By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Lionsgate and Centropolis Entertainment.
Whether it be an alien invasion in Independence Day, a raging Kaiju in Godzilla or the environmental catastrophe of The Day After Tomorrow, German filmmaker Roland Emmerich has gained a reputation of being able to destroy the world in creative ways. The cinematic tradition is carried over into Moonfall where a mysterious force knocks our lunar neighbor out of orbit and on a collision course with Earth. It is up to NASA executive Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) to save the day, and in the process of doing so they make a surprising cosmic discovery. Reuniting the team behind Midway, which includes Production Designer Kirk M. Petruccelli (The Space Between Us), Visual Effects Supervisor Peter G. Travers (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Special Effects Supervisor Guillaume Murray (Crisis), Emmerich has crafted a $140-million independently-funded action-adventure with a cerebral twist.
A different global disaster occurred during pre-production in Montreal as the pandemic caused the project to temporarily shutdown. “When I prepared the movie, I had 74 days to shoot, but then I had to figure out what to cut out to be able to afford the COVID-19 costs of $6.5 million,” states Emmerich. “For an independent film, you can’t go to a bank and ask for more money. I ended up with 61 shooting days. There were no compromises. I just shot faster.”
Re-igniting the public imagination and interest in outer space is the emergence of space tourism. “NASA read the script and supported us,” says Emmerich. “It took us three or four years to get the script right because it’s such an out-there story and we needed to give it some reality.
I read a book called Who Built the Moon? by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, and thought, ‘Maybe there’s a movie here.’ We made our own series. If you only do a story about the Moon falling down to Earth, that is a disaster movie. We wanted to do something deeper and more exciting than that.”
Even though Moonfall has been described by Emmerich as being a mix of 2012 and Independence Day, a cinematic classic from Stanley Kubrick casts a long shadow. “2001: A Space Odyssey is a seminal movie because it was not only a science fiction film, but also about the origins of life. In that perspective, Moonfall is closely connected to 2001,” Emmerich comments. “I knew by 2022 that nobody would go to the Moon. We figured that the space shuttles would get pulled out of a museum and, within a crazy time schedule, be put back together and sent up there. We thought about what problems that they could have, and that was a cool factor to make this realistic.” The spectacle has to be balanced with the human aspect, he observes. “The biggest problem for any movie that has spectacle is figuring out how much character can you infuse and how much character do people want to have? I’ve been battling with this all of my life! You try to be true to the characters, and we got good actors involved like Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, Donald Sutherland, Michael Peña and John Bradley. Halle would say, ‘I wouldn’t say that line.’ Then you have discussions about it, and most of the time something better comes out of it. The cast worked with us to make this real.”
“Moonfall has 1,700 visual effects shots. You have to plan exactly what you want to do, because visual effects companies are already working on these shots while you’re shooting the movie. It is like a dance, but because I’ve been doing this for 40 years I’ve gotten good at it.”
—Roland Emmerich, Director
“If you only do a story about the Moon falling down to Earth, that is a disaster movie. We wanted to do something deeper and more exciting than that.”
—Roland Emmerich, Director
As part of the emergency response the space shuttle is recommissioned and retrofitted.
Sets had to be redesigned to accommodate COVID-19 protocols dealing with social distancing. “For instance, in the spacecraft, the chairs had to be four feet away from each other, whereas normally I would have them tighter together,” states Petruccelli. “Roland set into motion every nuance and dynamic that had to be enacted. 135 sets were built on six stages at Grandé Studios in Montreal as well as on a couple of filler stages at MELS Studios. Four to five sets were shot each day. Every set was specifically crafted with the visual effects team in mind. Roland thinks far beyond the physical structure. It all has to integrate with the post-production process. He is masterful at that.” Parts of Colorado had to be recreated onstage because location shooting was minimal. “We had to come in and know when we could use one section of the stage, move it to another section, and rotate pieces of it away to create another set,” says Petruccelli. “There were dedicated stages to space travel that were clean environments. We had to rebuild several locations in Los Angeles, including the planetarium, because everything was so dependent on atmospherics that would occur with the visual effects.”
Designs were based on reality and physics. “Roland loves the fact that truth and reality set us apart from pure fantasy and sci-fi,” remarks Petruccelli. “Things that occur in space are in a vacuum, while things on Earth are being manipulated by the forces that the Moon bears if this [catastrophic event] should happen.” Sets had to be designed to accommodate the physics, he says. “If you’re in a motel in Santa Monica, we had to be west-facing because the water would be coastal. We had to calculate how the water would impact the set, and integrate the volume of water with a bigger event. We talked to experts at NASA about what was the actual load capacity of the space shuttle.” A museum in Florida supplied an original space shuttle cockpit. “We made it usable for us to do the weightless scenes,” enthuses Emmerich. “That was some of the most complicated stuff that we did in the whole movie, because when you sit in a tight set interesting decisions have to be made on how to do it.”
The shooting methodology has evolved for Emmerich. “I’m not doing much floor effects anymore because I know later in visual effects you can do them much better,” he says. “For example, if you have snow flurries I only shoot with wind and leave the rest to visual effects.” Special effects still have an on-set presence. “Roland has clear ideas about how he wants to do things and make them work on-set and onscreen,” states Guillaume Murray. “That gives us the right tools to polish those mechanical effects for him. It has to be quick, efficient and easy to re-set. Most of the rigs that we do are modeled in 3D. The printing aspect will be used for prop building. CNC machines are utilized for all of the mechanical parts.” Motion control systems assisted with the zero gravity effects, Murray adds. “We built a robot and used motion control that allowed us to puppeteer actors or stunt people in the shot, and do it in a way where we didn’t need to stop and program every move on set.
“The Moon being out of alignment created the need for a lot of mechanical effects for the scenes on Earth,” continues Murray. “We had lots of people, cars and tents flying in every direction. There were a lot of body shells to avoid the cables that would cross faces. The majority of the practical elements were captured during the shoot.” Two space vehicles were fabricated with the art department, Murray adds. “Those set pieces were placed on tilt rigs so we could bring them up to 45 degrees for take-off scenes, and there were shaky motors to get everything shaking inside. The largest rig that we built was a tsunami. We had a 45-foot-high tip tank with two tanks each containing 3,200 gallons of water that could be dumped into a ramp right into the hotel lobby and wipe out whoever was there.”
“Roland loves the fact that truth and reality set us apart from pure fantasy and sci-fi. Things that occur in space are in a vacuum, while things on Earth are being manipulated by the forces that the Moon bears if this should happen.”
—Kirk M. Petruccelli, Production Designer
Three different color palettes were devised with Earth being organic, while space was chromatic and clean and the Moon colorless. “I was responsible for every digital asset that would be later used in post, so the creation of the post-production was happening far earlier in pre-production than you would imagine,” explains Petruccelli, who did 3D modeling in Maya. “The previsualization was so detailed that it was almost photoreal. You could understand what Roland was going to do and how best to tell the story. Every set was digitally created for visual effects, and then we isolated from it what had to be physically constructed to meet the needs of where Roland wanted to go.” Previs was created for every visual effects sequence. “My previs crew, visual effects supervisor and I talked about the purpose of the scene, how to build the environment and what’s happening, and then I set cameras,” explains Emmerich. “Once in a while it works. If it doesn’t work, we change it. It’s a tedious process that takes four to five months. Moonfall has 1,700 visual effects shots. You have to plan exactly what you want to do, because visual effects companies are already working on these shots while you’re shooting the movie. It is like a dance, but because I’ve been doing this for 40 years I’ve gotten good at it.”
As with the principal photography, the entire visual effects work was done in Montreal with Peter G. Travers supervising the contributions of DNEG, Framestore, Pixomondo and Scanline VFX. “You could make an easy argument that Montreal is the new hub for visual effects,” says Travers. “Considering the work that we needed and the amount people at certain facilities, Framestore and DNEG became ideal choices to add to Scanline and Pixomondo, which have longstanding relationships with Roland.”
DNEG and Framestore looked after space, while Earth was handled by Scanline VFX and Pixomondo. “There were clear lines. Two vendors never worked on the same shot, but assets were shared with the space shuttle being the biggest one.” Travers enjoys being able to research a different subject matter for each movie that he works on. “For this one, I learned every aspect about the Moon. There was an important process that happened in the beginning with Roland. The Moon falling towards the Earth is fantastical; however, what I ended up doing was building a physics simulation in Maya based on the question, ‘If the Moon gains more mass, could we get it to fall with actual physics?’ And we were able to do it.”
Maya is an actual physics simulator. “I built an accurate version of the Moon orbiting the Earth based on Newtonian physics,” explains Travers. “I constructed different virtual cameras showing the same simulation. Then I started messing with the physics of the Moon to see if I could get it to fall. Roland had certain requests, like having the Moon crash into the Earth in three weeks, which in essence is a design factor that got built into the simulation. What we discovered is that it’s not a perfect spiral orbit but elliptical. It was fascinating to learn what the Moon could do under these conditions. In rare instances when the Moon would be so close, you would be pulled 2Gs of gravity sideways while you’re being pulled down. There is a key sequence where the gravity is extremely unusual. This simulation ended up being our physics bible, but within that there is a certain wiggle room. But generally speaking, this was scary enough. We were also using my different cameras for actual moon size throughout the movie.”
LED panels were rigged on cranes and were constantly configured around the windows of the spacecrafts. “It got challenging because Roland wanted to shoot a master shot,” remarks Travers. “It just happened that outside there would be 10 significant events going on while these pages of dialogue were going on. We had to prep ahead of time content that would be done in Maya and be fed into the LED panels; then we would be cueing them editorially. Sometimes we were fed directly into Maya if the camera needed to be changed. There is a scene when one of the crafts is rotating quickly, so we had to have the sun rotating rapidly. We ran the sun across the LED panels. We were constantly figuring out ways to use these panels for lighting, and in some rare instances they would directly show up in camera.” The biggest design challenge was the Moon, states Travers. “I can’t [for spoiler reasons] reveal what aspect of it. It’s the best part of the movie. There is a sense of wonder. Of course, none of this is possible without Roland because he goes to places and shows us things that we have never seen before. That’s literally why we go to the theaters to watch a popcorn movie. This is what Moonfall has.”