the film. The structure featured an airlock door identical to the locks inside Sarang, but it was harshly welded shut with a big bar across it to prevent access. You can also see a trashed door-code type box on the left-hand side that has had the face ripped off and has wires hanging out. Nice bits of detail going on here. Nice work lads.

The main Sarang base exterior was built at one-twelfth scale and there were a couple of other bits and pieces that had indeterminate scale as it just wasn't important as they were filmed in isolation and later composited into shots. These were the satellite and Eliza Rig models. Duncan became very attached to the Eliza rig and it disappeared for over a year when we wrapped. All the models got taken and put into storage and when we went to retrieve them it had gone. We searched around for months but couldn't find it. Then, one day, it just turned up in a random box. Perhaps a ghost moved it.
In these images above, you can see the twelfth-scale rovers in various stages of construction. You can see in the last image that the rover has wooden placeholder wheels on. Bit of a tip for any aspiring model builders out there; look at all the stuff lying around on these work-surfaces and take some tips. The rovers didn't have to do too much but they did need to be pulled quite fast over a rough surface over and over again so the wheels and axles needed to be incredibly tough. The twelfth-scale proportions and intended lunar gravity meant that we needed to shoot at 137 frames per-second. Given that film is 24 frames per second, the action would slow down by around five and a half times. So to get the rover speed we needed to pull it across the set at five to six times faster than we actually wanted it to look. So, pretty fast actually. As the lunar surface was maximum 24 feet by 32 feet we ran out of table pretty fast.

I got such a kick out of seeing all these models being built at Star-Wars figure scale. When I was a puppy I used to love my Star Wars figures and ships. There's something just so right about the scale. Seeing these rovers come together so loyal to my CG concepts was amazing and the scale felt so right. I'm not sure if it was becasue I've spent so much of my life mesmerised by Star Wars toys but I used to annoy the shit out of the model builders becasue I couldn't help picking them up and playing with them. Sorry lads, but it's your own fault for doing such an amazing job. Make some shittier models and I'll leave them alone.

The gallery above shows build progress on the single sixth-scale "hero" rover. This is the main model featured in the film as it was the most detailed and we could get closer in when we were shooting.

The lunar landscape was pretty generic and typically filmed at a low angle so we didn't need to do anything with this, we could just swap the models out and go from big to small, as we needed. We also mixed the scales on a few shots too which was a bit naughty but nobody seemed to notice, especially where we see a rover pulling up at the crash site. We'd put the large rover in front of the camera and keep nice and low and we totally got away with it. It looked really stupid from round the side though as the incorrect scales were immediately apparent.

I grew very fond of the sixth-scale rover and I ended up taking it home with me after the shoot. I really need to get round to making a nice case for it so it can sit with all the stuff in my office. The model team were amazing improvisers and Bill had a lot of bits and pieces to hand in his workshop. It would make me cringe a bit inside, as he'd be grabbing stuff from his shelf and snapping things off to hold them against bits of models to show me what they'd look like. He had all sorts of excellent things lying around, some were famous models from shows such as Red Dwarf and others were just as beautiful but from unseen pilots or dead projects and so may never see the light of day. One afternoon Bill said he had something to show me and came out of his back room holding a black bin bag. He pulled out this model from the bag and handed it to me and asked me if I recognised it (which I did immediately). It was the miniature of the Nostromo engine room window from the wide shot of Ripley trying to set the self-destruct sequence from Alien. From my perspective this is pretty much what a churchy person would experience if a vicar said he's got the Ark of the Covenant down in his cellar and do you want to come and have a look? As amazing as this was, I did actually beat this when I got to play with Vasquez' smart gun from Aliens. Close-run thing though.

Part of the external base design was the "return vehicle" clone-incineration unit that was disguised as a rocket. John Lee from the model shop just turned up one morning with this beautiful thing. 

Look at it. How gorgeous is that model? It's not been properly painted and dirtied down yet but look at the form. Scratch built overnight. This is what the exterior of the clone burning room looks like and it pains me a bit that we didn't get more coverage of it in the film as it's absolutely beautiful. The figure in there is a little Doctor Who man that Bill used for scale reference and was always lying around his studio, so technically David Tennant was kind of involved in Moon. At least a little tiny slightly plastic version of him was.

Sunday
Aug212011

Animatics now, sleep later

As we didn't have much in the way of resources to prepare for the shoot, I ended up doing a lot of the prep work myself. As you are probably aware, storyboarding is an important part of the pre-shoot agenda. It can get be quite expensive and time consuming though as hiring additional artists for weeks on end can run up quite a tab. We were also locked into shooting dates as we only had the studio for a narrow window of time and so we had to proceed full steam ahead and just push problems out of the way as they popped up in front of us. We ended up getting three scenes storyboarded "traditionally" (with pens), which must have run to about two minutes or so of the anticipated length of the film. When you consider that the final cut runs to 97 minutes, that's a big hole we were staring into that currently existed only as words on a page. The rest of it was kind of hanging so I got nervous and jumped in and knocked up some CG assets so I could get a load of animatics together. An animatic is a motion graphics sequence (usually 3D) and is a rough version of the shot intended for the film, so essentially I was making rough versions of big sections of the film on my computer using rough placeholder graphics. I was primarily concerned with the VFX sequences as we had a lot going on. We had CG, miniature work and a lot of green-screen shooting coming up so I decided to forgo even more of my already minimal sleep in order to get our set up for the approaching VFX onslaught. You need to prepare for these things otherwise you will fail and this is not allowed to happen.

The animatic work was quite peaceful actually compared to the stresses of the rest of the shoot. I did most of this work in the evenings so I'd just get cosy in my bedroom with a cup of tea and some cake and bury myself in my little 3D Moon-world. Duncan would pop in and out and hang out a bit to check out what was going on whilst I was working and we'd just talk bollocks together whilst I boshed the shots out. I really enjoyed this as I got the assets together really quickly and then was into the animation and camera positioning and could concentrate on framing up the shots. I love playing with cameras in CG, it's so nice being in this little world and just hunting around with cameras playing with narative and composition and finding the shots. I'd say I could do it all night long but this turned out to be just as well really. The animatic work was ongoing even when we started shooting, and led through into a VFX animatic breakdown for the green-screen and miniature shoot. All these animatic scenes were being refined right up to the night before they were needed for shooting. I don't think a single aspect of this animatic work was done in daylight.

The image above is a still from a shot of the aftermath of the Rover-crash. Time constraints meant I had very little time to work up any of these assets so they are very rudimentary but they're enough to get the idea across. This is why all the vehicles have clearly visible numbers on them. We did a lot of that in Moon, on any specific piece I'd do just enough work on it to make sure I got the point across and then move swiftly on.

Here's something you'll never see anywhere else; four harvesters mining a patch of lunar regolith especially rich in Helium 3. This was me just trying things out really and was never anything we were going to shoot. I just like seeing lots of the same vehicle together; I always think it just looks cool. I do think this would have been a lovely shot if it had come about for whatever reason, imagine how it would look with the four harvesters chucking all their muck out and emerging with their lights cutting through the dust cloud.

This is an initial model I did of the Eliza rig with a humanoid in there for scale. I was pretty chuffed that in the end of the film I was the Eliza captain and came up on the crew manifest. As the time it was just us mucking about but now it's all finished it's a fun little story and I can always tell girls in bars that I have my own ship in a sci-fi film making me a legit badass space murderer. To be honest it's the closest I’ve got so far to being Han Solo and that’s good enough for me. Actually I could get a puppy sidekick and try to teach him to drive my car...

I mentioned previously that the Eliza support rig was intended to support the harvesters and could transport them around. Here we see a harvester to scale underneath the rig. The harvester booms collapse back along the side of the harvester, I think this might be visible in the film actually where you see the dead harvester "Judas" (Formerly "Luke"-no Star Wars reference) being worked on remotely outside the Sarang Facility garage. I read about a chap who had this conspiracy theory who "worked out" the harvester mileage numbers when Sam reads them out from the start of the film as bible references. He has this theory that there is a DaVinci code type of thing going on with the harvesters and quoted the bible passages as a comment of mans' destruction of the environment in pursuit of energy resources. Excellent work dude, you are bang wrong. I had an idea of how fast the harvesters were going to move on-screen and it ended up about three miles an hour. I actually had in mind them moving slower than this and covering about ten miles or so a day but we had to speed them up a bit for the rover docking sequence so they looked right. So I'm saying they generally do about half a mile an hour but speed up a bit when Sam’s' picking up a container as they're less likely to stall at higher speed. A stall with a docked Rover and personnel on board whilst transferring pressurised fuel cylinders would be bad as the actual stall event would be quite violent. 

I tried out a few helicopter-type shots like this but in the end decided to go with realistic camera angles. I find that whenever you're putting together shots like this you always get a more believable end result it you try and put the camera somewhere it could actually be if you were using real kit and the shot was full-size. You'll see that most of the external lunar-landscape shots in Moon are done from realistic cameras and are usually from the equivalent of head-height or perhaps up on a gib arm. There are a couple of exceptions to this but mostly we had the camera right down on the table which made keeping the foreground crispy sharp in-focus really tricky. You have to be careful when you're doing work like this as positioning the camera is a huge responsibility. These animatics became the shooting template for everything that involved the DMP work (Digital matte painting), lunar exteriors, all vehicle shots, rover interiors and anything with a suited-up astronaut in it. Altogether that added up to around 22 minutes of the original shooting script. I remember some of these late night being really cozy as I was working away in my bedroom and everybody else was asleep. It was winter as we were doing this and it was really cold outside. I was tucked up all nice and warm making my little space-film on my computer smashing my little moon vehicles into each other like a little kid. I remember when I was four I had to write a letter to Santa at school asking what I wanted for Christmas. I asked for a spaceship and a robot. I remember my excellent Dad got me Luke’s X-Wing from the original Star Wars toy line and C3PO and R2D2 figures.