ILM brings the mission of the Mars rovers to life in Good Night Oppy – SF Chronicle Datebook | Episode Movies

Industrial light and magic rendering of a rover on the surface of Mars in Good Night Oppy. Photo: Prime Video

Abigail Fraeman is an associate project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Science Laboratory, where she is an integral part of the team that sends rovers to the red planet and tracks the data the devices send back. Her association with the program began in high school when she participated in an outreach program that took her to JPL, where she witnessed the rover Opportunity touch down on Mars in 2004.

But as closely associated as she is with the Mars project, Fraeman has only ever been able to see the photos and data generated by Opportunity and Twin Spirit, not the full picture of the rovers going about their daily work. That all changed with Good Night Oppy, Ryan White’s dazzling new documentary, which opened in select theaters on Friday November 4 as effects artists from Industrial Light and Magic and sound designer Mark Mangini reenacted the twin rovers at work.

The film “made me feel so much,” Fraeman said in a recent video interview with The Chronicle. “It was a remarkable feeling to see these incredible animations of what the rovers actually look like on Mars. … We’ve never actually seen the rovers drive around on the surface.

Abigail Fraeman, Associate Project Scientist at Mars Science Laboratory. Photo: Prime Video

“In addition to the design, there was also a feeling that Spirit and Opportunity were a kind of manifestation of ourselves on the surface of Mars,” she added. “You know, we saw Mars through those eyes. We stuck our noses in the dirt and looked at very close details in the rock through the camera at the end of Oppy’s arms. These were our proxy explorers who would see the surface of Mars as if we were there ourselves.”

Producer Brandon Carroll recruited White to direct Good Night Oppy. The documentary filmmaker, whose films “Good Ol’ Freda” about the Beatles’ secretary and the Ruth Westheimer biography “Ask Dr. Ruth” is a self-proclaimed “space nerd”. ET was his favorite movie growing up and he loves space movies, both documentaries and fiction. In fifth grade he did a project on astronaut Alan Shepard. He had been tracking the Mars mission from afar.

But White admitted that the sense of wonder and awe that sustained him as a child gradually faded as he entered the world of reality and non-fiction filmmaking. Then Carroll told him the story of these rovers, who were only supposed to perform for 90 days, but instead became actual energizer bunnies, traveling and traveling for years on their interplanetary mission.

“The film was a unique but fun opportunity to restore that inner child in some way and return to that world of imagination, discovery and adventure that you had as a kid,” White said in a separate video interview with The Chronicle.

Good Night Oppy director Ryan White. Photo: Austin Hargrave / Prime Video

White’s conversations with those involved with the rover project over the years, including Fraeman and the rover project’s lead scientist Steven Squyres, as well as NASA behind-the-scenes footage of the scientists and engineers at work reveal the human aspect of scientific endeavors. Nobody in the film talks about the 5ft 2 robots as machines. Instead, Spirit and “Oppy” – both “female” – are described in anthropomorphic terms as beings with personalities of their own.

To bring the rovers and conditions on Mars to life, White turned to ILM. The Bay Area-based Oscar-winning company excels at building space worlds that hark back to the original 1977 Star Wars. White wanted to build something different, not an imaginary world but a real one.

“It was a dream to work with George Lucas’ company to bring a photorealistic, authentic Mars to life,” said White. “The bar for this film was really high because we asked them to build a world based on the actual hundreds of thousands of photos that Spirit and Opportunity took and also the orbiters flying over Mars and these Photograph missions.”

Industrial Light and Magic’s portrayal of a rover on the surface of Mars in Good Night Oppy. Photo: Prime Video

For visual effects supervisor Ivan Busquets, Good Night Oppy presented an unusual opportunity. When he and his team join a project, the script and settings are usually fixed. White was still in the early stages of production on Oppy. He had some storyboards and there were shots he knew he wanted, but the situation was fluid and he was open to suggestions on how best to tell the Rovers story.

“It was all kind of pure creation and I really enjoyed working together,” Busquets told The Chronicle. “It was a different experience for me to be part of the storytelling aspect rather than just the visuals. That was a lot of fun.”

Busquets and his crew faced a number of challenges in bringing the adventures of Spirit and Opportunity on Mars to life. Among other things, it was about translating the data they were working with into the realistic images required for the film. Another injected the rovers with a sense of being somehow alive.

Good Night Oppy visual effects supervisor Ivan Busquets. Photo: Industrial Light & Magic

“There’s a bit of reverse engineering on our end in terms of how we take the data and turn it into something that could plausibly be what a camera in that room would have photographed,” Busquets said. “Like when the rovers analyze rocks, we get data on the composition of that rock, but not the color.

“Ryan always had the idea that he wanted the Rovers to emote in some way, but it wasn’t supposed to be drama about the Rovers,” he added. “He wanted the rovers to reflect the emotions of the JPL crew.”

NASA scientists and engineers work on a Mars rover in Good Night Oppy. Photo: Prime Video

When Good Night Oppy screened first at the Telluride Film Festival and then at the Toronto International Film Festival, White kept hearing from audiences that the story of Spirit and Opportunity made her cry.

“Everyone says they didn’t expect it,” he said. “The biggest surprise of the film (to me) was how emotional the scientists and engineers were, many of whom described them as children. The more we talked to people, the more we realized what an emotional film this can be.”

“Good night Oppy” (PG) opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, November 4th and begins streaming on Prime Video on November 23rd.

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