The world of deep space in Passengers: An interview with MPC

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What does space 30 light-years away from Earth look like? What difficulties would you face if you tried to simulate water under zero gravity? RENDERU.COM discussed these uncertainties with Pete Dionne, VFX supervisor at Moving Picture Company. He has worked on many projects as a CG and DFX Supervisor (such as Elysium, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and was visual effects supervisor for Goosebumps and Passengers. Pete Dionne told RENDERU.COM about his work on Passengers in an exclusive interview.

RENDERU.COM: Do you remember why you chose a career in computer graphics?

Pete Dionne: I've always been very inspired by visual arts in general. Since I was young, I desired to have a career in film, and at the time when I was looking to break into the film industry, visual effects seemed like a very exciting path to take – and it has been!

RENDERU.COM: Was this the first time that you’d worked on a movie about space? What did you expect from the process?

P.D.: This was the first major space project that I’d been a part of, which has been a dream of mine since I began working in visual effects. Space has such a rich history and tradition in how it has been represented in film over the years, yet every film set in this environment has the ability to create its own vision when approaching the aesthetic of what space looks like. It has been an exciting experience to balance the art, science, and fantasy aspects of it.


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RENDERU.COM: Chris Nolan, for example, wanted everything in Interstellar to look scientifically correct. Was there a similar vision for Passengers?

P.D.: Our film takes place in “deep space”: 15 light years from Earth, so this was an opportunity to represent space in a unique manner. It was very important to us that we visually separated ourselves from the imagery of space that we see in most films and NASA footage, in order to maintain the sense of isolation throughout the film, which our characters experience. However, we also didn't want to swing the pendulum too far towards the realm of fantasy space, as we also strove to maintain a respect for science in the design of both space, and our spaceship. Rather than relying on a bright, high-contrast, sunlit lighting design like our own familiar solar system, we chose to be much darker, and ambient lit in our environment lighting, and allowing the exposure to lift up several stops above how space is traditionally lit. We allowed this to reveal gas and star texture from the distant band of the Milky Way, which was also used to silhouette the ship, and reflect along the ship to help define its form. Though we did embellish the detailing within our Milky Way background environment, we did use actual astro-photography as a base to start from.


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We also turned to modern interstellar travel theory to help to drive the design of the Starship Avalon. Several concepts influenced how we built our ship, including the rotating hulls that generate artificial gravity, the shield at the front of the ship that harvests the energy of interstellar matter, while also protecting the ship from collisions with this matter, the ion plasma propulsion system powering the ship, and several other elements within the ship's core design. Above all, the ship needed to look beautiful as well, so of course many choices were made for purely aesthetic purposes.

RENDERU.COM: How did you create the Starship Avalon?

P.D.: We were required to build a colossal one kilometre long ship, of which we feature many different areas of it close up, so we knew it was going to be a massive challenge for us, both creatively and technically. Even after the initial design process was complete and the overall general form of the ship was established, we still spent around a further 6 months designing, detailing, and building the surface of the ship, so that we could feature this ship in any shot we desired. Our ship was over a billion polys, with thousands of texture maps, and thousands of geolights on the ship itself. Rendering it required constant optimization throughout development, including a level-of-detail switching process, which was applied to individual components of the ship itself, as well as a clever geo culling process, which was used at rendertime. To keep our renders at a reasonable time, we also built separate assets for each close-up section of the ship that we featured, so that we could create lots of additional detailing without being concerned about how it would affect the rest of the shots being rendered.

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RENDERU.COM: You say that the film takes place in “deep space”. Nobody really knows what space 15 light years from Earth looks like. Therefore, how did you work to visualise it?

P.D.: We knew that our lighting design was starting from our deep space background, which was based on embellished Milky Way photography, and that this would provide us with a cold, blue, ambient lighting environment. We began to look for real-world lighting references to help to give us direction towards a plausible lighting design, and we found inspiration in photography of tall glass buildings at dusk. In this photographic scenario, the sky is still holding onto a bit of light, which is also reflecting across the glass buildings to help define its form, but the warm artificial lighting of the windows and the streets overpower it, and provide localised pockets of overexposed illumination. We applied the same principals to our ship. In addition to making the shading very reflective to force the Milky Way texture to wrap around the surface of the Avalon, we also placed thousands of little lights throughout the ship, so the ship was bathing itself in a very warm glow. We allowed these lights (and the windows as well) to slightly overexpose, and the warmth of the lights also provided a nice colour contrast to the cool space background.

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RENDERU.COM: Can you explain how you worked on the Zero Gravity water sequence?

P.D.: There were two great challenges for the Zero Gravity water sequence that we had to overcome: designing the motion of the water, and executing the sequence in a way that didn't distract from Jennifer Lawrence's powerful performance. We began by engaging in a lot of research and development by trying to replicate how the zero gravity water would physically move in this environment. What we found was that either the water would not move much at all under these forces, or the surface tension would be too weak to hold the volumes together, and the room would become a crazy mess of unstructured water. We were excited by how small volumes of water move in a zero gravity environment, based on a collection of NASA videos of water experiments on the ISS that we frequently referenced. We began to modify the parameters in our simulations so as to treat our water similar to this, which instantly gave us something more stable that we could art direct. We animated the entire sequence, and began to simulate over the top of the general animated geo volumes, but what we quickly found was that once we put Jennifer Lawrence's plate elements within the water, her image would turn into a very abstract pattern quite quickly, due to the complexity of the surface and the amount of refraction and distortion applied to her element when viewed through the surface of the water. We then began a process of simplifying the water surface on her main water volumes, while adding complexity back into the water around the periphery of the composition. We would also render multiple factors of refractive distortion, so that we could find the right balance between what looks real but isn't destructive to her image. Often, we would have to dial in this perfect balance on a per-shot basis.

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RENDERU.COM: The sequence in which the ship passes by the Red Giant Star is also very memorable. Can you tell us about the main challenges of creating this?

P.D.: The Red Giant Star was a very exciting sequence to work on, as even our very early simulations looked dazzling. For this, we referenced massive amounts of photography of our own sun, and used this as a guide, as we recreated the different layers of the sun's composition. The chromasphere, photosphere, and the erupting corona elements were all volume-based simulations, which we created in Houdini, while we simulated magnetic arcs using several millions of particles to get the correct look. We took liberties with the exposure of the star, darkening it down as it was a red giant, but also by including the magnetic rays, which can only be observed in our own sun outside of the visible spectrum. We included these rays as this was a very romantic scene in the film, and we didn't want to portray this star as being a danger to them, and the soft glow of the magnetic fields really gave the star a feeling of beauty and majesty that we desired.

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RENDERU.COM: Could you share your impressions of collaborating with director Morten Tyldum?

P.D.: Morten is a true collaborator, and a very easy director to work for. He comes with a clear vision of what he desires to achieve, yet approaches every situation with an open mind regarding the path he takes to achieve it. This was his first major experience with visual effects, but his openness and collaborative nature allowed us to work with him quite closely in order to realise his vision, and help him drive the big details while we took care of the little details in the background. Plus, he is very clever, and he picked up the visual effects production process very quickly, which also helped. Overall, it was a great experience working on this film with Morten.

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RENDERU.COM: What was the best moment of working on this project?

P.D.: The team that I worked with (both on the production side and within MPC) made this the most gratifying project that I've ever been a part of. The most difficult moments on this film were also the most inspiring, as this incredible team would always find solutions through creativity and hard work. There is one scene in the beginning of the film where we see an asteroid impact the Avalon, which was added late in the post schedule out of a desire to be more explicit with portraying this event. This sequence, which included several full CG shots of the Avalon, a new environment, and redesigning the shield for this event, seemed impossible to deliver in the eight-week period which remained the schedule, but the crew did an incredible job coming together to fast-track the sequence, along with everything else in the schedule, and the end result is something we're all quite proud of.

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RENDERU.COM: What are you working on now?

P.D.: I'm currently working on a Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, which is also quite an exciting project to be a part of.

RENDERU.COM: Finally, what would you suggest to aspiring CG artists who dream of working on big projects in famous studios? What is the key to success?

P.D.: The path to success in visual effects requires skill and talent, but above all, hard work. To find success in a large studio usually requires starting from an entry-level position, which often demands very hard work and diligence for very little glory. However, over time, you will build your experience and develop your skills, and before long you will find yourself in a position to contribute to a film in a very substantial way. VFX is a very exciting and rewarding career, if you are not shy about hard work and long hours.

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