Posted Nov 21

How MR. X made sure you felt Brad Pitt’s 80,000-ft fall from space in Ad Astra

by Jane Bracher
How MR. X made sure you felt Brad Pitt’s 80,000-ft fall from space in Ad Astra by Jane Bracher

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

Ad Astra, director James Gray’s space odyssey, opens with a thrillingly pivotal sequence that sees protagonist Roy McBride plummet to Earth from an 80,000-foot antenna in space that’s been hit by a cosmic surge. The sequence shows us point-of-view shots of McBride’s fall, as well as overall stunning visuals. 

But visual effects studio MR. X, which worked on that sequence as part of roughly 100 final shots for the film, knew there was an opportunity there to dig deeper.

For MR. X, it was crucial to transpose onto the screen the feeling itself of falling, particularly from such a height of 80,000 feet, as well as the motion of it.

In order to help achieve that, the layout team, according to Layout Artist Fadi Sara, referred to aerial footage of skydivers in California, which were shot specifically for this scene. They also spoke to a highly experienced skydiver “to better understand the dynamics of the falling motion, and how to add a better sense of realism to our movements without breaking reality”.

This was useful for the slow, point-of-view shot at the start of McBride’s fall from the antenna, which Fadi said required plenty of reference, multiple revisions, trial and error, experimentation, and valuable input and guidance from VFX Supervisor Olaf Wendt.

There was also a conscious decision to slow down that fall in order to achieve the “visceral feeling and sense of dread” one usually gets right before the first drop of a roller coaster.

“Any shot that evokes physical feeling is always the most rewarding to work on,” Fadi said.

Matching a real parachute with a CG version

Wendt pointed out a specific challenge of this whole sequence when it came to McBride and his parachute as he fell to Earth. Since production couldn’t very well shoot a skydiver with a damaged parachute, the VFX necessitated frame-filling sim work. 

“In some of those shots, the parachute fills the frame so that's quite a big simulation piece of work, that has to seamlessly match into the other shots of the real parachute,” noted Wendt.

“From a VFX point of view it's almost easy to work with a CG parachute because then it's kind of consistent. In this case we really had to match the feel of the practical parachute and that was in itself quite challenging.”

Power of teamwork

In delivering this complex sequence, VFX Producer Samantha Banack spoke of the level of attention to detail required throughout the process, as well as the careful back and forth to get the progression right.

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

Contact sheets were reviewed several times a week and “things like the rising horizon were scrutinised to make sure we felt the distance from 80,000 feet to the ground”, while sequence reviews helped the team visualise the bigger picture. It was vital that shots were sent to comp as early as possible, and then the team did multiple versions later.

“No one could just think about their shot on this one,” Banack said, “everyone had to see the forest and the trees.”

Banack also pointed to the intuitive and meticulous collaboration with Wendt, who had a thorough understanding of exactly what director Gray wanted from the sequence, and then clearly communicated that to the artists.

“This was,” Banack said, “a true achievement for the power of communication and tight teamwork!” –

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