About The Production
Principal photography on THE MARTIAN began November 8, 2014 in Budapest. The
gorgeous Central European capital has become known for hosting a litany of big
budget Hollywood movies because of its beautiful locales and experienced local
crews. But what particularly drew filmmakers to the city for this project are
the soundstages at nearby Korda Studios.
Korda's Stage 6, said to be the largest in the world, was ideal for
constructing a Martian landscape that would include the Hab and the launch pad
for the MAV. The set was used primarily for dialogue scenes, Hab interiors, and
the giant sandstorm sequence. Matching wide-scope vistas were later filmed in
Says producer Mark Huffam: "We had scouted the Australian Outback as a
possible landscape for the Martian surface. That didn't work out, and we decided
to shoot most of the Martian sequences as interiors, giving us greater control
of the environment, and then matching those with exteriors at Wadi Rum in
During production, Korda was a bustling hub of activity, as all six
soundstages were being utilized for constructing and revamping a dozen major
sets, including the spacecraft Hermes and the astronauts' Hab on Mars. The art
department was constantly racing to stay a step in front of Scott, who works
quickly and has been known to get ahead of schedule.
In addition to Korda Studios, Budapest delivered another bonus in the form of
a dazzling building known as The Whale (due to its profile and its proximity
along the Danube River). The Whale played host to the sequences involving NASA
personnel, including the offices of Teddy Sanders and Annie Montrose, as well as
conference rooms, a break area and coffee shop, a main entrance, and a flight
control room. Production designer Arthur Max describes the building as
"sophisticated, cutting-edge architecture on a world-class level. It's a
geodesic structure with enormous scale, loads of glass and concrete, and
wonderful louvered blinds that open and close with motors. We can fully control
the light levels. This building was a godsend. It would cost a fortune to
construct a composite of sets like these on a soundstage."
To maximize flexibility, simulated concrete walls were mounted on wheels in
order to quickly configure any number of office designs in the buildings open
spaces. The Whale's gleaming, futuristic, curvilinear glass exterior also served
as NASA's "next generation" headquarters.
The showpiece set, however, is the Mission Control Room, NASA's
communications hub. A huge central screen, surrounded by more than a dozen other
screens, displays vital data and images NASA is monitoring at any given time.
These images are being sent from satellites, reconnaissance orbiters, probes,
and the International Space Station. It is in Mission Control where Mindy Park
learns Watney is still alive - and where NASA leaders will months later command
and monitor the launch of the rocket intended to save him.
Rather than having greenscreen appear on the control room monitors and then
adding imagery in post, Ridley Scott prefers to see the graphics "in shot,"
using them as light sources and allowing the actors to react to the images in
real time. The UK company Territory (Spy, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation) was
brought onboard to work with graphics artist Felicity Hickson in utilizing a
substantial amount of graphics, high resolution satellite imagery and video
footage from NASA.
Indeed, NASA was a key collaborator, consultant and advisor on the entire
project, from script through principal photography. Producer Mark Huffam
remembers calling NASA during the first production meeting with Ridley Scott and
being "very pleased to learn that they knew the book and were enthusiastic about
an open-door relationship and free exchange of ideas."
Production was allowed to film rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, including
the December 2014 liftoff of the Orion, a next-generation spacecraft designed to
take humans deep into space as a first step toward human exploration of Mars.
The Orion was sent into orbit containing a Ridley Scott tribute: the first
sketch the director made of Mark Watney, on the script's cover page, with the
astronaut's bold declaration, "I'm going to science the shit out of this
The partnership with NASA initiated with Bert Ulrich, the agency's film and
television liaison, and then expanded to include, among others, Dr. James Green,
NASA's Director of Planetary Sciences, and Dave Lavery, from the Mars office,
who acted as technical consultants on the script and the production.
Ulrich says Andy Weir's novel, which is now unofficial recommended reading at
Johnson Space Center, and Ridley Scott's acclaimed body of work resonated deeply
within the agency as it prepares its journey to Mars.
"Science fiction, especially in films, is continually an influence on real
science," Ulrich states. "I think both art and science draw from similar aspects
of creativity, curiosity and vision."
Arthur Max's production designs began to take root during an extensive tour
of Houston's Johnson Space Center, led by Dr. Green, providing deep immersion
into the requirements of getting a human on Mars. Max also viewed the old
Mercury and Apollo mission control centers, as well as the current Center, which
handled the Space Shuttle missions and tracks the International Space Station.
"I combined some of the elements we saw at NASA and then pushed out into the
future with the design - what we think their next control room may look like,"
says Max. "NASA was remarkably helpful in not only giving us great resources and
input, but approving all of our designs."
After filming at Max's NASA sets at the Whale, the company moved to a
100-acre complex of buildings called the Hungarian Expo, where sets for the JPL
offices, lab, and garage were constructed.
Filming at the Hungarian Expo concluded at the end of November, marking the
picture wrap of cast members Ejiofor, Daniels, Wiig, Bean, Davis, Wong and
Glover. After a short hiatus, filming began on "Mars" at Korda Studios, taking
up the separate storylines of Watney and the astronauts.
Says Damon: "I think 54 actors had wrapped before I even arrived at Korda."
Reflective of the characters' storylines, Damon's schedule only overlapped
with those of Chastain and the other astronauts during three days in
mid-December, and then again with only Chastain for a couple of additional days
"Matt and I have now done two movies together [Interstellar was the other],
and have only worked with each other on set for about a week," says Chastain.
The entire crew of Hermes appears together in the harrowing Martian sandstorm
that sets the story in motion. Eschewing reliance on visual effects, Ridley
Scott wanted the storm to look and feel real, both to the cast and audience.
Shot on the gargantuan Stage 6 Martian exterior set, the sequence was filmed
over a period of three days, involving giant fans, thick dust, poor visibility,
and lots of dirt. Day one of the storm pushed everyone to the limit.
"Hardest day of my career," remarks costume designer Janty Yates. Adds Damon:
"Like walking in a hurricane."
Even facemasks failed to prevent dirt and dust getting into eyes, ears and
mouths. The particles worked their way into the air vents of the cast's space
helmets, causing inhalation issues. Between takes, wardrobe assistants would
rush in and help remove the helmets to enable the actors to breathe easier.
"Come to Mars, have a few laughs," jokes Michael Pena between mouthfuls of
dust. "I came to set wearing this suit for the first time, thinking, 'This is so
cool. I'm an astronaut. It's a huge scene. This is what it means to be in a
Ridley Scott movie. I'm gonna crush this!' And then suddenly I'm fighting the
wind, trying to breathe and not fall over, and it's more, like, 'Oh, shit, I
just hope I don't mess up this shot.'"
"Baptism by fire," agrees Jessica Chastain. "We shot the storm on one of our
very first days together, and weren't yet familiar with each other. We were
literally and figuratively trying to find our characters' footing while huge
turbines are chucking dirt and little rocks at us."
While the cast was often disoriented and could scarcely see each other at
times, they had each other's voices in their heads - and Ridley's. The sound
department rigged each astronaut's helmet with small intercom speakers and mics
for communication with each other and the director. It made for a surreal
bonding experience, relates Kate Mara.
"We bonded quickly because with the helmets on we couldn't hear the crew
around us - only each other," Mara says. "We started teasing and telling jokes,
and it brought us closer together. Some of it got kind of racy. Once in awhile
we would forget ourselves, and then ask, 'Hang on, can Ridley hear this?'"
The weight of the helmets and surface suits, a combined 40 pounds, added to
the cast's exertion to stumble through sand and fight 65 mile-per-hour winds.
Both helmets and suits were the work of costume designer Jany Yates and space
suit specialist Michael Mooney. The helmets contain six lights, separately
operated by a small, two-channel battery-powered remote. A fan inside the life
support backpack of the suit sends air via a hose into the helmet.
Ranging from one to four millimeters in thickness, the helmets were
manufactured by a vacuum casting process by FBFX. Mooney modified them to be as
light as possible, around nine pounds, but "because out of necessity they
weren't supported by the shoulders," he says, "the helmets became quite heavy
for some of the cast over the course of a 10-hour shooting day."
Below the helmets, the orange-and-white surface suits are worn by the
astronauts when exploring the planet's surface, and are streamlined and
close-fitting, yet sufficiently malleable to allow full movement.
Yates took an initial prototype surface suit design to Damon early in
pre-production, and the actor says the final result was "exactly as she designed
it. While reading the script I was thinking, 'This story is great, and it
probably means 80 days in some really cumbersome outfits.' But the surface suit
was actually pretty comfortable, given that it was as skintight as a wetsuit."
Prior to designing the costumes, Yates met with a curator of the Smithsonian
Museum in Washington, D.C., which houses a fascinating collection of spacesuits
dating back to the beginnings of the Mercury program, and conducted research at
Johnson Space Center and JPL. The experience left her "mesmerized."
Adds Yates: "I saw the rovers, I saw them building satellites...It felt like I
was already in a science fiction film. They sent me so many images that were
incredibly useful. We saw the designs of the suits that they are planning for
missions extending beyond even 2030.
"From the start, Ridley said he wanted the surface suits to be slender and
allow for movement, yet still offer a nice silhouette. NASA's suits have the
helmet built in, which wouldn't work for our purposes, so we had to change that
design. We also needed to make some changes for aesthetics and practical needs
of filming, and I think we hit the mark between function and form."
Form is much less a consideration with what's known as the "EVA" (Extra
Vehicular Activity) costume - what's commonly recognized as an 'outer space'
suit. (Or what Ridley Scott refers to as the "doughboy.") Worn when conducting
zero gravity activities outside the Hermes, the EVA is bulky and heavy. The core
is made of carbon fiber backplates, with eight bolted 3mm steel rings that
attach to stunt wires. Damon's stunt rig alone weighed 55 pounds, which, when
added to the weight of the suit and helmet, required him at times to support 100
More than a dozen vendors were employed in creating the helmets and 15
Yates designed a third look for the astronauts that she describes as "like a
track suit. It's for their day-to-day activities aboard the Hermes. They're
sleek, formfitting and comfortable, and, as they are only worn inside the
pressurized space ship, don't require life support systems."
The Hermes provides its own life support, sustaining the Ares III crew during
its nine-month journey to Mars. (The length of the trip can vary, based on the
orbits of the respective planets.) The Hermes was constructed on Stages 2 and 3
at Korda Studios, based on design properties of the International Space Station,
which utilizes a series of interlocking modules. The exterior of the craft is
equipped with solar panels, oxygen and water storage cells, heat dissipation
fins, communications modules, and other vital life support mechanisms.
Based on NASA advanced design plans, the Hermes is powered by a nuclear
powered ion plasma propulsion engine, which Arthur Max says has yet to be
depicted in a movie because the technology is so new. The design incorporates a
large telescopic arm that places the heat-emitting reactor a safe distance from
"We've tried to stay close to practical reality and cutting-edge technology
while creating an eye-catching aesthetic," he says.
Max grew up in the Sputnik era during the intense space race between the U.S.
and the USSR, and had a childhood obsession with science. "I was in the rocketry
club, and we used to make fuel on the kitchen stove, with sometimes near
disastrous results," he recalls. "THE MARTIAN was a chance to rekindle my
interest in space exploration while being part of the telling of a classic
adventure story about a trip into the unknown."
The Hermes' gleaming white interior, a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, extends
from the flight deck down a long corridor that stretches hundreds of feet.
Roughly halfway down the corridor is a right-angle connection tunnel referred
to as the knuckle, which leads to the Rec Room. Inside, a rotating drum known as
the gravity wheel spins at a sufficient speed to generate a centrifugal force
that simulates the effects of gravity.
Rudi Schmidt, a scientist with the European Space Agency and an on-set
technical advisor, says the gravity wheel was first experimented with on the
Skylab missions in the 1970s, a forerunner to the current International Space
"It's highly desirable for the astronauts to be exposed to these
gravitational effects to keep bone mass and the muscular system intact," says
Schmidt. "The gravity wheel theoretically can generate roughly half the force of
gravity on Earth, which is sufficient for health purposes."
The Rec Room is equipped with exercise bikes, treadmills, and other fitness
equipment. Constructed as a separate set on Korda's Stage 4, it was mounted on
hydraulic lifts that tilt the contained gravity wheel a full 30 degrees to each
Depicting the astronauts' movement aboard the Hermes' zero gravity
environment required cast members to be harnessed to wire rigs that lend the
impression they are floating from one spot to another. Stunt coordinator Rob
Inch and his team designed a massive square 2D winch system, suspended from
above the Hermes roofless set, allowing them to fly the actors anywhere within a
squared spatial area. The wires connect to a spin rig attached at the waist, and
also to leg and shoulder cuffs. The system was computerized and mechanized, but
also required stunt team members to pull harness ropes to create vertical
movement and "puppeteer" the actors. The use of winches and aluminum heads
enabled movement in all directions, as well as 360-degree turns.
"We had to work out a lot of rather complicated shots getting our cast down
the corridor and into other rooms," Inch states. "For instance, in one shot we
have to travel Jessica and Michael down the main (fuselage) and then right-angle
turn them down a corridor leading to the gravity wheel. And it had to be a fluid
motion. It was a complex and tricky thing to pull off."
According to stunt rigger Leonard Woodcock, 150 meters of truss, 90 meters of
track, 70 pulleys and some 400 meters of Tech-12 rope were required to construct
the rig. "I don't even know how much scaffolding," he says. "More than I can
Jessica Chastain prepared for the zero gravity work by drawing on her days as
a dancer to mimic the physical movements of weightlessness. Well known for her
meticulous preparation, Chastain also spent several days visiting NASA
facilities, and read up on the lives of astronauts, such as Sally Ride.
"In [the 2014 motion picture] Interstellar my character was Earthbound, and I
remember at the screening thinking how much fun it must have been for [co-stars]
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to do the space stuff," Chastain recalls.
"I thought it would be really cool to play an astronaut. A couple of weeks later
I learned Ridley wanted me to play one in THE MARTIAN. So I went all in. I
visited JPL and the Johnson Space Center, and saw some amazing things. I went
inside a MAV and a mockup of the space shuttle.
Chastain says she was fortunate in being able to spend some time with
astronaut-chemist Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a Mission Specialist on Space Shuttle
Endeavour flight STS-118 in August 2007, and who was part of the Expedition 24
crew on the International Space Station in 2010.
Dyson briefed Chastain on both the technical and human elements of being an
astronaut. Chastain says Dyson and other female astronauts are true role models.
"They inspire women everywhere to pursue careers in science and mathematics,"
the actress notes.
Another favorite part of Chastain's preparation was donning Oculus 3D glasses
and experiencing panoramic images of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover. "It made
it feel as if I were actually there," she says.
The Curiosity rover served as the model for the Rover in THE MARTIAN,
although the latter is even larger and more stylized. Based on designs by Arthur
Max and overseen by Oliver Hodge, the six-wheeled, high-clearance Rover features
a trapezoidal cab and chassis built by Szalay Dakar, a Hungarian outfit that
builds racecars for the grueling Dakar Rally.
Two full-scale versions of the Rover were made by a team of 22 crew
technicians, along with the 15 members of Szalay. Essentially a very advanced
all-terrain agricultural vehicle, the Rover is equipped with huge industrial
tires designed to travel rough, rocky landscapes. The design includes hydraulic
gull-wing doors and running gear, and a two-liter diesel engine, although the
exterior is dressed with solar panels to make it appear as though it runs on
Says vehicle FX technician Glenn Marsh: "The solar powered engine plays an
important role in the story, as it limits the vehicle's operation to 40
kilometers at a time. This poses yet another challenge to Mark Watney when he
has to make an epic journey to get to his point of departure for a possible
The panels and hatches on the Rover were designed for quick and easy removal
to facilitate the insertion of 4K cameras on spigots, which capture Watney's
communication with NASA, and provide interior images of him driving the vehicle.
As Marsh mentions, the Rover was designed to travel over rough terrain, and was
put through its paces in a Hungarian quarry prior to filming in Jordan.
Before that, the Rover was used in several scenes shot on the Stage 6 Martian
landscape. Four thousand tons of soil and other materials went into creating a
topographical palette that would match that of Jordan's Wadi Rum desert. Arthur
Max notes that Wadi Rum is uncannily similar to Mars in its reddish orange hues,
and that the goal is to achieve a seamless integration of the stage and location
Greensman Roger Holden mixed three types of Hungarian soil by machine and by
hand to find just the right color. And while the surface of the Martian set was
being perfected over a period of two months, Holden was also growing the
potatoes that Watney raises and tends to in the Hab. Holden grew half-cut
potatoes following the same procedures seen in the film.
"We built a nursery at the studio with a completely artificial environment,
including lighting, heating, and fertilizing," Holden says. "Our fertilization
process was, however, far less challenging than Watney's." Altogether, Holden
grew some 1,200 potatoes, at an average of about eight spuds per plant.
Surrounding Holden's well-tended Martian landscape on Stage 6 was perhaps the
largest greenscreen ever assembled. Measuring 312 feet in length and 65 feet in
height, it encompassed about 21,000 square feet of greenscreen surface. Visual
effects supervisor Matt Sloan explains, "Ridley likes a lot of scope, and we
have a full 360 degrees of backdrop on this stage, where we can add plate shots
from Wadi Rum, as well as above-the-horizon sky and moons."
To help match the stage shots with subsequent shooting in Jordan, Sloan and
his team studied solar path charts in Wadi Rum so that he and director of
photography Dariusz Wolski, ASC would always know the proper lighting direction.
Wolski employed a mounted portable key light source that extended upward up to
65 feet, allowing him to match the appropriate angle of the sun.
Both the camera and VFX departments utilized an innovative visual reference
tool that projects onto a portable screen the precise background that will be
seen from any particular shot, which helps enormously in framing. Says Sloan:
"If Ridley or Dariusz wanted to widen or extend a shot on the soundstage onto
the greenscreen, they could see exactly what VFX elements will exist in the
shot, as well as what particular landscape features in Jordan will be visible
from that angle, such as bushes, rock formations, small sand dunes, etc."
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