Sam Bell is a lonely astronaut. He has left his wife and daughter behind on Earth for three years to run a helium harvesting operation on the moon as an alternative energy source, for his employer Lunar Industries. Except for an unnervingly intelligent and articulate GERTY computer, he’s going to live and work at the moon base completely on his own. Or so he expects, until he turns up at the site and finds a double of himself already there. The story that unfolds is a dark sci-fi tale dealing with cloning, identity and human vulnerability.
Cinesite first read through the script in November 2007. They recognised it had a great story and worked up a bid based on 167 shots at that stage, helping to conceptualise looks and planning the techniques they would use for the effects. The project required extensive research and a detailed, three dimensional set survey to make sure the team would be able to rebuild the interior environment of the moon base digitally. The production also involved miniatures for some shots. Although Cinesite did not provide the miniatures, Simon supervised the miniature shoots as well as the visual effects on the main unit.
Motion Control SPROG
Construction of the set was underway at Shepperton Studios early on, which gave Simon and his team a chance to carry out a handful of shooting tests in January 2008 with The Visual Effects Company, who wanted to test the usability and repeatability of their system called SPROG, the proposed motion control hardware. These were shot on video to create quick turnaround test comps as a proof of concept for full production filming.
The portable SPROG rig, a computer controlled film camera, was used to record many of the key effects shots in the film depicting scenes showing Sam with his double. The rig filmed the multiple passes Cinesite needed to create split screen composites used throughout the film and especially for the prolonged, intense dialogues in which the two men, who turn out to be a pair clones, gradually begin to trust each other and come to grips with their predicament.
Eight Week Shoot
The eight week shoot began with principal photography in March 2008 at Shepperton, where Simon and Visual Effects Producer Angie Wills were on hand working with Director Duncan Jones, Producer Stuart Fenegan and Director of Photography Gary Shaw. Simultaneously, Cinesite's 3D artists began designing, modelling and texturing the movie’s CG robot character GERTY, ready to add into scenes.
“Throughout the shoot I knocked up storyboards, for myself as much as anything, to keep on track of our daily requirements and did as many test comps from the telecine footage as possible to help the editorial team primarily with the clone shots,” said Simon. He remarked on the skill that actor Sam Rockwell, who played Sam Bell, developed when performing these challenging scenes. "He studied his performance on a video i-pod and always got his eyelines spot on and knew when and where to move to avoid colliding with himself. Initially, and throughout the eight weeks of shooting, we had a very small team on board and the budget didn't allow the luxury of producing any previs. Most of the money went into final shots.”
Principle photography rolled straight into a week of green screen photography with a two week gap before the miniature shoot kicked off at the end of March for a further 10 days. “In early May 2008, we had an in-depth run through of the first cut with Duncan. At this point, the shot count had risen to close to 300 shots and at the end of May, a new budget was thrashed out. Post began in earnest in June with final delivery at the end of November 2008.”
In the third week of shooting the tracking department moved into the moon base for a weekend, to work up a very thorough survey of the set. They used a Leica total station and DSLR camera for reference stills and were also fortunate to have a lidar scan of the rec room, coms unit and hallway - the most used areas of the set - carried out as a favour to Cinesite by Ian Nichols at Lidar VFX.
The following weekend, they photographed HDRI high dynamic range imaging for the entire environment under the ‘day’ and ‘night’ settings. This survey formed the foundation for the lighting environment for the moon base set, which was Sam's world. Shot-specific HDRI photography was taken throughout the shoot, too.
“For example, whenever the GERTY robot body or either of its industrial mechanised arms appears in shot, I photographed HDRI, capturing the exact lighting set-up for that shot,” Simon said. “DOP Gary Shaw would add specials or additional reflectors to the generic ‘moon base’ lighting scenario, so it's especially important to get shot-specific HDRI for these scenes. Additionally, the main unit camera would film a chrome and grey ball pass under the same conditions, where I would walk the path of the robot. Kit used for HDRI capture was Agnos nodal head, 8mm fisheye and EOS 20D.”
The film was shot on Kodak Vision 200T 5274 and Vision3 500T 5219 stock, the negative was scanned on Northlight, composited in Shake and Nuke, and the DI was printed out to Kodak Vision 2383. The whole film underwent DI, so whatever treatment applied to the non-effects shots was matched on the effects shots.
The robot character GERTY had to be immediately believable because it was meant to serve as Sam Bell’s sole and constant companion at the isolated moon base. While the props for the body and arms of the robot were in a rudimentary state, they took measurements and reference stills to get started on 3D modelling for what would become the fully animated character. When final set dressing was completed on the practical GERTY prop, a very extensive texture shoot was carried out. This data went into generation of the texture maps for the final 3D build. Stills of the dressed GERTY body and two arms were taken under flat lighting to form the basis of their texture maps and shaders for the 3D model. Stills were taken on a Cannon 1DS Mk3 with each still at a resolution of 6k. These were manipulated, stitched together in Photoshop and rendered in Renderman.
Simon explained the process of incorporating the model into the 3D set. “Our 3D GERTY traverses the moon base suspended on a rail embedded in the ceiling. This was dressed into the set and formed part of our 3D build. By lining the two up for any given shot featuring GERTY, you have the path it will travel. The 3D set ensures accurate line up and aids tracking, placement of lighting and true environmental reflection back into our 3D GERTY.”
A critical part of Cinesite's input into ‘Moon’ was realising Director Duncan Jones' vision of the lunarscapes by creating the environments as digital matte paintings. “Duncan’s key reference for all lunar imagery was Michael Light's ‘Full Moon’, a collection of stills on and above the moon, the well-known images most of us have grown up with,” said Simon.
“The collection was always close to hand during the dressing of the lunar landscape model and throughout post production we kept one in the Producer’s office. Many of Duncan's other references were already there in front of us, in the set, costumes, hair and make-up by the time plates were turned over - ‘Dark Star’, ‘2001’, ‘Outland’, ‘Silent Running’ - we worked these into the grading of the CG and the matte painting work. And Duncan loved lens flares, aberrations, any natural optical errors. A lot occurred on set but we added a whole load more in post! They were all real elements shot on film and comped back into the plates.”
Skilled compositing was essential to the looks and believability of ‘Moon’. “Shake is Cinesite's principle compositing tool and as a ‘power user’, we have an almost unlimited number of licenses for the product. We have also recently introduced Nuke into the compositing department and were able to put it to good use on Moon for extending the practical lunar plates with our oversized digital matte paintings.”
In addition, intermediate compositing also kept Simon on track as he worked through production. “I run Shake on my laptop, which is good for video res composites on set. Telecine dailies can be imported via editorial or a firewire feed from the video assist workstation onset - so I'm able to make selects and temp shots up between takes or over lunch. This was done with the initial SPROG test and throughout shooting, for the scene with Sam 1 and 2 in the recreation room handling the craft knife, the ping pong match, ‘Walking on Sunshine’ clone shots and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ clone shots.”
Words: Adriene Hurst
Images - copyright Lunar Industries / Sony Pictures Classics