To create a realistic world for the Nat Geo series, industry pros became “astronauts-in-training” and took a deep dive into space.
How long would it take to build a spacecraft that looks like it could fly to Mars?
Production designer Sophie Becher pondered that question when director–executive producer Everardo Gout approached her about the National Geographic series MARS. He suggested nine weeks’ prep time and Becher, in response, made a reasonable decision: she declined.
The prep period, she believed, wasn’t long enough to design and build a spacecraft and all the other elements involved in telling a story about the first crewed mission to colonize Mars.
But Gout had a response of his own. He quoted part of President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech about space exploration: “We choose to go to the moon… and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard….”
Becher signed on and became so immersed in the project — along with director of photography Damian Garcia and visual-effects supervisor Russell Dodgson — that she says they all felt “like astronauts-in-training.” The six-episode series depicts an international crew of six astronauts who travel to Mars aboard the spacecraft Daedalus, intending to live on the ship for two years while beginning their exploration and colonization of the planet.
Events go awry when a disastrous landing far from their base camp forces them to leave the ship behind, travel by rover and on foot to the camp and then establish a permanent home sooner than anticipated. With cosmic radiation making outside living impossible, they create the Olympus Town settlement in underground tunnels where volcanic lava once flowed.
The story — which begins in 2033, when Daedalus launches and lands — later moves ahead to 2037 with the arrival of another crew for the mission’s second phase. Filming locations included the desert plains of Morocco (standing in for the surface of Mars) and various building interiors and soundstages in Budapest, doubling for mission-related headquarters in London and Vienna.
The series drew a global audience of 36 million viewers at its November debut and became Nat Geo’s most recorded series; it has already been renewed for a second season, and season one remains available on Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.
Besides Gout, its executive producers are Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Michael Rosenberg of Imagine Entertainment and Justin Wilkes, Jon Kamen, Jonathan Silberberg and Dave O’Connor of RadicalMedia.
Interwoven with the scripted action is real-life documentary footage and interviews with present-day space experts and visionaries, including Elon Musk, product architect of Tesla, chairman of SolarCity and founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, which successfully landed a reusable rocket this spring.
Musk — who believes such accomplishments will be the future of space travel — allowed the production exclusive access to SpaceX headquarters in southern California. In fact, it was Musk who unexpectedly determined the course of the project. Wilkes recalls Musk saying during a meeting, “’I have no interest in a documentary. I want to document why it’s imperative to get to Mars.’
“He explained that Europeans coming to the New World used reusable ships, and he compared colonizing Jamestown and Boston to colonizing Mars,” says Wilkes, whose Netflix doc on singer–civil rights activist Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone?, won a 2016 Emmy and notched an Oscar nomination. “I realized there was a much bigger story to be told, beyond a feature-length documentary.”
The hybrid of scripted drama and true-life interviews was the means “to tell the story the best way we saw fit,” Wilkes continues. “It’s imagining people going to Mars, but the engineering and science are as factual as they could be. It made sense to talk to NASA about what might happen. It’s not science fiction anymore. It’s science fact.”
Even so, Gout chose “to concentrate on the humanity of [the mission], not the ship. I wanted to make Das Boot on Mars,” he says. “It had to be a visual, organic journey. Ultimately it’s about building life on Mars.”
The reference to Das Boot isn’t casual. The 1981 German film about the crew of a World War II German submarine became a key reference, visually and psychologically. “These are very confined spaces,” Gout says of the ship and the settlement. “They are very claustrophobic.”
Accordingly, Becher, who is based in London, designed the set really small. “I imagined myself as an astronaut,” she says. “I taped out the spaces on the floor. Cinematographer Damián García would then work within the spaces: where is the camera going to be? Where are the lights going to be? We worked out how small we could get away with, without being a hindrance to the camera and lighting.”
Becher studied images and footage from NASA, SpaceX and other sources. “I wanted to make it as real as possible — you’ve got to, for National Geographic. My sets look old-fashioned: if something works, why change it? The space capsule they were using was the same as they did in the 1960s, because it works. The corridor is very much based on the space shuttle, but we tidied it up and changed it a bit.”
And, just like the real space shuttle, “It’s wired up. Everything’s labeled and barcoded. Space is at a premium, and you’ve got to think about weight — everything you take has to be lightweight.” (When series adviser and former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison first saw the set, Wilkes notes, she recommended adding more “clutter.”)
And while one might consider touch-screen technology de rigueur, Becher incorporated more traditional control buttons and throttles — real- life astronauts, it turns out, prefer the tactile quality, a sense of touch known as “haptic feedback.”
To create the rudimentary Olympus Town settlement, which in the story was constructed from available materials, Becher referenced the temporary structures built by FEMA disaster relief teams.
Inside the cave, corridors of modular units were joined together by flexible canvas connectors. Settlement chairs, beds and other items were made from flat-pack-style (i.e., assembly required) inflatable furniture; some chairs were made of expandable foam.
Becher used a palette of moss greens to grays for the entire show, for a sense of tranquility. And in the settlement, she gave each crewmember enough wall space to affix an image from home. “I thought about the psychological repercussions of being in a space with no windows,” she says. “You have to have some peace.”
Though Morocco was chosen to portray Mars because of its similar topography, still “you get there, and there’s shrubbery!” Becher says. “You have to make it look like Mars.” She worked with visual-effects supervisor Dodgson on set extensions for the exteriors.
Daedalus landed, for instance, on a surface that had been cleared, with the Martian background added digitally. Futuristic looks for the headquarters back on earth — the Mars Mission Corporation in London and the International Mars Science Foundation in Vienna — were in part constructed in a Budapest mall and an airport built in the 1920s.
The huge screens of Mission Control were set extensions. The confinement of the spaceship and Olympus Town — somewhat ironic for a show about exploring space — “was balanced with Damián García’s camerawork,” Wilkes says.
“Our people step outside, and the planet goes from claustrophobic to expansive. We looked at westerns to see how to go to the expansive vistas. We go to wide shots — the tiny spot that is the Mars Rover gives a sense of the scale.”
For the exterior, García explains, “Everardo and I didn’t like the idea of a pure red Mars — we wanted it to be more subtle. We looked at footage from the Curiosity Rover [which landed on Mars in 2012]. The pictures were more brown than red, and had a particular contrast and density. We tried to replicate that.”
For the interior Mars scenes, “I used the tight and narrow space as my starting point for the camera language,” García relates. “One of the ideas was to use a kind of documentary approach, with hand-held cameras.”
He shot with an ARRI Alexa Mini — “It’s a very small camera; you can be comfortable with it in small spaces” — and tried to bring a sense of freedom to the shoot, infusing scenes of the astronauts exploring with a sense of energy through the camerawork.
Back on Earth, in Mission Control, “the idea was to have more air, more space. The camera could be more fluid,” he says. As Wilkes further explains, “We had very composed, epic shots inside the building. There was a lot more moving in the tracking dolly, in the way we framed the subjects. We built the drama of the crew on the ground as they were trying to solve the problems of the crew on Mars.”
García tested numerous lenses before choosing Cooke 5/i prime lenses for the scripted part of the show. “I love those lenses,” he says. “It’s very subjective [when deciding] the texture, how the colors are formed, the contrasts and shadows the lenses cast. A lens can [add a lot to] a story.”
For the unscripted interviews, he used a cinematic lens — plus the same platform camera system that was used for the scripted Earth scenes — to provide a cohesive look.
Wilkes is especially proud of his relationship with Musk’s company. “[Our documentary crew] spent a year embedded at SpaceX,” he says. “We gained their trust and got proximity to Elon.”
And the SpaceX team’s real-life tension — which turned to jubilation at the successful landing of its reusable rocket — fit seamlessly with the emotions evoked by the scripted dramatics. Those dramatics are enhanced by visual effects provided by Framestore, the London-based company that won an Oscar for the 2013 film Gravity and was nominated for 2015’s The Martian.
“We were lucky to have been brought on to Mars before the director or shooting producer was attached to it,” says visual-effects supervisor Russell Dodgson. “We were there at an early stage in the development of the script, to take what had been written and shape it into something achievable from a VFX standpoint.”
The team devised 960 shots plus those for the title sequence, an 80-second spot that combines striking aerial views of Mars with images that tell some of the story and provide cryptic clues of what’s to come. For an early inspiration, they turned to a book of NASA photography, This Is Mars.
“The HIRISE [high-resolution imaging] satellite images give you an idea more than those from the Mars Rover,” Dodgson says. “It looks like Earth when you look at the topography. It was important to us to show a different look of Mars, that we hadn’t seen.”
Dodgson used some of the topography images to build horizon lines. Every exterior shot, he says, involved some 3-D work and digital background extensions. Effects included a dust storm — “The soil on Mars is incredibly fine; we had a huge wave of dust lifted off the ground, so it was exciting” — and an unusually dark atmosphere when crewmembers lower themselves into a cavern to look for ice to melt for water.
Another effect was as crucial as it was mundane: the replacement of visors on the astronauts’ helmets. “When they were outside, we put the visors in digitally, because otherwise you’d see the [production] crew reflected,” Dodgson says. “You had to perfectly match the movements of the visors. It was labor intensive.”
Framestore also designed monitors and other technical elements for Daedalus and Mission Control, customizing screen content as needed. And team members designed and built a hologram used during a meeting on Earth.
As with Becher and García — Dodgson’s collaborators throughout — less was more. “The show has such a dramatic scope — you have to be judicious in what you show,” he says. “We didn’t overreach. We pushed as hard as we could to make sure the whole show had a consistent feel.”
A consistent feel and a worldwide grasp. MARS premiered on Nat Geo in 171 countries and 45 languages.
“It was global in so many senses,” Wilkes reflects. “We ended up producing this with a multi-national cast and crew, the best and the brightest. It mirrors what Mars would be like.”
Gout, who says he “fell in love with the show,” also sees the big picture: “Its potential message is one of hope, bringing the world together and not dividing it.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017