‘Good Night Oppy’ Filmmaker Ryan White on Recreating Famous Mars Landing: ‘Its Our Action Scene’11/09/2022
Documentary filmmaker Ryan White calls his latest project, “Good Night Oppy,”(streaming on Amazon Prime Video) his “COVID baby” because this was the one project he could work on during the pandemic when all his other projects got shut down.
The heartwarming documentary follows and chronicles the true story of Opportunity, the famous NASA rover delivered to Mars. The mission was expected to last 90 days, yet it survived for over 15 years.
White was able to conduct interviews, edit and work on VFX from his Los Angeles base while the pandemic put a halt to his other projects.
He weaves archival NASA footage, current interviews, and CGI magic courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic. However, his toughest challenge he says was showing the landing, which turned out to be a collaborative effort with the ILM team.
The scene nicknamed “EDL” showed the entry, descent and landing of the Mars rover and intercut archival footage from 2003 and 2004 alongside photo-real visual effects.
And the stakes of the mission are high.
“It is our action scene,” White says. “Once the robot reaches Mars, she’s doodling along, it’s not like we can create a monster and dust storms.”
In real-life, the mission stakes were high. Previous missions had failed, and there was pressure for this to be a success. That meant White had to get it right.
Initially, the scene was going to be the documentary’s cold open. But that changed once White was in the edit room. “We started to realize you don’t understand the stakes unless you’ve given something around it. It means less to the audience if it opens cold versus if opens with a little bit of knowledge .
White consulted with NASA throughout to ensure the imagery was accurate, but he had to find archival footage that matched the visual effects.He says, “We went through hundreds of hours of footage of all the cameras from these days to find those faces and to find the moments when the signal has gone missing from Spirit.”
A triumph was finding the footage of Polly Estabrook from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who after eight minutes, saw the signal from the craft. White says, “In the footage, we could see her mouthing the words, but we found the microphone where you could pick up her audio and Mark Mangini, our incredible sound designer, would amplify that with all of the Mission Control sounds.”
The scene was one of the first White started to work on in visual effects because he knew it would be the most complicated. “We knew we were going to be photo-real because he had 3D renderings [of the robots] from NASA. Once we had that, we rendered the spacecraft and all the different stages of the spacecraft landing.”
White had to tackle another barrier, creating the airbags once Oppy landed. He says, “Airbags are so hard to do in visual effects because they move in such interesting directions, and nailing the way the airbags deflate took months.”
Furthermore, Mangini had to record the sounds of the unraveling or somehow recreate them.
“He was allowed to go to JPL and put microphones all over what’s called the testbed of Spirit and Opportunity because the replicas still exist,” White says, “Mark was able to test them and hear what it’s like when the neck moves or hear when the wheels start pulling out.”
Angela Bassett served as the documentary’s narrator. White explains, “It was always my vision to use an actor to play the voice of NASA, and that doesn’t begin until right when Oppy hits the ground. So, we were able to integrate Angela into that scene,”
Mangini placed microphones all around Bassett to record her. Says White, “If you’re watching this in a theater, you’ll hear Angela from everywhere, because we recorded all around her. Hopefully, it’ll give the audience the sense as if she’s everywhere as the adventures begin.”
Watch a clip from the scene above.
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