WWI: The Cinematography Of ‘The Martian’

What’s so stirring about The Martian is that, before and after everything else, it truly is about being human. The crux of the movie centres around survival as Ridley Scott rediscovers his light touch in a space epic that’s fun to geek out at. Damon – a fine actor with the magnetism you only find in a true movie star – keeps you glued. The Martian is fueled by charm, curiosity and the scientific method. It plays like a modernized Kennedy-age fantasy of discovery, space and can-do initiative. But the film is far from being a one-man show as we grow to appreciate the visual dialogue between Damon, and his environment through the eyes of DP Wolski. The beauty and spectacle are some of the things keeping Mark so positive, even in the face of unimaginable odds. The gorgeous cinematography also highlights these odds, showing just how alone Mark is. “I am the first man to be alone on an entire planet,” Mark says, matter-of-factly.

When we find Mark knocked out, covered in martian sand was shot in Jordan. This was to mimic the texture, colour and terrain of parts of Mars. A lot of the deeper stuff was aded in post to expand the scope. A lot of atmospheric perspective is added to add more realism so that the light and shade colour of what is near set aside what is far is more starkly different. This is a primary way for Wolski to add realism and work alonside Scott. In a lot of Scott’s movies he uses haze and rain and this cinematic technique creates a nice and engaging image by controling the focus with contrast. The gradation of the contrast adds interest to the frame. The raw plate is very different but a solid foundation for Wolski to build on. The sky is blue and not red, the sand is not red yet well textured and shaded. Mark’s position, on horizon in the centre of the frame, acts as a narrative device in which the audience is aware of his impending isolation while he is about to be rudely awoken by this harsh reality.

During this filming process not a lot of lighting was needed for the external scenes as the natural light fills everything in, especially when using digital instead of film. Instead the DP Wolski would pick an angle in coordiantion with the sun to shoot with the correct lighting. To film these scenes at these angles a Lieberhead was used alongside a stalk isolation shock-mount with a circular Lieber to hold the camera. The film was shot with two RED epic dragons in 5K using a three-ality rig. To get some of the lower shots Wolski used the blue dropdowns which undermined the flexibility but allowed for more intimate shots. To combat this they would use especially effective camera set-ups such as an aerial A, 3/4 B and medium shot C. Moreover, the IRE-ND filters helped to enhance this good coverage. For the less mobile shots a gigantic Oconnor X-Head 120 was used with the same big three-ality rig and a defacto stand.

Contrasting against the previous approach, the storm scene in which Mark gets abandoned is filmed very differently. Nevertheless it uses a very Ridley Scott approach in it’s lighting. Mark’s helmet is lit by warm LED lights with cold LED style headlights coming off the suit, the beam still heavily visible. We also have a painterly  search-light in the background creating a natural vignette as Mark is silhouetted against this beam of light. To complement this there are very bright sources from keepign the scene dark which are essentially 100% IRE. The colour contrast is very present and adds mood to the faces. The framing of this scene is off centre for Mara’s character  as an engaging technique for Wolski to use as an editing point. This sequence was shot on-set, without CGI for the added atmospheric realism. This became very obvious in the B-roll footage captured as the texture of dirt and gravel had a realism and motion to it that felt organic and less algorithmic than had it been sot aritificially. The Super-Techno 50 and lieberhead were used as rigs to keep these shots steady and focused. The singular sources lighting the group was a Maxi-brute which dispelled light very effectively udner the weatehr conditions. This sequence was shot in 5K but framed for a 240 4K extract.

Moving from the traditional to virtual cinematography we see a number of key changes. To achieve some of the external space-ship shots on the main space-craft a number of decisions were made by Wolski. We look up at the spacecraft with the horizon below axis. A Chapman with a Three-ality rig on truss was used alongside a camera on a cantid angle – the camera rolled on a slight diagonal. Wolski chose for the light to shoot up as the blockign of these scenes progressed. The decision process for the lighting and green screen fell more to the Virtual Production Supervisor Casey Schatz. He took the framign and pacing from Director Ridley Scott and applied it practically. Switchign to later in the movie but on the same premise, we see Damon flying through space with a spider-cam support system. The Techno-dolly holding this scene is essentially a rig with a programable axis meaning that the pacing could be tied down to a specific time-frame in line with Scott’s original vision. The Super-Techno 50 with the lieberhead was used to capture this sequence and the set-up meant that there was no human error on atchncial level. The A and B camera set up captures a clse-up and wide shot simultaneously and flies in as one pushes and the other pulls for complete, reliable and synchronised capture.

Not all of the scenes were set on Mars and those that weren’t required a very different cinematographic approach as explaiend here. On the set of NASA’s testing hangar we acknowledge that Wolski wants the lighting to be coming from deep into the background towards the camera in what is essentially backlighting. This adds a lot of Vis. The scoop lights used are lighting the scene but the light source comes towards us with no light out of frame to create a series of human silhouettes – a shape that the human eye is very keen to observe as a survival instinct to tap into the human psyche and draw in the viewer. Because this scene has a lot of contrast the figures are pure black which at first is scary but slowly less so as the practicals to light up our brains.  The third element is the reflections used. The interior of the shuttle lights the floor which appears dappled and blurred as does some of the rest of the set as the back lighting and practicals dispell light. The fourth element is depth. We have somethign in the foreground which is blurry because of the motion blur, we have the people in the middle-ground and we have the shuttle in the background. Collectively we have three layers of depth. The scene appears almost as though a concept artist drew it as Wolski’s composition puts features in a third by third division.

The main mars setup on which Mark is mostly based is pretty cool. A lot of natural light is used alongside some practicals and the plastic sheeting to diffuse it. Using a wider lens it can be difficult to get some depth into the shot but Wolski is very creative in solving this issue. Firstly he back lights itand secondly the screen of plastic fakes the depth by blurring everything in the botany lab. Mark is not a complete silhouette but some of the edges are darkened to maintian a keen read of his body. This is a fundamental aspect of composition when shooting the talent or protagonist adn you don’t want them obscured. The same four elements are applied in the potato planting sequence as we have lighting, depth, reflections, practicals and a silhouette to create a heavily engaing composition. A chapman dolly with a slider was used to shoot this scene.

Back on Earth, we have some great shots of focus pulling as characters scramble to save Mark. The Cinotape is used time and again for a more procedural feel. A lot of natural backlight is used with reflections in the floor and many practicals. The LED lightmats lighting the scene are hung directly over the talent to create very realistic lighting. To capture these scenes the chapman and sldier combo added an energy to the logistical ping-ponging of ideas around the engaging talents. The practicals in the background ensure that the scene is backlit towards the viewer. All of the floors on the scene are shiny for added composition.

All considered I would agree with Ridley Scott in saying Wolski is an “extremely visual and great collaborator,” and the results speak for themselves. His ability to shoot scenes with proficiency that he does by encorporating industry standard elements to perfection is impressive and adds depth to each and every scene. The bridge from the concept art in pre-production and ridley Scott’s vision to the final visual look is a remarkably small leap as Wolski captures expertly, the sentiment of each and every beat of this production.



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