The making of The Last Days on Mars

Director Ruairí Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars follows a Mars research crew in their anticipated last hours on the planet, before they encounter what appears to be the presence of alien life. fxguide found out from production visual effects supervisor Adam McInnes and Screen Scene VFX supe Ed Bruce how the alien landscapes, vehicles and environmental effects in the film were created. Plus we delve behind the scenes with making of videos and images.

Above: watch breakdowns from The Last Days on Mars by Screen Scene.

Alien style: Director Robinson pushed for a ‘totally natural’ feel for Last Days, moving away from any hyper-reality or extreme grade or looks. The pic was shot on 35mm Fuji film on anamorphic lenses, with a fluid camera style – aiming to show the scary nature of the character’s plights when things begin to go wrong on Mars.


Mars base concept art.
Mars base concept art.
2.5D projections.
2.5D projections.

Practical build.
Practical build.
A final shot from the film.
A final shot from the film.

On set: The film’s martian landscape was informed via a location shoot in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Although sky replacements and further digital work would be carried out by Screen Scene, an additional and unexpected requirement was to remove brand new electric pylons that had been installed between location scouts.

On location.
On location.

Survey data and on-set measurements were conducted without the benefit of LIDAR or a Total Station. Instead, McInnes and VFX co-ordinator Peter Hartless spent time measuring, photographing and detailing locations, sets and vehicles during the shoot. A Contour HD video camera was rigged to the film camera to act as a wide angle witness cam. A further witness cam was employed off-camera too.

Watch a video showing the witness cam in action.

Anamorphic film: Screen Scene of course had to deal with the anamorphic film plates. They received a frame leader and lens grids for each lens – from these the studio developed scripts and NUKE gizmos to set up comp scripts from the known camera data. Many of the lenses used had very unique and sometimes extreme lens distortion. That coupled with the Fuji stock used and sometimes frenetic handheld camera movement placed meant tracking the plates was a big challenge; a task handled in Syntheyes.

Filming with the partial build Rover on location.
Filming with the partial build Rover on location.

Vehicles: Weta Workshop had helped the director conceptualize vehicles, the Mars Rover and the Lander early in pre-production. Ultimately the Rover became a partial build – just the cab area mounted on the back of a six-wheel drive military truck that could negotiate the difficult terrain. It was actually driven in reverse at speed for traveling shots.


Rover concepts by Weta Workshop.
Rover concepts by Weta Workshop.
Rover set.
Rover set.

Rover truck on location.
Rover truck on location.
A final shot from the film.
A final shot from the film.

Screen Scene relied on the cab for reference in extending the Rover as a CG vehicle. A significant challenge for the artists was adapting the practical wheel base with the design of the Rover when adding the extension. When the practical cab was shot driving in reverse, the truck’s suspension reacted to terrain very differently to what the wheel base of the desired rover would.

A Rover asset turntable.

This meant Screen Scene had to firstly do a camera track and object track for the cab, then ensure the CG cab aligned and the CG wheels sat on the terrain with the CG suspension working out the movement between the two. In some extreme cases where the practical movement was too bouncy or odd, artists fully replaced the rover and added digital doubles of the drivers.

Digi-doubles: Several actors in the film were cyber-scanned by 4DMax for digital double replication by Screen Scene. The scans were re-topologized and made ‘screen-ready’. In particular, artists worked to detail straps, belts and pieces hanging from the space suits. As production could only afford delivery of one full character scan, Screen Scene had to re-model the bodies to look like the other crew members.

Watch a 3D turntable of two of the digi-doubles created for the film.

One character which required a higher level of detail was Irwin. After a zero G fight he ends up being ejected from an airlock and was realized as a fully-digital creation. Irwin also had suffered severe facial injuries during the fight, having his head caved in. With no digital scan of the prosthetic makeup head used, Screen Scene sculpted from the photographic references.

Both Mudbox and 3ds Max were used in character creation. Screen Scene also used other software such as Topogun and proprietary tools called ReDucto, MudWalker X2 and Xclone. In addition, stencils from the Stencil Mimic library were used to quickly add skin pores and wrinkles where needed.

Dust, dust, dust: The characters encounter an imposing dust storm on Mars. Screen Scene looked to real-world dust storms for direct reference but adapted the look to account for low gravity and low pressure on the alien planet. In post, initial layouts were done on plates in a low-res animatic style.

A final still from the film.
A final still from the film.

The studio’s 3D team sculpted environment topography from reference photography for collision objects. The higher detailed models were used for matting whilst the lower resolution models were used for effects collisions. The compositors were also given a pack of rendered dust storm fx patches for placing within 2D which aided in small fixes without having to do re-sims.

The dust storm was simulated with FumeFX with particle sources and temperature ignition which drove the dust. The studio used different methods to create a divergence in the look of the storm. They had a main ‘storm front’ which was very violent and a ‘calm’ dust trail with completely different character. At the points of colliding there was another layer of ‘wavy’ dust. On other shots the dust had to be shaped further with rule-based affectors and modifiers to give it the wanted shape. Overall, the storm contained more than 10 billion voxels.

Links

The Last Days on Mars: official site
Adam McInnes: www.adammc.co.uk
Ed Bruce: www.edwardbruce.com & @EdBruceVFX
Screen Scene: www.screenscene.ie
Film IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1709143/fullcredits (VFX Credits)