Astronaut Mark Watney has staggered back into the Habitat after being impaled by an antenna during the violent storm, presumed dead and thus unintentionally abandoned by the crew escaping at the last moment…
Watney knows there are enough rations to last six astronauts a precautionary 68 sols, and with only him remaining, that should stretch to 400 sols…however, if he is ever able to contact Earth, a rescue mission would take years...plural! He charts it the low tech way...
Botanist Watney has a few potatoes in the Hab and devises a way to provide the necessary bacteria to make Martian soil fertile for growing more. The humble potato, which once saved an entire civilization from starvation, will again be called upon to sustain human life…on another planet…
Meanwhile, after learning that Watney is alive, the crew unanimously decides to risk turning around and attempting the rescue… German chemist and mission navigator Dr. Alex Vogel [Aksel Hennie] and American flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck [Sebastian Stan] in the elegant rec room…
Rather than having green screen appear on the control room monitors and then adding imagery in post, Director Ridley Scott prefers to see the graphics “in shot,” using them as light sources and allowing the actors to react to the images in real time…
NASA Media Relations Director Annie Montrose [Kristin Wiig] and NASA Director of Mars Missions, Dr. Vincent Kapoor [Chiwetel Ejiofor]… Everyone at NASA is devoted to bringing home their stranded astronaut…
Rich Purnell’s [Donald Glover] lack of deference to superiors reflects a larger cultural distinction between the more buttoned-down environment of NASA, which is responsible for humans in space, and the more relaxed, California vibe of the JPL engineers, as seen onscreen in the background…
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney [Matt Damon] is presumed dead after a fierce storm…and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and to find a way to signal Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return. —Twentieth Century Fox
“This whole film is about thinking your way through all kinds of obstacles and problems,” says director Ridley Scott. Thus he brought on the ultra-creative and problem-solving team of Production Designer Arthur Max and Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA.
Damon points out, “Ridley paints on a much bigger canvas than most people, and it’s exciting to do things on that scale.” Whether it was the NASA control room and offices and the rocket industries they worked with, or the world of Mars and the controlled environments of the Habitat living/work space and the Hermes spaceship that transports the crew, or the many devices involved, extensive research, careful planning and visionary design allowed credibility of the story.
For the Earth-based sets, Max and Bobak gave a stylized look to realism. Max explains, “I combined some of the elements we saw at NASA and then pushed out into the future with the design to what we think their next control room, offices and spaceships may look like.”
NASA liaison Bert Ulrich notes, “Science fiction, especially in films, is continually an influence on real science…both art and science draw from similar aspects of creativity, curiosity and vision.”
Based on NASA advanced design plans, the Hermes spaceship is powered by a nuclear-powered ion plasma propulsion engine, which Max says has yet to be depicted in a movie because the technology is so new. “We’ve tried to stay close to practical reality and cutting-edge technology while creating an eye-catching aesthetic.”
In conversation with SET DECOR, Max shares fascinating details about the collaboration with Bobak and her teams, NASA and JPL scientists and engineers, Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski, Costume Designer Janty Yates and the entire production team of THE MARTIAN, to bring to life the near future and the possibilities it offers.
SET DECOR: Celia Bobak was the head set decorator on this film…
Production Designer Arthur Max: Yes, Celia was THE set decorator!
She had assistants…Zoltan Hovrath, for instance, was excellent, but he mostly performed the role of local production buyer in Hungary. Because he spoke the language, he also organized everything there. We had shipped in many elements from England and then a lot of things were fabricated in Hungary by all sorts of craftspeople, from metal workers to model makers, sculptors and upholsterers. Celia, of course, was in charge of everything.
SD: Had you shot in Hungary before?
AM: No, never. I hadn’t even been to Hungary before. We chose to shoot there because the new Korda Studios outside of Budapest has the world’s biggest stage. [6000 square meters/64,310 square feet]
This was important, because our illustrious cinematographer Dariusz Wolski thought it was better to have control of the surface of Mars on stage, in order to control the lighting, the weather, the effects. If we shot all the exteriors on location we’d have no control. We’d be at the mercy of ever constantly moving sunlight, with many condition-of-light issues and continuity issues.
The soundstage also had the biggest green screen ever made, ideal for the background of our studio Martian landscape, which we matched with our location shots in Jordan. We built 2 sets for the Habitat, duplicates of the exteriors to set up in each location.
So Celia and her crew had their work cut out to duplicate these sets, while at the same time doing NASA interiors, JPL interiors, the interiors of all the spacecraft, and 2 rovers. Also…all of the satellites and all of the accouterments of NASA and JPL technology were made through her department, because none of it could be rented.
We got reference research from both JPL in Pasadena and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston about their proposed Orion missions, which are their Martian missions planned for probably 15-20 years from now. We had many, many discussions with them about what the reality is, how much we could push with what they have in mind with the future missions, and how much creative license we might have in areas where there were really no clearly defined parameters.
We tried to stay very close to practical reality and to the cutting edge of the near-future thinking of interplanetary missions. NASA and JPL showed us what they were thinking of doing and then we kind of restyled it to give it a little more futuristic and designer look, which they asked us to do.
They told us they look to us to be inspired. They do the engineering, but we do the style. [He smiles]
We worked very closely with their engineers, because they wouldn’t allow us to put a NASA logo on anything that they didn’t approve the engineering of. Also, the essence of the film is that Watney survives his predicament by using his knowledge of botany, organic chemistry and rocket/space technology to the point where he can survive all of these disasters. So we had to figure out and then include all the elements he would be able to incorporate.
SD: From space tools to potatoes!
AM: Yes, we went into the potato farming business!
Because the studio is a very new facility, there were some unfinished buildings, which we co-opted to cultivate our potatoes. We installed grow lights and the potatoes were grown in rotational stages so we could dress sprouts, medium-sized and then full-sized plants. And replace them, because we kept destroying them all, blowing them up!
SD:You also filmed in Budapest’s “Whale”, the 19th century customs house that has been renovated into a post-modern complex…
AM: Yes, we built our NASA control room and our Chinese Space Agency control rooms into their exhibition spaces, because it was kind of a cutting edge building, with those big geodesic frameworks…
SD: The shots looking down from the mezzanine give that feeling of space, expanded space, even though within a structure. Along that line, what about the almost elegant interiors of the Hermes spaceship? It was beautiful, so spatial inside, almost palatial…
AM: Yeah, well that was taken from a lot of inspirational sources, beginning with the International Space Station, which, according to the engineers at NASA and JPL, is the way they’ll have to go to build any kind of interplanetary spacecraft, in that they’ll prefabricate the sections on earth and then they’ll launch them, just as they recently launched a 7500 pound payload of supplies to the space station.
So the whole design philosophy is about payload and what weights you can afford to launch efficiently. Thus, all those designs were driven by modular thinking: bite-sized repeatables that interlock and interconnect universally. Depending on their function, they were either octagonal or cylindrical or cubic…that kind of design thinking. Plus, there’s an overlay of coolness.
We looked back at a lot of science fiction films, going all the way to the ‘50s for one of my favorites, THIS ISLAND EARTH, and of course, the king of all time, Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY. It still stands up today. There’s an homage to it in our Hermes spaceship, along with a certain amount of NASA-derived current thinking, particularly their research and design areas that I was allowed to see, which had more to do with functionality. They keep minimalizing everything, even the wiring and the cables, so it can be very elegant now.
SD: We love that you stylized it, because, they do look to films for inspiration. The space engineers at NASA embrace the design, saying, “It makes us cool!”
AM: Yeah, they virtually asked us to do that. They also told us that they were inspired by PROMETHEUS, which was the first science fiction film I ever designed. In fact, they used the control desk on the Juggernaut, the alien ship in that film, on one of their test facilities because they loved it so much.
It was often a bit hand-in-glove with NASA and JPL Pasadena. For instance, they showed us their latest rover research vehicles, which are basically just test vehicles for wheel durability and survivability, because they keep making them thinner and thinner and lighter and lighter. There were aspects we thought looked great, and we incorporated those. But some of our design was completely new and much more sophisticated – the rover they have looks more like a 1950s ice cream van, because they’re not concerned with the aesthetic, you know.
Instead, millions of dollars are spent on the wheel technology. The rovers have lots of wheels that all steer independently and move up and down independently, rather like a centipede. Since we didn’t have millions to spend, we took a high clearance farm vehicle that is able to ride over furrows of mature crops, and then changed everything on it. We kept just the chassis, embellished the suspension and the steering, removed the entire cab and replaced it completely. We moved the engine and upgraded it, added a crane and a couple of winches, and made a trailer for it. And then we built another one!
SD: To match?
AM: Well, we had a 4-wheel model and a 6-wheel model, because in the script, there were two. One was destroyed in the storm, so he cannibalizes the destroyed one to extend the range of the other…
SD: And all those solar panels!
AM: All those solar panels were custom-designed, because we were underwhelmed by real solar panels. So we added our own layer of foil and embossed reflective designs onto them to make them more visual, which is kind of what we did on the whole movie. We gave it all a design upgrade.
And yet, it all had to work. That was essential. Like the life-support system, which was based on NASA designs currently being tested. The actual ones are so big, heavy and bulky looking, and Watney has to carry them onto his vehicle, so we decided to modularize them. We were inspired by the actual ones, but we reduced the scale and then multiplied the number of modules. The system is designed on the line of hi-fi/video components. You have a rack and standard size modules, and you pop your components in. Some were air filters, some were urine purifiers, some were air scrubbers…
SD: That’s the thing, the amount of detail, again.
AM: And they were all machine-milled by our model-making department, under Celia Bobak’s department. As were the antennae and satellites that were sort of dressing up NASA corridors…and the hanging spacesuits, which Costume Designer Janty Yates helped us with—every department was collaborating.
For example, the life-support backpacks on the astronauts had to fit in the chairs for the escape launch. So there were a lot of prototypes in polystyrene and the chair was mocked up, and there was a lot of interaction about the size and shape of the backpacks and the chair.
SD: What did you tackle first in your overall design concept? The interiors? The exteriors?
AM: The exteriors. We visualized the Habitat, the rover, the spacecraft, the Mars Sim vehicle all those things from the outside. And then, when we got a look that we sort of liked, we went inside….
SD: And you configured to go with?
AM: Well, then you modify the exterior to accommodate. So there’s a lot of back and forth to the design. NASA is doing experiments with capsule design now. They’re much smaller, they’re packing 6 people into a capsule and they’re standing up, for a start, holding onto railings…
SD: Like a carnival ride?
AM: Right, exactly. There are pipe frameworks that come off the floor that they hold onto instead of the individual chairs that we gave them. So a lot of that part of our design was license compared to what NASA is actually doing.
Everybody from the camera department and the lighting team were complaining about how tight it was to work in, but it was twice the size that NASA has designed. So, there was a balancing act between what looks good, what’s filmable, and where we can take license.
We built the capsule in segments, so it all came to bits and the sides came off, the roof came off. We had hatches for cameras. There were a lot of pieces of the puzzle, and the puzzle came together very well, because everything had a miniature physical model and also a digital, 3-dimensional computer model in the design stages. That was handed off to the visual effects department, and they did animations and pre-viz.
SD: Yes, we wondered how many design and decor choices you had to make very early on, because you would need to get them to visual effects for them base their work on…
AM: Well, everything was early, because we had very little time to design and build. Unfortunately for Celia and her department, most of the sets were dressed, if she was lucky, maybe a week before—IF she was lucky. Sometimes, the weekend before…and sometimes, the night before…in fact most of the sets were ready on the morning of, because of the compressed time frame. That’s all to do with, I think, actor availability, as usual.
So, it’s the result of teamwork throughout by every department, you know. We also had to resolve some of the more technical sets, like the corridor where everybody is flying at zero gravity, the airlocks, the EVAs out in space. The rotating gravity wheel interiors…
SD: That was such a lovely homage…
AM: And we figured out how to do that. Kubrick built it just as a great big Ferris wheel. We have better tools now with CGI and computer control of flyby wire, so we only built half a wheel, and it never had to really go all the way around…
SD: Ah, they only go into or through it…
AM: Yes, they’re on their way to somewhere else. For the exterior, which is the only time you see the whole, we shot the exterior set, and they completed the rest of the wheel digitally. So everybody got together with everybody else. Physical effects built a giant hydraulic steel gimbal. There were tons of steel in that, and the hydraulics kept it very smooth and allowed us control the speed.
SD: Wow. Do you stay on the set for the shoot?
AM: Oh yes, as much as possible. Thankfully, we were always on the same lot, but there was a musical chairs aspect because even with having all the stages that they had at that studio, we had so many sets with different requirements that we had to move sets out of stages to allow rehearsal, stunt rehearsals and rigging, and then redress on every stage, over and over. And sometimes, move the set back into the stage and then re-vamp the set yet again.
We had 3 airlocks, but we only had one set! So that was re-vamped a bunch of times. We had the Habitat on the big stage with the Martian landscape, but we also had the lower part of the MAV/Mars Ascent Vehicle, the escape vehicle, which had the ladder going up and the big legs coming down. That had to occupy the same stage, but not at the same time, so that had to come in later.
We were all over the place. We had to be servicing the shoot and the strike and the build and the re-sets…and then we had a crew going out to Jordan.
SD: And even the little JPL garage set, might seem simple because you could throw some leaves in, and it had the older stuff…but there was an incredible amount of detail in there, too.
AM: Oh yes! We had to make all of it. We weren’t given anything. We asked NASA for some of their old satellites or rockets, but we didn’t get very far.
SD: They’re all in museums?
AM: Museums…or they’re spoken for, and their research prototypes are too secret and expensive. So Celia made all of those, you know, her model-makers, with some help from construction but mostly set decorating team made those. And the propmakers in Hungary made the Pathfinder from scratch, and the little Sojurner…they made those and did a brilliant job.
For all of the JPL sets, we were pretty faithful to their “aesthetic”. [He smiles] I think Purnell’s office, with that blackboard and the details, was Celia’s tour de force.
SD: Such a contrast to the crystalline NASA sets! Could we talk a bit more about the concept of the set dressing for NASA?
AM: It was mostly forward looking…we were trying to give them a design upgrade, because if you actually go to NASA, it’s very ‘70s and ‘80s, grey and beige tweed. So we went Italian cutting edge, Modus and Domus, in terms of the tables and chairs, and in terms of the whole philosophy. We made some of our own pieces, like the tri-legged crew table in the rec room on the gravity wheel. Celia came up with that based on some Italian inspiration, so we made the table and the 3-pronged light that went on it. The whole philosophy of the NASA sets was really high-end progressive design.
Then there were the graphics. Neil Floyd did the physical graphics and Felicity Hickson was our digital motion art director, who did all the screen graphics in conjunction with a company called Territory out of London…
SD: And as you say, extensive graphics…
AM: Everywhere. And they all had to be color-coded to look like NASA or JPL or the Chinese space agency or the Hermes spacecraft or the Habitat or the rover… so they were all different in terms of color palette, typeface and the approach of the graphic design. So that was a challenge, first to make them look different, and then the turn-around and the repeats and the r-vamps and the coding and the colors and the numbers. It was endless…endless…
SD: Well, there is so much to be proud of…and we all applaud and thank you for making the concept of science being important and sexy, and tangible and something to desire for all those young people coming up that will be inspired…
AM: This film incorporates all of the technology that we’ve discussed about future space travel, but not only that, it embraces the risks and the perils in which our characters find themselves, which are real and engaging, and I think that is the core of the movie: how the human spirit deals with the terrifying face of total disaster and isolation.
How you choose to greet disaster is something I think audiences find extremely emotionally engaging…
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