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How They Crafted Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ into an Epic and Intimate Journey

How They Crafted Ridley Scott's 'The Martian' into an Epic and Intimate Journey

All of "The Martian" crafts people echoed the same thing: it was an inside-out journey centered around Matt Damon’s engaging astronaut/botanist, who’s in peril but who never loses his optimism or humor. Therefore, it became a balancing act between the epic and the intimate.

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Production designer Arthur Max called it "NASA-meets-‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’"  And he faithfully followed NASA’s design philosophy: modular with interconnecting segments, a gravity wheel that creates artificial gravity in rotation, and powered by an ion plasma nuclear propulsion engine. 

"The conditions of working with NASA and getting to use their logo on things was that we didn’t do anything that violated good engineering practice for space travel and space colonization," Max explained. "And so, inevitably, you come to a modularized, prefabricated philosophy, as did Kubrick, to a large extent. And NASA asked us to give them a future outlook. They gave me a lot of information about the engineering systems that they would be using for propulsion and life support and assembly. And I was able to have a look at some of their design thinking for the Rover for their Orion program, which is their upcoming Mars mission name. And then it was about making it look cool."

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The six solar array wings (SAWs) were integral to both the look and design of the Hermes, and were a CG complication for Framestore. Made of various layers of materials—silicone, plastics and metals—the panels are continuously reflecting and refracting light. According to CG supervisor Neil Weatherley, "They contain a lot of layers, and respond differently depending on distance, light, angle. We had to take a realistic point of view—we’re not used to seeing solar panels in space, and they do look quite strange compared to our earth view. It was a real challenge to replicate something that looks inherently unnatural to us."

The Mars surface, meanwhile, was handled by MPC (with Richard Stammers serving as production VFX supervisor). They utilized the NASA archive material and then matched the shooting location in Wadi Rum in Jordan (where David Lean shot Scott’s favorite movie, "Lawrence of Arabia"). A key component was selectively grading the sky and landscape from blue to the bronze and butterscotch that Scott preferred. This was achieved with the help of a tool (EarthToMars) created by Lev Kolobov that removed the blue skyline.

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Of course, this overlapped with the work of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who shot on location in Wadi Rum as well as on stages in Budapest. For him, "The Martian" was actually three movies in one: the "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" survival story, the NASA/JPL procedural and the final rescue. Shot natively in 3D with RED Dragons to enhance the spectacle, he too referenced "2001" and "Lawrence" (also his favorite movie). His eight-day shoot in Wadi Rum, therefore, was all about capturing a warm, if alien, look.
"At the same time, it’s a very personal story, with Matt recording his ordeal as a confessional in case he doesn’t survive," added Wolski. "We used GoPro cameras throughout the sets serving for the Hermes spacecraft and when he communicates via computer. These scenes are emotionally gripping and absurdly funny."

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The intensity and self-deprecating humor were also the centerpiece of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score: "The score starts out quite intimate and personal—one man against the planet—and then comes on strong in the middle and toward the end," he said. "I was able to use the forces of our [70-piece] orchestra at Abbey Road Studios and [dozens of singers from London’s Bach Choir] for some of those wide open vistas. But quite often, the music accompanies him as he’s working out how he’s going to survive and I used a bed of bubbling synthesizers."

Naturally, editor Pietro Scalia also focused on the epic and the personal as they relate to Damon’s survival story. "It’s a wonderful moment when he hears Captain Lewis [Jessica Chastain] talking to him for the first time," Scalia recalled. "This is the actual voice itself—it’s not text. The way it was shot, I cut the scene before with her and the dialogue was fed to him through an ear piece. And Matt reacted really emotionally to it, out of the blue, on the set."

Throughout the movie, in fact, there are connections between Damon and the environment on Mars and with humanity on Earth. There’s also a spiritual aspect as well: it’s about solving problems that seem insurmountable. "You’re intimate and part of a vast landscape and there are some beautiful spatial connections," the editor added. "The potato sprout, which signifies life and the possibility for him to survive, but then it cuts to Earth, which gives us life, to his funeral, to death. You don’t plan those things out, they come through the editing and you find things that you want to keep that are strong visually."

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No shoes

the Martian was my favorite book of the year AND my favorite movie of the year and how often does that ever happen? Like never

Sid's bowl

One thing I particularly loved was the way Ridley and the production team very subtly altered the frame rate when Damon’s working outdoors on the Martian surface. It sends your mind back to video of the moon landing and the slow movements due to the bulky suits and reduced gravity. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere and I think it’s absolute genius. Not to mention the fact that the movie is gorgeous. And the way they incorporated the humor while simultaneously ratcheting up the tension, which is incredibly hard to do. Fabulous job to all concerned!

David A Barak

Let me start by saying that The Martian is really good entertainment. However, it’s not a really good film. It seems Ridley Scott has become more and more enthralled with the whiz-bang of filmmaking rather than the art. He’s an excellent craftsman, but it doesn’t seem he’s tried to (push, stretch, advance) the art of filmmaking. Maybe his true calling is as a production designer.

I could see story beats in The Martian from a mile away (actually 140 million miles away) and the characters were all generic and "safe" – no skeletons in their back stories to surface and make them well-rounded characters. For example, the 180 degree change in Watney’s fortunes came EXACTLY at the halfway point, just as the books and formulas and pundits say should be the case. There was nothing surprising in the film, nothing that caught me off guard.

Scott’s films over the last few years could easily be mistaken for films made by Christopher Nolan or James Cameron. Without credits to roll and a massive PR campaign, there would be nothing to differentiate a Scott picture from any of the others I’ve mentioned. (I could go on the same mellow rant about Nolan and Cameron.)

The days of The Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise are long gone in Scott’s filmmaking career. (Gladiator is another example of formulaic filmmaking – good entertainment, run-of-the-mill filmmaking, whiz-bang motion picture technology.)

Ridley, take a million bucks out of your spare change jar, get some actors and a camera, and make a small movie to stretch your directorial muscles… or continue to make films that have us buzzing about the technical, not the artistic.


Transportive! Damn ignorant autocorrect doesn’t have a college education.


This movie was the most transport equipment and immersive experience I’ve had in a movie theater in years. There was so much depth to the lensing I felt that I was right there with Damon on Mars. Great film.

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