The making of Europa Report

Europa Report is an indie sci-fi flick by Sebasti√°n Cordero with some not-so-indie effects. The found-footage film, which stars District 9’s Sharlto Copley, was shot over 19 days in Brooklyn. It tells the story of a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and features space, creature and planet visual effects from Phosphene. The film is available to watch right now online, ahead of a theatrical release. We talk to VFX supe John Bair about helping to craft the project, and we feature several making of video breakdowns.

Warning: this interview contains some plot spoilers.

fxg: There’s a real authenticity to the spaceship in Europa Report – what reference were you looking to?

Bair: We really looked at any of the more modern footage we could find from the International Space Station or a space walk from a space shuttle. Specifically we were trying to find shots where they were on the dark side of the Earth, where they weren’t getting a lot of bounce. This movie takes place far from Earth, really in the blackness of space. We noticed in the NASA photos that we didn’t see the stars and it was really a contrasty exposure.

Watch a behind the scenes breakdown.

fxg: That seemed to go for the camera angles as well.

Bair: The main goal was to make it appear as real as possible. Technically, it’s a found footage film but it feels more like a documentary. The camera angles inside were really placed in a way that mimicked the International Space Station and the Shuttle so they can see the science officer or pilot doing specific things. We did the same thing on the exterior where we picked camera angles on the ship that would make sense from a mission standpoint – angled down the entire body of the ship or on the lander.

fxg: Can you talk about the spacecraft design?

Bair: Production design took the ship pretty far. We didn’t have any texturing or finer detail, so we started with the rough shape and by looking at any details we could find of satellites – it was kind of a dream project for a CG artist – having to make a spaceship! Once we got to a certain point where there was a fair amount of detail, we sat down with the DP and picked camera angles with the director. That dictated which areas needed more detail. The entire ship was done in 3ds Max with Photoshop for textures.

Phosphene’s VFX.

fxg: How were the astronauts given some weightlessness?

Bair: It was done with some relatively low-fi tech. We had people on balance balls that were then removed to create the weightless feel. We also used a parallelogram for a few shots – a weighted arm that could life and slide the astronauts, so there was a lot of rig-removal on shots like those. It gave us just enough weightlessness to sell the illusion. We also relied on some clever framing. Most of those scenes are seen through the cameras on the spacesuits themselves, which would hide some of the rigging out of frame. We also did some old-fashioned wire work, although that was more for the interior shots. And we used less frames to show it was that kind of found footage and in-space film.

Befores and afters by Phosphene.

fxg: How did you craft Europa?

Bair: For shots just above the surface, those were a combination of NASA and JPL maps of the surface of Europa that we could use for roughing out. Then everything was textured in Mudbox and Photoshop in terms of the way the planet looked. The surface is quite unsual in that it’s all ice but has many fissures and cracks where the ice floes have broken apart and re-fused.

For the surface of Europa, we looked at a lot of glaciers on Earth and to see how ice appeared. On Europa it wasn’t as shiny because it doesn’t melt and re-freeze like it does on Earth, so it was more of a matte type of finish. The tricky thing was figuring out how to light that properly, because without any atmosphere, there’s no bounce light on it. So we also got moon photography from US missions, and Japan also did some recent fly-overs with HD cameras.

A breakdown for the Europa shots.

For walking on the surface, we wanted to be accurate, so the production had picked a place where they would likely land in reality. So we set up that area, Jupiter and the Sun and figured out what it would look like lighting-wise and how to find dynamic and cool shots with a real lighting model.

We built up ice chunks to be able to move around. We used photogrammetry to build the chunks of ice and specifically we did a lot of photography of huge chunks of rock here in New York in Central Park. We shot them in a 180 or 360 pattern and made models through photogrammetry in PhotoScan. The surface of those rocks felt like glaciers, seeing as they are rocks carved by glaciers eons ago. We re-textured them to make them look like ice.

More on Europa.

fxg: They encounter some creatures on the moon – how were these devised?

Bair: The initial concepts had them with some bio-luminesence in them. We took the sketches that had been done – one was like a jellyfish, one that was like a manta ray. Ultimately we were drawn to some amazing photography of an octopus of how it can kind of send out feelers and find out what the space looks like and guide its body – that was the most freaky type of movement we could find. So we modeled the creature after an octopus crossed with a squid in Mudbox, Max and Photoshop. And then we rendered in V-Ray.

Then, for the flooding ship, we did that on a one-third scale miniature. We flooded it a couple of times but in terms of seeing the creature through the ice and underwater, we experimented with how diffuse ice should be, and water too. Is the water murky? Is the ice clear? We settled on somewhere down the middle, by keeping it murky to not give away the creature until the very end.

Phosphene’s John Bair discusses the VFX of Europa Report.

Head to Europa Report’s website for details on how to watch the film.