With such a wide-open visual-effects Oscar race, George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky” has the advantage of being a sci-fi contender. But Framestore’s impressive zero-G space scenes and effective use of Industrial Light & Magic’s pop-up LED-wall tech for Arctic exteriors may not be enough for the win. Fortunately, the existential journey through the apocalypse has a wild card in its favor: the brilliant Ballet of Blood scene inside the airlock, in which flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone) struggles to survive injuries sustained during an asteroid attack, as her spurting blood becomes horrifying yet beautiful in zero-G.
In fact, it was Clooney’s idea to change the sequence from mere suffocation to a visual tour de force with the blood dancing around almost like an alien creature. “It’s an amazing sequence on every level,” said Framestore’s animation supervisor Max Solomon (who worked on the Oscar-winning “Gravity,” co-starring Clooney). “And most of it is entirely CG, starting with the second shot in the airlock where they strap Maya down and it’s a close-up of the three of them [Boone, Felicity Jones, and David Oyelowo].”
Clooney shot the scene on the last day of principal photography on a stage at Shepperton in England, with the cast moving freely with minimal wire work, thanks to the great advancement in on-set facial-capture tech. Framestore utilized the Anyma system developed by ILM and Disney Research|Studios in Zurich. It was first used for Smart Hulk on “Avengers: Endgame,” and eschews both facial markers and headcam. With so much CG blood in the scene, it was easier for Framestore to remove nearly everything else as well.
“We removed their bodies and hand-animated them to look zero-G,” said Framestore VFX supervisor Graham Page, who also replaced heads, wires, and much of the environment because the camera was continually rolling throughout the sequence.” So, by the time we came to the blood, we were in our world anyway.”
The blood, of course, posed the greatest challenge and took nine months to complete with testing and iteration, and couldn’t be applied until everything was locked in post. For reference, Clooney and the VFX team studied NASA video footage of ink dancing around in zero-G aboard the ISS. The blood droplets were liquid simulations made in Houdini software, with careful attention paid to color, size, and viscosity. Solomon oversaw the simulation work as any animation project, treating it as a character. Clooney was hands on. The director told composer Alexandre Desplat to write music for a dance of blood ballet, which was choreographed in such a way that the droplets changed size and activity around the characters. But Clooney wanted the blood to be grounded in reality as much as possible.
“That was a leap of faith to trust us that it was looking good until we got one or two hero shots,” added Page. “It was one of our last sequences to complete because it was so intensive. I know it’s quite an intimate death scene, and there’s so much happening, but it’s all invisible. Zero-G and floating blood. And there’s nowhere to hide.”
The difficulty was establishing the tone. Clooney didn’t want a horror blood bath, and he didn’t want the blood to detract from the performances, so the droplets had to be strategically placed. There needed to be a balance between random and chaotic movement. “There’s a moment when Sanchez [Demián Bichir] is trying to block the bleeding that you get a jelly effect and we tried to mimic that,” Solomon added. “When Maya’s helmet comes off there’s a change in pressure and they wanted that displayed for the first few frames and then it resolves back into blobby form.”
Clooney also came up with the idea of having the camera slowly pull back at the end. “This was a key shot for George,” Page said. “She’s dying and the camera gives up on them. We see little droplets leading the way back from the characters. It starts to feel like an alien creature, but it had to be controlled to feel random and natural. This was the culmination of all the things that we did across the sequence.”