The Martian – Research and VFX Breakdown

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

“During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.”

(20th Century Fox,

Watching the Film

Sadly I missed the cinema release of The Martian and recently watched it on Blue-Ray in the comfort of my own home.  The first elements which were evidently created using VFX techniques were the realistic Mars landscapes with weather effects and the simulated gravity, or lack of gravity in this case.

Also, I wanted to research how the crews ship “The Hermes” and the outer space environment in which it is situated is created.

Which Companies are Responsible for the Visual Effects?

MPC and Framestore are two companies which were handed the responsibility of completing the majority of visual effects within The Martian.  Whilst Framestore handled the majority of the Hermes ship, space and weightlessness sequences, MPC dealt with producing Mars and its landscapes.

Moving Picture Company (MPC)


Moving Picture Company have been one of the leaders in visual effects for over 25 years with offices and studios based around the world in London, Vancouver, Montréal, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Bangalore, Shanghai and Mexico City.

MPC has worked on many famous past projects including films such as:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Godzilla
  • The Harry Potter franchise
  • X-Men
  • Prometheus
  • Life of Pi

MPC’s full filmography can be found here:

Also, many advertising campaigns including Samsung, Coca Cola, Sony, Three Mobile and Channel 4.



Founded in 1986, Framestore is a British visual effects company based in London, England which in 1997 acquired and merged with the Computer Film Company (CFC). Whilst predominately based in London, they also have offices in Montreal, New York and Los Angeles, however these mainly serve the American advertisement market.

Framestore are a multi-award winning company, which accolades include BAFTA’s and Oscar’s. Past projects in film include:

  • Avatar
  • The James Bond franchise
  • The Harry Potter franchise
  • The Golden Compass
  • Gravity
  • Superman Returns
  • Batman: The Dark Knight

Framestore’s full filmography can be found here:

Like MPC, Framestore also help create many advertising campaigns such as Samsung, Netflix, Audi, Calvin Klein and Sainsburys.

The Martian VFX Breakdown and Example Tools / Techniques Used


To best match the environment on Mars, The Martian was shot in Wadi Rum in Jordan, a location made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.   However, the MPC team wanted to make this environment appear more alien so selectively graded the sky and landscape from blue, to bronze and butterscotch which was the preference of the Director, Ridley Scott.

MPC 2D Supervisor, Lev Kolobov created a bespoke tool in *Nuke naming it “EarthToMars” as conventional tools did not give the team enough control with colour manipulation.  This tool would detect any blue within the shots and remove it, preserving the haze detail in the mountains and simultaneously re-grading any reflected light.

*Nuke – A digital compositing application used in post-production

Due to a highly reflective nature of the perspex on the Astronauts helmet visors, these were removed whilst the actors were filmed.  MPC decided to add computer-generated visors in post-production by tracking the helmets and rendering in reflections using a CG re-creation of the environment, as a result producing more realistic and believable reflections whilst the actor moves around the scene.

A full visual effects breakdown by MPC is shown in the video below:


Assets Framestore were mainly responsible for were the spaceship (The Hermes) and any sequences involving that, as well as the creation of Mars as seen from space and working closely with MPC to ensure it is in line with the shots of Mars on the planets surface.

Working closely with NASA allowed Framestore to have a reference when modeling the Hermes build, including any structural or design elements. The art department also supplied concept images, technical blueprints and some low resolution models. From there the space ship was modeled in a modular fashion, with each separate section using similar themes and design for continuity.  Due to the fact the ship would be viewed from all angles, including wide-shots and close-up shots the model had to be extremely detailed, furthermore had to match the small sections of physical set that had already been built for the shoot.

Another component Framestore were responsible for was creating the illusion of zero gravity.  The team approached this using two methods, the first being painting out wires / rigs and rebuilding the missing parts of the body or set. An explanation of wire-removal is linked below:

The Art of Wire Removal

The other technique the team used was a completely CG replacement for the actor, which is normally used on wide-shots or on scenes where the face is not visible to negate having to re-model the actors face.  Or if you were to keep the actors face, to then match the movement using a digitally created body below the head.

Advantages of this method meant they could reduce the appearance of the actor pivoting around a wire rig and also the affects of gravity.  The disadvantage being that this then needed to be animated which is often tricky.


Life on Mars: the VFX of The Martian


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