As a documentary filmmaker, Ryan White has covered subjects as diverse as the fight for gay marriage before the Supreme Court, the life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the impact of tennis legend Serena Williams and the trial of two women for murdering North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s brother. However, what he always wanted to do was make a film about outer space, a subject that has fascinated him since childhood as a “space geek”. That opportunity finally came to him when Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Peter Berg’s Film 45 gave him an idea: How about a film chronicling the incredible journey of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars?
White recalls, “My immediate response was, ‘If we do this, can we do it in a way that takes the audience to Mars in a way that hasn’t happened before?’ Amblin said: “Well, we don’t know, but our best friends at Industrial Light & Magic do [might]. Why don’t you talk to them about it?’”
The result is Good Night Oppy, a documentary that tells the story of Spirit’s six-year trek and Opportunity’s incredible 15-year odyssey that was to last just 90 days. But the film also tells a different story as it chronicles the ups and downs of the real people who kept the missions running at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. However, the film wouldn’t work without the CG animation that gives a real perspective to the landers built by NASA. The space agency had hundreds of thousands of photos of Mars for ILM to reference, and White wanted to make sure the result looked photoreal and didn’t look like an animated film like WALL-E.
“They said, ‘We’ve never done this before. We created Mars before. But it’s based on an actor or on a desert in Utah. We never created it from scratch, but show us the photography and the telemetry,” says White. “That was the beginning of the process. Of course that takes forever. So it was less than a year before I saw finished Mars images. But in these things they are the best in the business.”
It was also incredibly important to White that NASA scientists and engineers felt that Mars not only looked real, but better than anything they had seen before. Pinning down the different shades of the red planet’s landscape? No problem. Matching the detail of the geological environment of Mars? That was harder.
“I know we’ve driven ILM insane at times when we’ve asked for the highest level of accuracy,” says White. “We would go to them all the time because it’s really difficult to change attitudes, especially when you’re in the later stages. But to say, “The slope of this crater is too steep and we can’t do that because it would be overkill,” and they would have to reclassify it. Or it could be about the texture of the rocks in a crater as it descends: ‘The texture of these strips of rock is wrong.’ They would go back and do it again.”
The adventures of Chronicling Spirit and Opportunity also meant creating an environment. Although not hospitable to humans, Mars does have an atmosphere and that means there is noise. White had the talent of legendary sound engineer Mark Mangini, who won his second Oscar – for “Dune” – during the production of “Oppy” to bring that aspect of the film to life. A new generation of rovers provided practical assistance.
“We were very fortunate that Perseverance, the current rover on Mars, had audio microphones on board for the first time during filming,” says White. “She recorded sound and sent it back to Earth, these are the first recordings from Mars. Mark was able to use all of their footage from Mars to create a real atmosphere instead of having to create it from scratch.”
Despite this technical marvel, it was the stories told by these real people on the ground at JPL that became the heart of the film. It was a bit unexpected for White and his longtime producing partner Jessica Hargrave.
“I think we both assumed that the scientists and engineers were going to be the least interesting part of the film,” says White. “That it would be that we loved the idea of this robot that exponentially outlasted all odds. We don’t usually do Talking Head films. Are [the NASA folks] does it get that interesting? I would say that was the best surprise of making the film and in the end the basis of the film is the emotion these people experienced.”
White recalls that as Hargrave and senior associate producer Grace Oathout began preliminary discussions and research for the project, they discovered an “embarrassment of human riches” to tell the remarkable story of the rovers.
“I think one of the most difficult parts of making the film was how you choose? We end up with 11 people in the film, how do you choose 11 people from thousands of people around the world?” Weiss says. “Oppy had just passed away when we started the film and they move on to the next mission very quickly. I think they were thrilled that even before we had cameras there, they could only talk about something that was so special to them on a zoom.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-29/good-night-oppy-offers-a-realistic-mars ‘Good Night Oppy’s’ mission to Mars demands ultra-realism