Science Fiction vs. Science Fact: three of our favourite space movies from 20 years of DNEG

Celebrating World Space Week 2018

If you love sci-fi movies set in space, then here are three of our favourite space VFX projects that we have we worked on that were all based on science fact.

The following movies are examples of where we went “where no-one has gone before” in our effort to help storytellers and filmmakers achieve new heights of realism for space visuals, spacecraft and otherworldly landscapes.

As part of our continued celebration of this year’s World Space Week, we’re shining a light on the role of VFX in sci-fi films in furthering our understanding of space, and recognising how audiences are united through shared theatrical experiences.

A team effort

VFX that appears in each of the following movies is the combined work of many artists. With so many talented people involved in each project, we’re always looking for more people to join us. Visit our Careers pages to see all our current opportunities.
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Star Trek Beyond (2016) PG-13

The Yorktown space station with multiple planes of gravity.
What’s it about?

Under Captain Kirk’s command, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise explores uncharted space, where they encounter a ruthless new enemy.

Our work on this movie

We were the lead VFX house for this third instalment of J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek franchise, and Peter Chiang was the Overall VFX Supervisor. Our teams developed the Enterprise spaceship (originally created by ILM for Into The Darkness), created a new-look warp-speed effect and designed and built the Yorktown space station.

Not a typical space station

The Yorktown was a massive build for our artists, consisting of around 1.3 trillion polygons! The space station resembles a huge city with buildings, parks and lakes. Unlike Earth cities, however, the Yorktown has multiple planes of gravity, calculated to maximise the available living space within a sphere.

Engage the new-look warp-speed

Our crews developed a new-look warp speed for the USS Enterprise. “Right from the outset I kind of presented the idea of folding space and gravitational lensing,” explained Peter Chiang, shortly after the film’s release. “We also scrutinized images of planes and their vapour trials as they go beyond the sound barrier. I imagined multiple shock waves building up and stacking on one another, forming this layer in front of the vessel. This tells us we’re traveling at high speed and gives a dimensional quality to it.”

Check out the Star Trek Beyond show page to see a trailer or take a look at this video from Wired for an overview of all the VFX featured in this movie.

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Life (2017) 15 /R 

What’s it about?
The team involved in the build of the ISS for ‘Life’: (left to right) Prashant Kambli, Kasim Mokha, Peter Lasrado Abhay Sawant, Bikram Sarkar, Prashant Dhotre.

The six-member crew of the International Space Station is tasked with studying a sample from Mars that may be the first proof of extra-terrestrial life. Called Calvin, the creature quickly proves to be more intelligent than expected.

Our work on this movie

We were one of the main VFX vendors for this movie, delivering around 600 shots to the final show. This included many external shots of the International Space Station (ISS), where the bulk of the action takes place. Our teams in India built a 3D CG model of the ISS. They started with a simple ISS model then layered on details, such as control boxes, cables and gold foil. They used reference imagery to make the ISS look as realistic as possible. However, Huw Evans, DNEG’s VFX Supervisor for Life, explained to ArtofVFX, that this created an unusual challenge. He said: “One of the tricky things we had to deal with was how clean the actual ISS is in real life. Looking at reference photography, it all looked quite CG in all honesty!”

The attention to detail by our team in India on the ISS model led to a nomination for a prestigious Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Model in a Photoreal of Animated Project.

The ISS orbits a scale CG model of the Earth, complete with city lights.
Back to Earth

With the ISS orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of around 400km, a realistic and rotating Earth was essential to maintaining credibility. Our artists used a base CG Earth scaled to the right proportions, then added layers of details including clouds, hazing and city lights. Watch a trailer and see a VFX breakdown on our Life show page.
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Interstellar (2014) PG-13

What’s it about?

With humankind’s time on Earth coming to an end a team of explorers must travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival.

Our work on this movie

Christopher Nolan tasked our team, led by Overall VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin and DNEG VFX Supervisor Andy Lockley, with accurately depicting the following:

  • A wormhole
  • A supermassive black hole (Gargantua – pictured right)
  • The Tesseract (a four dimensional space allowing time to be seen as a physical dimension)
  • Digital space scenes for projection on-set (no greenscreen was used)
  • Robots (TARS and CASE)
  • Giant waves and landscapes of frozen cloud and ice

The movie’s Science Advisor and Executive Producer Professor Kip Thorne worked closely with our R&D Team, led by Chief Scientist Oliver James, along with CG Supervisor Eugénie von Tunzelmann, to ensure our work was grounded in actual science.

We pioneered new techniques to create compelling imagery based directly on Professor Thorne’s equations about black holes and gravitational lensing. This required a huge amount of computational power, with some frames taking up to 100 hours to render.

Exploring new worlds

Back on Earth, Iceland’s rugged landscape provided the terrain for the two alien planets the crew visits in the film.

For each planet, our experts digitally erased mountains and extended backgrounds using 3D models and textures, based on reference material collected on location.

Learn more about this movie and the science behind it by visiting our Interstellar show page.
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To stream, rent or buy – that is the question.

If our brief overview of these movies has whet your appetite, then you’ll be pleased to hear that all of the movies mentioned above are available to stream, rent or buy online around the world. For more information on which service(s) to use to watch them in your location, visit: https://www.justwatch.com/.
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Discover more about our space VFX work 

If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at these other World Space Week stories:

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First Man – Coming to a screen near you!

If you love space films, look out for First Man. DNEG provided visual effects for this film, and our Oscar–winning VFX Supervisor Paul Lambert was the Overall VFX Supervisor on the movie. Check out the First Man show page for more.

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