All of "The Martian" crafts people echoed the same thing: it was an inside-out journey centered around Matt Damon's engaging astronaut/botanist, who's in peril but who never loses his optimism or humor. Therefore, it became a balancing act between the epic and the intimate.
Production designer Arthur Max called it "NASA-meets-'2001: A Space Odyssey.'" And he faithfully followed NASA's design philosophy: modular with interconnecting segments, a gravity wheel that creates artificial gravity in rotation, and powered by an ion plasma nuclear propulsion engine.
"The conditions of working with NASA and getting to use their logo on things was that we didn't do anything that violated good engineering practice for space travel and space colonization," Max explained. "And so, inevitably, you come to a modularized, prefabricated philosophy, as did Kubrick, to a large extent. And NASA asked us to give them a future outlook. They gave me a lot of information about the engineering systems that they would be using for propulsion and life support and assembly. And I was able to have a look at some of their design thinking for the Rover for their Orion program, which is their upcoming Mars mission name. And then it was about making it look cool."
The six solar array wings (SAWs) were integral to both the look and design of the Hermes, and were a CG complication for Framestore. Made of various layers of materials—silicone, plastics and metals—the panels are continuously reflecting and refracting light. According to CG supervisor Neil Weatherley, "They contain a lot of layers, and respond differently depending on distance, light, angle. We had to take a realistic point of view—we’re not used to seeing solar panels in space, and they do look quite strange compared to our earth view. It was a real challenge to replicate something that looks inherently unnatural to us."
The Mars surface, meanwhile, was handled by MPC (with Richard Stammers serving as production VFX supervisor). They utilized the NASA archive material and then matched the shooting location in Wadi Rum in Jordan (where David Lean shot Scott's favorite movie, "Lawrence of Arabia"). A key component was selectively grading the sky and landscape from blue to the bronze and butterscotch that Scott preferred. This was achieved with the help of a tool (EarthToMars) created by Lev Kolobov that removed the blue skyline.
"At the same time, it's a very personal story, with Matt recording his ordeal as a confessional in case he doesn't survive," added Wolski. "We used GoPro cameras throughout the sets serving for the Hermes spacecraft and when he communicates via computer. These scenes are emotionally gripping and absurdly funny."
The intensity and self-deprecating humor were also the centerpiece of Harry Gregson-Williams' score: "The score starts out quite intimate and personal—one man against the planet—and then comes on strong in the middle and toward the end," he said. "I was able to use the forces of our [70-piece] orchestra at Abbey Road Studios and [dozens of singers from London's Bach Choir] for some of those wide open vistas. But quite often, the music accompanies him as he's working out how he's going to survive and I used a bed of bubbling synthesizers."
Naturally, editor Pietro Scalia also focused on the epic and the personal as they relate to Damon's survival story. "It's a wonderful moment when he hears Captain Lewis [Jessica Chastain] talking to him for the first time," Scalia recalled. "This is the actual voice itself—it's not text. The way it was shot, I cut the scene before with her and the dialogue was fed to him through an ear piece. And Matt reacted really emotionally to it, out of the blue, on the set."
Throughout the movie, in fact, there are connections between Damon and the environment on Mars and with humanity on Earth. There's also a spiritual aspect as well: it's about solving problems that seem insurmountable. "You're intimate and part of a vast landscape and there are some beautiful spatial connections," the editor added. "The potato sprout, which signifies life and the possibility for him to survive, but then it cuts to Earth, which gives us life, to his funeral, to death. You don't plan those things out, they come through the editing and you find things that you want to keep that are strong visually."