Whether you’re a virtual production supervisor on the set of The Martian or the film’s fictional hero stranded in space, a firm grasp of technology, supreme ingenuity, and an unflappable spirit are all required. Following the movie's stellar opening weekend, The Third Floor’s Casey Schatz describes his role on Ridley Scott’s new space epic and recounts the critical details that demanded careful consideration before The Martian's visual effects could blast off to soaring success.
What were The Third Floor’s contributions to 'The Martian?'
Our main contribution was techvis to help plan principal photography for the space sequences – essentially practicing the shoot in Maya before the crew set foot on stage. During shooting, I was on set to help integrate the techvis as well as the real-time simulcam composite. We also did postvis for the film, totaling around 170 shots.
How did you go about creating and using the techvis?
I had worked with VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers and Second Unit VFX Shoot Supervisor Matt Sloan on X-Men: Days of Future Past. The three of us work really well together. Upon arriving in Budapest, Richard and Matt were on the Mars set and we knew a lot of space material was coming up, so I started interacting with all the departments in order to figure out technical roadmaps for the shoot. Looking at boards and QuickTimes of the story action, we would see that, “Okay, the Hermes is flying from A to B,” but there were different paths of approaching that on set. Techvis was the best way to decide what was needed to execute the shots perfectly and keep them in line with the director’s vision.
Detailed techvis synthesized rig, height and stage requirements to find the right mix of camera and subject movement for a scene of Watney tumbling in the space capsule.
"...that’s what I love most about my job: absorbing information from the various departments and creating a technical depiction of that to say, 'Everyone’s feedback has been considered and here’s the net result.' "
You’re visually synthesizing input from all departments to ensure all systems are go.
Yes, and that’s what I love most about my job: absorbing information from the various departments and creating a technical depiction of that to say, “Everyone’s feedback has been considered and here’s the net result.” It’s about uncovering everything that you would not want to find out about on the day of shooting, and since filmmaking is a collaborative effort, you can only accomplish that by making sure everyone's thoughts and ideas are represented.
How long do you spend processing and organizing all the information?
I had about three weeks of quality alone time to digest all of the planned action and start organizing the shots, much like an Assistant Director would organize a script. I started by getting everything into a common world space, then grouped things by similarity: by sun position or key light, or which parts of the ship were in the shot, or if there was a cluster of over-the-shoulder shots looking towards Mars without the Hermes visible, for example. You also want to factor in things that take time on set, like could we save a relight by spinning the set 180 degrees, or is it simpler to fly in a 20'x20' green screen panel as opposed to moving the set pieces around? All of the various aspects -- size and placement of backdrops, choice of cameras (motion control vs. human operated, etc.), can end up having an impact on set so when these can be thought out and considered in advance, it’s huge.
"The Hermes ship was huge – 240 meters – and the art department built these remarkable small sections of it that literally looked like they came from NASA. They were incredible."
Movements for the actors along a truss were programmed out of Maya to the physical rigs. Animation for the camera and spinning rig section also originated from the same file.
And what parts of the set will be built versus CG?
Yes, that's right. The Hermes ship was huge – 240 meters – and the art department built these remarkable small sections of it that literally looked like they came from NASA. They were incredible. So, you have to consider where they are positioned relative to the stunt rig and be cognizant of the distance required to get the actors up to velocity. Also, to achieve the correct perspective, would this take the camera higher than it can go or vice versa under the stage floor? It was about condensing maybe close to a hundred or so shots, organizing them into logical groupings, then addressing them group by group. There’s a lot of juggling that needs to be done and there just isn’t time to figure it all out on the day of shooting. It’s practicing and experimenting and collecting input from everyone until we can say there is a solid shooting plan.
It really was, but I love it. I started in motion control so very early on I got used to animating with a respect for the physics of mechanical systems that have to operate on set.
"I barely knew what previs/techvis was at the time but soon realized that this is what I was put on this earth to do. That was 2002 and I’ve never looked back."
How did you ultimately decide that this is the work you wanted to do?
I went to Cal Arts and majored in photography but also completed most of the theater lighting, cinematography, and experimental animation curriculums. It was a mixture of technical and artistic for me, which is one of the things Cal Arts encourages. When I was about to graduate, I thought, “Oh no, now I have to choose one career path or the other." If I were a VFX artist and never on set, I would miss that part of filmmaking. Likewise, I wouldn't have been happy on set all the time and not progressing in CG. I wouldn’t have been happy with only one discipline. When my film showed at the end of the year, Tom Barron from ImageG approached me and asked when I could start at his motion control company. I barely knew what previs/techvis was at the time but soon realized that this is what I was put on this earth to do. That was 2002 and I’ve never looked back.
Is your brain in constant overdrive?
Yes, it is (laughs). How could you tell? I do really love this stuff, though. I don’t have any other lofty job aspirations. This is it.
For a scene where Beck traverses the Hermes exterior, techvis was created to map out the position and paths for rigs, stunts, cameras and actors relative to sections of the ship.
"...having those short but intense interactive sessions with Ridley was an honor. He’s one of the masters and I feel privileged that I get to do something I love so much and work with people who are so amazing, too."
What is it like to work with Ridley Scott?
It’s a blast. He’s absolutely wonderful. I had the model of the Hermes from the art department and I was able to sit and interactively produce camera moves in my scene file with him on the spot. He has an IQ of, like, 1000 and a very clear vision.
What made 'The Martian' special for you personally?
A few things, actually. I got to see Budapest which is an amazing place. Learning the language was fun, though certainly not easy. It was also the second collaboration with Richard and Matt in addition to Chris Lawrence from Framestore; being on an excellent team makes a great project even better. Learning from every department was a joy, and having those short but intense interactive sessions with Ridley was an honor. He’s one of the masters and I feel privileged that I get to do something I love so much and work with people who are so amazing, too.
You’ve worked on some incredible projects like HBO's 'Game of Thrones' and Marvel's 'The Avengers: Age of Ultron.'How challenging was this particular film?
It was very technically challenging and the sheer volume of shots in such a tight schedule meant that we needed to be very efficient and communicate well as a team. Running around with technical mock-ups on a laptop was a big factor in that communication.
It’s obvious you’re both smart and creative, but do you possess the skills to withstand life on Mars?
No, I can’t say that I do. I could definitely not lecture you on photosynthesis and how to grow plants on Mars, though according to recent news I'd at least have water! (laughs)
The Third Floor's toolset on 'The Martian' included Autodesk's Maya, Motion Builder, 3ds Max and Shotgun software. With offices and artists located around the world, The Third Floor is constantly inspired to help bring filmmakers' creative visions home whether on Planet Earth or elsewhere. For more about "The Martian," visit Foxmovies