Posted Nov 19

The making of Brad Pitt’s visually chaotic fall in Ad Astra

by Jane Bracher
The making of Brad Pitt’s visually chaotic fall in Ad Astra by Jane Bracher

[This is part one of our feature on MR. X's layout department that worked on Ad Astra.]

One major sequence visual effects studio MR. X worked on for Ad Astra, the latest space odyssey by director James Gray, featured Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride falling from a height of 80,000 feet.

The sequence saw McBride plummeting to Earth following a cosmic surge that damaged the 80,000 feet-high antenna, which jutted out beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. It was a thrilling watch with shots showing McBride’s point of view through the fall.

But this was easily one of the most challenging set of shots MR. X worked on for the film, most especially for the layout department. There are several reasons for this, but a major one was maintaining continuity in such a naturally and visually chaotic scene, which required “problem solving on both artistic and technical elements”.

“Artistically, we were asked to be as respectful of continuity as possible. The angle, direction, and speed that Roy is travelling at the end of one shot needed to be the start angle of the next shot to carry the motion through,” explained Layout Artist Fadi Sara.

“This meant that when starting a new shot, sometimes the start and end position of the camera and Roy were already predetermined by surrounding shots.”

According to Fadi, what made it trickier was how “the duration of each shot is controlled by a pre-existing edit, and the time allotted didn't always allow for the motion to flow smoothly throughout the sequence”.

“To overcome this, we adjusted start and end angles within a few degrees to help control visual speed. While this broke perfect technical continuity, those were the few degrees of scope that gave us the control we needed, while visually respecting the director's vision,” he explained.

(READ: How MR. X strived for scientific accuracy in ‘Ad Astra’ nuke explosion)

The one drawback, however, was the domino effect of revisiting surrounding shots each time one shot was heavily modified. But they achieved the desired output, nonetheless.

“Overall, the sequence needed to be cohesive, yet visually chaotic and non-motion sickness inducing,” he said. “The nature of the vast omni-directional camera movements led us to our greatest technical hurdle; Gimbal flips, pre-building custom tools and rigs allowed us to bypass the majority of these issues.”

A key element for continuity emerged in creating the reflections on McBride’s visor, for it had to accurately show his surroundings.

“Maya's viewport doesn't always support reflections nicely, which led us to develop an additional camera workflow -- basically a Roy POV for these shots,” said Fadi.

“The logic behind it was to see the sequence through Roy’s point of view. This allowed our team to verify the continuity, and to get an idea of what was going to be in the reflection before sending it off for renders.” –

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