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For ‘Good Night Oppy,’ ILM used thousands of rover images to create Mars 'from the ground up'
“I thought if we're going to make this film, let's take the audience to Mars in a way they've never been taken before."
There's essentially no chance that anybody reading this will ever go to Mars. (Good luck if you do, though!) However, you can do the next-best thing by watching Good Night Oppy, a 105-minute Prime Video documentary that chronicles the journey of the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.
The film, which director Ryan White called in a recent press conference a mix between WALL-E, E.T., and Spike Jonze’s Her, is a surprisingly emotional one that follows the rovers from their creation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), through their travails on Mars that lasted well beyond their 90-day mission, with Oppy only turning out her lights for good in 2019 after running for 15 years.
During this virtual press conference that SYFY WIRE attended, White, editors Helen Kearns and Rejh Cabrera, and composer Blake Neely, shared their experience creating the documentary, which is founded on images not only from the rovers themselves but from on-the-ground video of the JPL team communicating with the two robots on Mars.
“I thought if we're going to make this film, let's take the audience to Mars in a way they've never been taken before,” White said during the press conference. “We wanted the audience to start at the beginning, and be there day after day on this journey with the robots, and the way to achieve that was to work with Industrial Light & Magic to create, for the first time, this type of photo-real Mars.”
White went to ILM with the rovers’ hundreds of thousands of photos of Mars from their collective 22 and a half years on the red planet, and even more data from other sources. “We also had orbital imagery above Mars, where two satellites take down the terrain but also of the rover journeys. And then we had all of the data from NASA — obviously, they're incredible researchers and collectors of this data — that was minute details like the temperature each day, the level of dust in the air each day, and where the sun rose where the sun set.”
Armed with this data, White asked ILM whether they could recreate an accurate representation of Mars "from the ground up." ILM said they had never done something like that before, but that they could. Their efforts resulted in sequences where Oppy and Spirit are chugging at their max speed — 0.1 miles per hour — over “actual” Martian terrain.
The ILM sequences showing Oppy and Spirit took two years to put together, and were something that White only got to see close to the end of the project. “We were cutting our film with black-and-white pencil sketches, and just really trusting that ILM will bring it alive in the end,” he said.
The imagery came out great, and Good Night Oppy not only shows the rovers’ journeys but also highlights the connection that the JPL team had with the two robots. “What's so interesting and what's so surprising in making the film was how truly emotional the human beings were about the rover,” White shared. “I’ve heard a lot of human beings say that [the rovers] are the human beings … they are our avatars on Mars, and I think we project a lot of our human emotions onto them.”
You can see more of our avatars on Mars when Good Night Oppy premieres on Prime Video on Nov. 23.
Looking for a fun but less scientifically accurate depiction of space? Check out Muppets From Space, now streaming on Peacock.