Collaboration Illuminates "The Midnight Sky"
George Clooney (l) and Martin Ruhe, ASC on location for "The Midnight Sky" (photo courtesy of Netflix)
DP, production designer, VFX supervisor and sound designer perspectives on working in concert with one another, director George Clooney
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From a first time collaborator in sound designer/supervising sound editor Randy Thom to colleagues with whom he has a track record such as production designer Jim Bissell, cinematographer Martin Ruhe, ASC and visual effects maestros Matt Kasmir and Chris Lawrence, director/producer/actor George Clooney cast a wide net in assembling his go-to ensemble for The Midnight Sky (Netflix). SHOOT connected with Kasmir, Lawrence, Ruhe, Bissell and Thom to gain insights into the film which finds itself squarely in this season’s Oscar conversation. 

The Mark L. Smith-penned feature film adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” The Midnight Sky stars Clooney as an astrophysicist with terminal cancer living at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle in the year 2049. Earth is at its last ebb and seemingly all that remains are two inhabitants, Clooney and a surprise stowaway resident he discovers, a young, unspeaking girl (Caoilinn Springall). He tries to contact a group of evacuees so that they will return and pick her up but to no avail. He and the youngster then trek the brutal Arctic wild to get to a station with a more powerful communications signal. There he ultimately is able to connect with the crew of a space expedition returning from a Jupiter moon. That crew (David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler) is unaware of what has happened to their home planet.

The Midnight Sky deftly tells these two stories--one set in the cosmos, the other in the desolate, unrelenting Arctic--while intimately connecting them with a shared humanity that brings empathy and a deep pathos which are uncharacteristic generally of the apocalyptic sci-fi drama genre.

That’s what makes the film special, observed DP Ruhe who was drawn to the dual stories as well as the chance to again work with Clooney. He had first lensed him in The Americans, and then worked with the director/producer/actor and his producing partner Grant Heslov on the TV miniseries Catch 22. Ruhe earned an ASC Award nomination for Catch-22 last year, his second such nod, the first resulting in a win back in 2012 for the telemovie Page Eight. When Clooney and Heslov sought him out for The Midnight Sky, Ruhe jumped at the opportunity. The Midnight Sky is the latest addition to a Ruhe feature filmography that includes the lauded Harry Brown and Control, the latter getting nominated for both a British Independent Film Award as well as a Camerimage Golden Frog honor for its cinematography.

Ruhe said of Clooney, “He has a lot of courage. He doesn’t shoot a lot of coverage. He has an intuition as to what he wants to do. As many actors who have become directors, he knows what the scenes are about.” And, continued Ruhe, “If George decides you’re the right person, he trusts you so much, allowing you to go wherever you need to go.”

Still, there were daunting challenges, too numerous to mention, according to Ruhe. For example, 80 percent of the snowstorm scene entailed shooting a real snowstorm in Iceland where there was limited daylight and limited on-camera time with a young girl as she and Clooney’s character (Augustine Lofthouse) traverse the Arctic. There’s a moving moment when the snowstorm stops, the sun comes through and Augustine finds the youngster he thought he had lost. That scene was shot in studio. Ruhe related that shooting that studio and on-location work so that they would properly mesh was a challenge unto itself.

Ruhe deployed primarily the ARRI Alexa 65, along with the Mini LF. “The 65 was the main camera. I loved the idea of the 65 for all the richness, the big landscapes which was what I wanted to capture for the Arctic. The 65 was also very beautiful for faces, getting close and showing detail. You see and can read emotions in a face, delivering a sense of intimacy which is really beautiful. We tested it and loved it.” The Mini LF was used when smaller cameras were needed to do justice to the action that was unfolding.

Ruhe added that his collaborations with Bissell, Kasmir and Lawrence were also integral to the film and his approach to its cinematography. Bissell designed the spaceship returning from the Jupiter expedition, affording Ruhe the chance to provide input into the creation of the environment and the latitude for certain lighting opportunities. Meanwhile on the effects front, Ruhe deployed virtual cameras to help design and previs the space walk sequence as well as the dramatic show of blood in the ship’s airlock station. This, said the DP, contributed to formulating “a good structure” for the scenes, informing the stunts and CGI. Ruhe also worked closely with the VFX department on lighting for hologram scenes in which the spaceship inhabitants would interact with their loved ones and memories to bring a sense of family and friends on board. “It was a great learning curve,” assessed Ruhe when describing how he was able to dovetail with effects artisans, including Kasmir and Lawrence.

Jim Bissell
The Midnight Sky marks the sixth Clooney feature that production designer Bissell, an Art Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement honoree, has worked on, including an Academy Award-nominated turn on Good Night, and Good Luck, which received a total of five nods (the others being for Best Motion Picture, Directing for Clooney, Writing for Clooney and Heslov, Lead Actor for David Strathairn, and Cinematography for Robert Elswit, ASC).

Bissell took on The Midnight Sky not only to continue his gratifying collaborative relationship with Clooney but also to try to do justice to the nature of the drama. “It’s a meditation, a contemplation of death and our situation on Earth, which poses an interesting dramatic design problem.” Rather than creating sets that are strictly plot driven, the design has to “resonate profoundly with the feeling” of the story and its characters, he observed.

Clooney’s initial direction, recalled Bissell, was that he didn’t want The Midnight Sky to look like a typical outer space movie. Thus the Aether spaceship is more akin to “a dragonfly,” a departure from the muscular crafts we’re accustomed to seeing. The Aether is an intricate, in some respects delicate structure yet has a strength you can sense that’s capable of protecting its inhabitants. Rather than an austere structure, it has a poetic feel, strong yet fragile like the Earth and life itself. And if we don’t care properly for Earth and life, that fragility can be exploited and translate into doom. Rather than cold steel, there’s a fabric component and feel within the framework, yielding a completed structure of three stories on a soundstage at the U.K.’s Shepperton Studios.

The design was also crafted to account for science, a prime example being weightlessness which can be strenuous on the human body over long-term space travel. That hardship, though, can be addressed through centrifugal force, which led to the decision to have the spaceship shaped like a huge baton spinning round and found. Gravity is strongest at the ends of the baton ship while the center, where centrifugal force is diminished, lends itself more to the weightlessness dynamic. Thus a ladder at the center of the craft becomes superfluous as the ship’s inhabitants effortlessly ascend to work.

Shepperton also housed an ambitious Arctic set to complement the on-location lensing in Greenland and Iceland, all contributing to a feeling of cold and isolation which in a sense reflects Clooney’s character, Lofthouse, a calculating scientific type who now when facing his demise is getting in touch with what’s truly important in life.

Bissell credited his storytelling team which included supervising art director Helen Jarvis, art directors Tim Browning, Claire Fleming and Nic Pallace. Fleming helped to evolve the topologically optimized (computer-designed) endo skeleton and interior of the spaceship, Browning the exterior and Pallace the interior of the Barbeau settlement. 

The Midnight Sky is the fourth film that has paired Bissell and Jarvis; they first teamed on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Bissell said he felt fortunate that Jarvis was available for The Midnight Sky. Bissell also cited such contributors as set decorators John Bush and Maudie Andrews, and assistant set decorator Katie Ralph. Bissell described Andrews as “amazing” and Bush along with his team as being integral to redefining the look of the spaceship.

Matt Kasmir, Chris Lawrence
The Midnight Sky VFX supervisors Kasmir and Lawrence too have a history with Clooney. Kasmir earlier worked on Gravity, Suburbicon (two films in which Clooney starred) and Catch-22. Lawrence, who’s with Framestore, has among his credits Gravity which earned him a Visual Effects Oscar. Lawrence has since been nominated twice more for an Academy Award on the strength of the effects for The Martian and Christopher Robin. Kasmir meanwhile was an Emmy nominee for his VFX exploits on Catch-22.

As overall VFX supervisor on The Midnight Sky, Kasmir brought in Lawrence who dealt primarily with zero gravity and digi doubles, tapping into the acumen he demonstrated on Gravity and The Martian. In addition to Framestore, other effects studio vendors included Industrial Light & Magic, One of Us and Nviz. Among the highlights, Framestore London did the challenging spacewalk sequence, Framestore Montreal the Arctic environment as well as some additional shots of a deteriorating Earth from outer space. ILM handled the sinking pod sequence. One of Us dealt with such facets as the aforementioned hologram scenes, and the design of K23, a planet that could provide a habitable future.

There were assorted challenges and memorable sequences addressed by varied VFX solutions. Kasmir noted that one conventional solution he sought to bypass was the use of bluescreen or greenscreen. “I have distrust of them at every level. You’re already ditching a third of your color information.” So they turned to ILM’s StageCraft, deploying LED walls (one of which was 35 feet high and 110 feet long) for the Barbeau Observatory set, for example. Filmmakers could thus see on the LED screens what they were working with, not having to imagine--as when dealing with greenscreen or bluescreen--what backgrounds would look like. Lawrence related that this gave the filmmakers “the tactile feedback they are used to getting.”

The previously mentioned spacewalk sequence was most challenging. To emulate zero gravity and to sell a pregnant astronaut floating in space (played by Jones who was actually pregnant during production), digital face replacements were required for the wide, full CG shots (30 shots in all for the spacewalk). Ultra high resolution Anyma scans were combined with cutting edge proprietary shaders to create convincing high-res digital faces, which were then keyframe animated. The Anyma capture for the performance provided an animated mesh of the actor that can be used to drive animation.

The spacewalk sequence had the characters clad in detailed CG suits, designed by Jenny Eagan, using CAD, patterns and scan data from FBFX, as they float in space. Framestore animation supervisor Max Solomon (who too earlier worked on Gravity) and his colleagues worked closely with editor Stephen Mirrione in designing the digital shots and combining separate takes into longer shots through hidden transitions.  They also deployed such resources as an animator friendly simulation toolset for the tethers to allow the animators to integrate the tether motion into the performance of the astronauts.

Yet with all the VFX tools and resources available, Kasmir and Lawrence noted that less can be more. “Ultimately, George (Clooney) wanted the drama to be grounded,” said Lawrence, “The language of the film, especially in those moments you’re with George stuck in isolation, is emphasized by the static locked-off camera and beautiful composition of the scene. It was a nice place to be in; to complement the film craft rather than going all out in showy visual effects.”

Kasmir advised, “Don’t fall in love with the technology, know how to use it to your advantage. This is a very personal drama, not about bells and whistles. You don’t want to get overloaded with visual effects. You use them just when needed.”

Randy Thom
Mutual attraction led to sound designer/supervising sound editor Randy Thom landing The Midnight Sky gig. Clooney and Heslov were fans of Thom’s work on The Revenent in particular. The Revenent earned Thom one of his 15 career Oscar nominations. He has won two Academy Awards, as part of the Best Sound team in 1984 for The Right Stuff and for Best Achievement in Sound Editing in 2005 for The Incredibles

Conversely Thom described himself as a long-time admirer of Clooney and Heslov’s filmography. Furthermore Thom loves working on sci-fi films as his credits on Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Robert Zemeckis’ Contact would attest. Thom regards sci-fi as “a playground for sound design. It’s fun to work on and presents creative opportunities.” 

The Midnight Sky story additionally presented a particularly special opportunity. “When I read the script (by Smith), I was fascinated by the way the story was set up. There were a number of open doors to sound in the script. Most screenwriters don’t pay attention to sound anyway other than in the obvious ways. This script and George’s approach to it opened lots of doors for sound to participate in the storytelling.”

Among the challenges that The Midnight Sky posed to Thom was one of physics. “The question always arises about what you should hear, what you can hear in outer space,” related Thom. “The laws of physics tell us sound doesn’t get transmitted through empty space. Movies typically acknowledge in some fashion the laws of physics but do what they need to do anyway. George had been an actor in Gravity which dealt with it in an interesting way, designing it so you didn’t hear sound most of the time when outside the spaceship. We talked about that and decided we didn’t want to go that far.”

Thom continued, “In terms of tipping our hat to the laws of physics, we wanted the audience to hear what the astronauts would hear--outside of the ship when they are moving and grabbing various objects, sound is transmitted through their hands and into their hearing mechanisms. Sound is transmitted through our bodies into our ears. What would those movements sound like and what would asteroids hitting the spaceship sound like. The astronauts would also hear radio transmissions. We wanted people in the audience to hear what the astronauts are perceiving.”

Thom also credited his sound team compatriots including sound designer Kyrsten Mate, mixers Todd Beckett and Dan Hiland, and sound editor Bjorn Ole Schroeder. Thom cited Mate’s tour de force work on most of the sounds for the interior of the spaceship, for example.

As for his biggest takeaway from his experience on The Midnight Sky, Thom pointed to the great admiration he developed for Clooney as a filmmaker. “There’s nothing worse than for somebody like me to work with a director who’s indecisive,” observed Thom. “George is not one of those directors who cannot make up his mind. He wants somebody like me to experiment and present him with options. When he hears one he likes, he sticks with it.”

This is the seventh installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

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