Passengers on the Avalon in Deep Space
Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora) and Chris Pratt (Jim) star in the action-thriller about two strangers who are on a 120-year journey to another planet when their hibernation pods wake them 90 years too early. Jim and Aurora are forced to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction as the ship teeters on the brink of collapse, jeopardizing the lives of the passengers on the greatest mass migration in human history.
MPC completed more than 1100 shots as lead studio on Passengers, working closely with Director Morten Tyldum and Production VFX Supervisor Erik Nordby. MPC VFX Supervisor Pete Dionne and VFX Producer Tomi Nieminen, oversaw the work of a team of around 600 artists, crafting a wide range of effects including; building the gigantic interstellar starship Avalon, FX work including a dramatic Zero Gravity water sequence and a red giant star, holograms, robots, digital doubles and of course Space. The focus of MPC’s work was on realism. For Dionne, “The visual effects needed to feel real and consistent throughout to ensure the audience are fully immersed”.
A central character in the film is their home: the spaceship itself. “The Avalon is part badass spaceship, part luxury cruise liner,” said Pratt recently. “They wake you up three or four months before you get to your destination, so you can party, swim in the pool, or rack up a big bill playing the slots or shopping in the high-end stores.”
“The ship is really luxurious, almost like a cruise liner,” says Lawrence. “There’s an observation deck, a movie theater and grand concourse and amazing rooms – well, for my character. It looked very different; everything was beautiful and interesting. It was a different atmosphere for a movie.”
“The sets were huge,” says Pratt. “We had to break down a wall in the soundstages. I was looking around, and it was like looking at a real ship”. Guy Hendrix Dyas’s (Inception, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) sets made the movie very large in scope and yet they were still extended by MPC.
They began with the exterior of the Avalon, Dyas says. “The scale, the shape, and the science of the exterior would inform the interiors,” he explains. The filmmakers would rely on the idea of a rotating vessel to create gravity, but rather than create a wheel, as seen in other films, Dyas created an entirely original device. “I took the concept of the rotating wheel and stretched it out into an elongated shape, which naturally led to these wonderful, twisted blades. When you look at the spacecraft from the front, it looks like this classic rotating wheel – but the moment you turn, it becomes a three-dimensional object of extraordinary length.”
With that design in place, Dyas could turn to the interiors: each of the three blades would represent a different aspect of life on the ship. He explains: “One blade is the hibernation area, where 5000 passengers are sleeping. Another blade is the entertainment blade, where you have the grand concourse. The third blade is a giant container area, for getting supplies to the distant planet.”
Each of the blades required a different look. “First, you have the areas that the passengers live in,” says Dyas. “The main set, the Grand Concourse, looks very much like a high-tech shopping mall. Then you have the areas where the staff and crew go, and that is a second layer of environments that have a completely different feel – color is less important, more information and graphics are on the walls. And then you have a third area that is off-limits to almost everybody: the reactor control room, the airlock, the exterior of the ship.”
Connecting the blades is a zero-G elevator. “When you take an elevator across a spinning object and you hit that central point in space, of course, you’re at zero gravity. You’d better strap yourself in – you’re going to experience lower gravity, and then increasing gravity as you reach the other side,” he adds.
At the peak of production, the live action sets of Passengers occupied seven stages at Pinewood Studios, Atlanta, and one 40,000 square foot stage at EUE Screen Gems stages also in Atlanta.
Bringing the 1,000m long space-cruiser Avalon to the screen required a huge digital build. MPC received the ship design for from production designer Dyas. MPC’s artists then began work building a digital version of the ship and adding detail to the design. Several digital versions were created to support the varying levels of fidelity required throughout the film. A relatively lightweight model was used for animation blocking and first pass lighting tests. This ship was then up-textured and covered with additional small details to help with scale. Finally, an art-directed pass of additional matte-painted texture would be used when the camera focuses on specific areas.
MPC created set extensions and full CG environments for the environments within the ship including the grand concourse, crew hibernation area, gardens, entertainment areas, elevators, the engine room and more.
A huge part of the VFX work in Passengers involved creating the look of Deep Space.
“Historically, the look of Space in film falls somewhere between the cold, austere look of actual astrophotography and heavily stylized vistas with false colour and inaccurate scale” said Production Supervisor Erik Nordby, “since the film takes place in Deep space it pushes closer to the former rather than the latter; falling close to naturalistic with some forgiveness built into the exposure. Together with Rodrigo Prieto A.S.C., the VFX team constructed an overall dome that featured a softer lighting ratio driven by hand-painted stars and nebula maps; very different to the high-key space lighting more recently in vogue. ”MPC’s environment team started by using high-resolution maps of our own Milky Way as a base to build upon. This comprised of many layers of stars, space dust, nebula and clusters. The nebulas were painted as a series of cards to give a feeling of parallax and depth. Everything was constructed with High Dynamic Range, giving full control over exposure. These maps then drove the scene-referred lighting for the ship and CG astronauts.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the pool
Another big VFX challenge on Passengers was creating the zero gravity water sequence.
One of the problems on board the ship is that the gravity fails. Suddenly, Jim and Aurora find themselves weightless. “I was pulled up by wires, but I had to pretend that gravity wasn’t pulling down on my hands and feet. To do that, you’re doing a plank in mid-air. It was one of the best ab workouts I’ve ever done! It was really difficult, and Morten was very particular – he wanted it to look perfect. He didn’t move on until that angle was perfect for the whole take.” commented Pratt.
To create the appearance of Jim being weightless, stunt coordinator Garrett Warren created a spinning ring with an extension of a speed rail and a counter balance weight on the back of it. Chris Pratt would be able to move freely and then Garrett’s stunt team would use winches to fly him back and forth.
Aurora is in a swimming pool when the gravity fails. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever shot,” says the Hunger Games star. “Spending that much time in a pool, water up my nose, everywhere. But it was amazing – when I saw the CG example of what it was going to look like, I was really excited. I’ve never seen anything like that in a movie.”
Tackling the look of the water started with weeks of research, as MPC VFX Supervisor Pete Dionne explains. “What we found in our initial R&D tests was that at this scale, the water would move so slowly that it failed to achieve the required feeling of peril, and once we started applying stronger forces onto it, it would explode and completely lose it’s form.
Luckily, there is lots of great NASA reference of smaller volumes of water and it’s behavior in space, relative to the surface tension and friction at this scale, so we looked towards that to achieve something that was much easier to art-direct.” Shooting Jennifer Lawrence in this terrifying sequence required the help of Dan Sudick and his SFX expertise. In addition to building the full pool on set, Sudick and his team also built a 14’ cube tank with optical glass for the close-ups. Performance elements were shot of Lawrence in the tank and submerged in the pool against green screen, however, other than that the sequence was entirely CG.
Another stunning moment in Passengers, is where we see a Red Giant pass by the ship. MPC referenced NASA photography of the sun for the look and the structure of the star. It’s huge scale and depth was created using multiple layers of fluid simulation, each representing a layer of stellar structure. Leaping from the surface were large flares driven by FX simulations. Dionne explains “We developed an animated DMP map for the photosphere, then volumetric chromasphere and corona FX elements layered on top, and then further simulated erupting prominences similar to those found in the sun. One additional layer we recreated for our red giant star were visible magnetic rays arching across the entire star. Technically, these can only be seen outside of the visible spectrum of our own sun, but they’re so beautiful that we couldn’t resist sweetening our star with this element.”