Mars: behind the scenes on National Geographic’s docudrama

Framestore VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson talks working on Mars.

If you haven’t seen National Geographic’s Mars docudrama then you are seriously missing out.

Intercuttng footage from a mission to Mars in the year 2033 and interviews with real-life figures like Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin, Mars is an interactive and exhiliting documentary-drama that aims to put forward an insightful what-if scenario should we attempt to colonise the Red Planet in the near future.

With Ron Howard serving as executive producer, creator Justin Wilkes taking the helm and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on soundtrack duties, there is a whole host of creative talent on board. We were lucky enough to speak to Russell Dodgson – VFX supervisor at Framestore, who gave the show its jaw-dropping visuals – about the work that went into bringing Mars to life…

 

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about you work with Framestore on Mars?
We were brought onto the project really early on, probably last November. Radical Media had this very large, ambitious project that they wanted to do, and they wanted us to consult with them on the script process to pare what they had at the time – which was this absolutely gargantuan epic – into a show that could be achieved.

So we worked on that with them over a number of months until we moved into production, at which point we supervised all of the shoots. That took place in Hungary over a number of months, and then two or three weeks in Morocco in the desert. After that we were responsible for all of the VFX editorial and supervision for the show, all of the shots, every aspect of that to delivery.

 

Half of Mars is set in modern day, whereas the other half is in the future. What were your thoughts on hearing the pitch?
It’s a very popular, interesting topic – Mars – it’s very current, and in a lot of people’s minds very important: where we are climate wise and Earth wise. At some point in the future we’re going to have to reach out and try to extend our existence outside of Earth. It’s nice to be involved in a project that has a lofty idea, but is actually based on a true need or work that is being done now. It makes it very interesting.

MARS.Elon Musk, Founder, CEO and Lead Designer SpaceX, Co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, and Co-founder and Chairman of Solarcity.
Elon Musk, Founder, CEO and Lead Designer SpaceX, Co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, and Co-founder and Chairman of Solarcity, is just one of the talking heads in the documentary.

 

What were your main reference points for the look of Mars?
That’s interesting, because when you look at Mars shows and films, I think everybody always tends to revert back to that idea that Mars is red, because that makes it a much more familiar thing for people to latch onto. But when you look at all the Curiosity pictures, and a lot of the HiRISE pictures, you learn quite a few different things. The first thing is there is a massive variety in the way that Mars looks topologically, and what the HiRISE has captured is colossal in relativity to what the Curiosity has seen.

The truth is that although we have seen pictures of Mars, we have no idea what Mars itself as a whole looks like; we just know where the Curiosity has been.

The other thing is when you look at the Curiosity pictures, firstly a lot of them look like Earth – kind of a boring Earth actually, if someone showed you a picture of Mars and said it was a place on Earth you’d say, “Yeah, I don’t really want to go there.” It’s fascinating scientifically but not visually.

There’s a lot of colour and tone in the ground, the skies aren’t always red, and I think there’s no true reference point to what it looks like. It’s all open to interpretation really, depending on how the images have been treated.

We’ve basically looked at that, looked for the average and made a strong choice not to try and make Mars red, and exist more in actual tones. That’s how we’ve approached it. The only thing we wanted to do, but didn’t have the opportunity or time, was represent when the Sun sets on Mars, it goes blue. That would be very interesting, but obviously that’s very hard to film!

 

Tying into that, what areas did you have to take the most creative license with?
You have to be accurate in what we call the ‘Mars rules’, which are no plants, no really blue sky, no sign that there’s ever been any human interaction with space. We try and reduce any overly visual evidence of water erosion. We always shoot somewhere where there’s interest, which is near a mountain, and when you’re near a mountain or a hill, you end up with little rivers that have run down in the past, so we always ended up painting out the majority of them, cleaning it up, replacing things, but we tended to not replace skies as much as grade them to feel different, because like we said, when you look at the Mars references they’re not that different; we just get rid of clouds!

The most creative license we took was… once you get to the third episode, the entire show switches gear and takes place predominantly underground, which is the most interesting thing about the show. You have to get halfway through before you get to something that I would class as truly different – it’s a very different take doing drama and doc intertwined – but when you hit halfway, you migrate from science as we know it now, which is people saying, “This is how we plan on going to Mars in ten years”, to “When we get there, we don’t really know what we’re going to do.”

So one of the strong theories about being on Mars is you can’t live on the surface because of the low-dose radiation and the potential for really high-does radiation you’d get from a solar flare or something, because the planet’s got no real magnetic field to protect you.

So the plan is to then go underground into these lava tubes that exist from volcanic activity millions of years ago, and these things are two kilometres in diameter, these huge tunnels that run underground, and the idea is to go into one of them and build your habitats. That is obviously something that we’ve never seen, we don’t know what they look like inside, there’s no real reference, so we had to take total artistic license with that.

MARS.Amelie Durand played by Clementine Poidatz, the mission physician and biochemist with Javier Delgado played by Alberto Ammann, a hydrologist and geochemist.    The global event series MARS premieres on the National Geographic Channel in November 2016.  (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)
Amelie Durand played by Clementine Poidatz, the mission physician and biochemist with Javier Delgado, played by Alberto Ammann, a hydrologist and geochemist.

 

Was that one of the most appealing aspects: portraying a side of Mars that has never been seen elsewhere?
Yeah I think so, that’s the thing that really triggered when I was reading the script. I’ve seen a lot of Mars films – we’ve worked on some – there are difference to all of them, and it was really interesting making a Mars surface anyway that felt a bit different – we almost wanted people to look at it and go, “Well that looks a bit like Earth.”

And actually that’s kind of the point: Mars is not an incredibly weird, alien place with weird creatures running around it; it’s basically just a big rock, and it has really strong parallels to Earth, and that’s why we want to go there: because it’s a little bit Earthlike.

But the underground portion of it, which is when you get into the loose theory, you started talking about setting up a civilisation. You’re thinking of the beginning of the Wild West or starting America. There are a lot of parallels in the documentary – you go somewhere and start again. But to say you’re going to a different planet and going underground to start again, it’s interesting.

There’s a really good quote in the documentary, the idea that “If you can get to the Moon you can do anything”, now it’s “If you can get to Mars, you go anywhere”, because you get to this point where you have a new starting point for exploring the universe, and it’s fascinating.

 

How were the likes of Justin Wilkes and Ron Howard to work with?
The structure of it was Justin Wilkes as the executive producer of the show, and Everardo Gout is the director of the drama, and kind of oversaw the whole project to a degree as well. Then Ron Howard was EP-ing it. Justin Wilkes and Everaldo I spent huge amounts of time with – we came on board really early, we were on board before the director was on board, so we’d already done huge amounts of work before we met Everardo.

It was a very collaborative, enjoyable process, to work out ideas, design underground cities. We travelled everywhere with them, we did all of our location scouting, we were pushing for them to shoot outside and not in the studio. We had a strong involvement.

Ron Howard, I only saw him three times on the project myself – he was around a lot more – it was a very international project, everything was being done in New York, the music was being done in Brighton, the post was being done in London, the director was from Mexico and the sound was being done in California! [laughs] The only thing I can really say about Ron Howard is that he’s one of those guys that I have admired for a very long time, and actually it’s a rare occasion when you meet your heroes and they turn out to be better, in a very understated and subtle way. You can learn a huge amount from him in about five minutes of watching.

 

In terms of Mars films, were there any you looked at in terms of inspiration?
The Martian
manages to hit science and entertainment really well, there are things in there that people pulled apart instantly – you can’t have a storm on Mars – and the truth is, you can have a dust storm on Mars, it just got pushed for dramatic effect so that it created the ending to the film, but they did such a good job, and author Andy Weir – who’s interviewed in the documentary part of the show – he hit a really great character. That film is great, and they represented Mars in a really nice way.

There’s nothing that I saw which was an example of how not to do it; really what we tried to do is avoid falling into the realm of drama documentary where you do camera shots that start in space and end on the ground on Mars; we tried to keep it as cinematic as we could.

 

Would you go to Mars?
[Laughs] If I hadn’t met my wife and had a beautiful daughter, the answer would be yes! There’s something fascinating about being the first person to do something and build a civilisation. I also don’t think that anybody would ever ask me to go to Mars! There are probably more qualified people, I think it’s a really interesting proposition, but it’s a big sacrifice.

 

Mars continues Sundays at 9pm on National Geographic. For all the latest TV news, pick up the new issue of SciFiNow.