Inside Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers

When Swedish digital artist Erik Wernquist released his short film Wanderers late last year, it quickly struck a chord with audiences impressed at his use of real-world space imagery in depicting mankind’s exploration of the solar system. Wernquist, an experienced character animator, sourced pieces from existing – and freely available – NASA, JPL and other space agency images and footage, and then re-worked them into his futuristic narrative. We explore just a few aspects of how he brought Wanderers together, along with original inspiration imagery and behind the scenes shots.

Above: watch the short film Wanderers.

fxg: You were able to use a lot of NASA/JPL imagery for the short – can you break down say one or two key shots perhaps and talk about how you used that imagery as a basis to complete the shots?

Wernquist: Almost every shot is constructed in its own way, depending on what it shows and what kind of material I had to start with, so it is hard to do a description of a general approach, as there was none. With that said, I want to stress the fact that technically, this project has been a pretty straightforward process, no extraordinary tools or techniques used – only time. I also find it somewhat amusing that some people seem to assume that the use of existing NASA/JPL/CICLOPS/ESA etc. footage has been an extra effort from my side, when it is exactly the other way around.

All this information and all those photos are available for everyone, and those institutions constantly goes through great efforts to make it so. Sure, to some extent you have to know what you are looking for and how to find it, but for me – as I wanted to show the Solar System as it really is – it has saved me a lot of time to be able to use real imagery.

But let’s take three shots as example, to give an idea of how this was made:

Encleadus Limb

Final shot of a spacecraft floating through the cryo geysers on the south pole of Saturn´s moon Enceladus.
Final shot from Wanderers of a spacecraft floating through the cryo geysers on the south pole of Saturn´s moon Enceladus.

Here I had a very inspiring photo (see below) from Cassini (NASA/CICPLOPS) to start with, but unfortunately the resolution was too poor to use all of it as it was in the shot. The actual plumes from the geysers worked fine, as I could just blur them out a bit and add some noise and turbulence to increase the level of detail. But for the surface of the moon I had to look elsewhere.

Cassini flyby shows Enceladus venting - one of the original inspiration photographs.
Cassini flyby shows Enceladus venting – one of the original inspiration photographs. Link.

Fortunately there are many many photos available of Enceladus (and more are coming in as Cassini is still in operation in the Saturn system) and I knew exactly which one I wanted to use. On this beautiful photo (below), the south polar region – which is where these geysers are – is clearly visible, and in good enough resolution for what I needed.

Another view of Enceladus captured by Cassini.
Another view of Enceladus captured by Cassini. Link.

So, for the surface of the moon, which I modeled as a slightly curved plane, I could now create a combination of two textures; for the very edge of the limb, where the surface transitions into the plumes, I used a camera-mapped version of the first photo, and for the rest of the surface I used a planar mapped selection of the south polar region from the second image. I actually rendered them both into a high resolution composite so I could paint in and out the details from both images exactly as I wanted, and then camera-mapped this back onto the surface again.

Behind the scenes of the Enceladus shot.
Behind the scenes of the Enceladus shot.

Worth mentioning is that the region of the south pole is not exactly mapped as it would appear from this distance, but I took some liberty and just arranged it so it would look nice and match the direction of the light from the sun. Also, the distinct turquoise coloring of the “tiger stripes”, as they are known, is extremely exaggerated in the original photo, but I let it remain and even used it as a color reference for the whole scene. This too, simply because I thought it was neat.

For the plumes I camera-mapped my adjusted version of the first photo on a plane, extending out from the surface, and added a slow warp to give them a hint of motion. I also put another plume in the foreground to add some depth. The spacecraft is a 3D model, rendered separately, and the particles and the slight rainbow effect are added in compositing.

Blue Sunset

Final shot from Wanderers showing a group of hikers on top of the eastern rim of "Gusev Crater", watching a sunset on Mars.
Final shot from Wanderers showing a group of hikers on top of the eastern rim of “Gusev Crater”, watching a sunset on Mars.

Here I also had a fantastic photo to start with; a sunset seen from the surface of Mars, taken at the rim of the Gusev Crater by NASAs exploration rover Spirit in 2005. My original idea was to use the photo as it is and camera map it on 3D geometry of the foreground hills. But as I had built 3D models I found the the resolution of the photo was too poor to allow for the camera motion I wanted to do here.

A Mars sunset taken by the Spirit rover.
Inspiration: a Mars sunset taken by the Spirit rover. Link.

The background and the sky was fine, which was fortunate, as this was what I really wanted to show anyway. And as there are plenty of pictures from the surface of Mars, I could easily find a few rocky slopes, adjust them in color to match the background and map them to the 3D hills. In turn, this allowed me to extend my camera motion even further than I had planned, as I now could just add more hills in the foreground.

Behind the scenes of the Blue Sunset shot.
Behind the scenes of the Blue Sunset shot.

The characters on the rim are actors shot against green screen and composited as 3D sprites into the environment.

The Great Red Spot

Final shot from Wanderers depicts a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, looking down at the huge anticyclonic storm known as the Great Red Spot.
Final shot from Wanderers depicts a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, looking down at the huge anticyclonic storm known as the Great Red Spot.

This one took me quite some time, but not much effort at all had to be spent on the actual hero in the shot – being Jupiter itself – as nature, with the help of NASA/JPL had already provided me with that. For the planet I used this fantastic and rather high resolution mosaic of photos taken by NASAs Voyager 1, during its flyby of Jupiter in 1979, assembled and processed by Björn Jonsson.

Inspiration.
Inspiration: a mosaic of Jupiter photographs taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 and assembled and processed by Bjorn Jonsson. Link.

That photo is simply projected as a texture on a curved plane, adjusted in size to match the scale of this particular region on Jupiter’s bulk. I resisted the temptation to animate motion into the clouds, as is common in most CG shots I have seen of Jupiter. The winds of Jupiter do blow hard and fast, but Jupiter is also huge, and from a distance like in this shot, you would not be able to detect any motion in the cloud pattern with your eyes.

So, most of the time went into modelling, texturing, shading and lighting those barn doors of the spacecraft, and composite it all to achieve the feel of a flood of light pouring in as they open. This is mostly done in 3D, with the usual hazzle of detailing the model enough to appear large and getting the reflections to play like I wanted them to.

Behind the scenes of the Great Red Spot shot.
Behind the scenes of the Great Red Spot shot.

When I started with this film, I made all the people in it as animated 3D characters, but later on decided to shoot as many of them as possible live action as I felt my 3D characters didn’t appear real enough. So, even though this girl here doesn’t move very much she is actually a real actor hanging in a sling, shot in front of a green screen. As are most other characters you see in the film. The only ones left as digital 3D characters are the people flying in wing suits over Ligeia Mare on Titan.

fxg: What were your main tools of choice for the work?

Wernquist: Quite a lot has been done directly inside After Effects, with extensive use of the Videocopilot plugin Element 3D. For other 3D elements, all the modeling and some of the final renders, I have used Lightwave 3D. And for all still image processing, Photoshop. For the final color grade, made by Caj Müller at Beckholmen Film, we used Da Vinci Resolve.

A still from Wanderers showing the rings of Saturn.
A still from Wanderers showing the rings of Saturn.

fxg: How long did the short take you – what was your daily approach to the work in terms of just getting it done?

Wernquist: It is difficult to say exactly how long this has taken me, as it has been a project I have been working on periodically for over two years. My guess is something like six months in total, but I am not really sure. Another problem with estimating the time is that many of the shots have been completely remade, several times over – which is something that would never have happened in regular working conditions, as I probably would have planned this differently if that would have been the case. I guess this is what happens when you don’t have a deadline; you can work on something for several days and in the end say “naah, not quite right, let’s do it again”. Apart from this, there are also a few scenes that I made that are not in the final film.

My original goal was to make fifteen scenes to fill a short of roughly three minutes, but I never sat down and really planned on how long that was going to take. I just let it take as long as it took, grabbing every opportunity I had to work on this between paying projects. Fortunately for me, this has been a great and inspiring process the whole time, so I have never had to find ways to motivate myself to work on it. Quite the contrary, I was always looking forward to be able to get back to it.