How The Martian Realistically Depicted Mars and Space Travel

Tuesday, 24 November 2015 - 10:17AM
NASA
Space
Mars
Tuesday, 24 November 2015 - 10:17AM
How The Martian Realistically Depicted Mars and Space Travel
The Martian was a huge commercial and critical hit, satisfying fans of Andy Weir's immensely popular novel and even getting Oscar buzz for Best Picture, which is incredibly rare for a sci-fi blockbuster. At the very least, it should be nominated in the technical categories, if only because it realistically portrayed the Red Planet in the infamous Wadi Rum desert in Jordan and equipped their actors with scarily true-to-life spacesuits.

Wadi Rum is a huge dry valley in the south of Jordan with a singular environment that distinctly resembles Mars. According to THR, when production designer Arthur Max first pitched the location to director Ridley Scott, he placed two pictures next to each other, one of Mars, and the other of Wadi Rum.

"Which one is Mars?" Scott asked.

"Exactly," said Max.

Opening quote
"I'd gone to Jordan before, when I was making G.I. Jane," said Scott. "In summer, it's 120 degrees. But there's a perfection to the simplicity of the environment. There's no vegetation. It's crisp and magnificent. I knew it was the one place to do a strange planet."
Closing quote

Scott and Max weren't the first to notice Wadi Rum's distinctive qualities. Pretty much every big-budget movie that has portrayed Mars in the last fifteen years has taken a trip to Wadi Rum, including Red Planet and The Last Place on Mars. Ridley Scott also used the location for the alien planet in Prometheus. This time around, he wasn't portraying a fictional planet, but one of the most scientifically accurate depictions of a real-life extraterrestrial environment ever put on film.

Opening quote
"I wanted to get it right," he said. "The way Stanley [Kubrick] got it right on 2001."
Closing quote

In order to "get it right," Max traveled to NASA's Johnson Space Center in order to learn everything he could about Mars's appearance and environment.

Opening quote
"[Max] must have taken several thousand pictures of Mars habitats, rovers and space suits," said Dr. James Green, NASA's Planetary Science director, who advised on The Martian. "He clicked everything he saw for eight hours."
Closing quote

Max directly used these pictures to assemble the sets in Budapest, in which the world's biggest soundstage was transformed into Mars's surface. 

Opening quote
"We had to bring in about a thousand metric tons of custom-colored sand and soil," said Max. "It took three weeks just to deliver it all."
Closing quote

The costumes were similarly as true-to-life as humanly possible. They actually considered using NASA prototypes for Mars spacesuits, called Zed 1 and Zed 2, but there were several problems with the suits' construction. First, according to costume designer Janty Yates, "Zed 1 is a dead ringer for Buzz Lightyear." We would have loved to see a real-life Buzz Lightyear on Mars, but they were also too cumbersome for the actors, so the costume designers made a very similar but more practical version. Still, the costumes looked like NASA spacesuits, they were 80 pounds, and they were frighteningly realistic, to the point that the actors needed oxygen flooded into their helmets in order to breathe.

Opening quote
"Sometimes the air supply would get shut off if you turned a certain way," said Jessica Chastain.
Closing quote

And since there are no potatoes in Budapest during the winter, the prop masters had to grow potatoes in a special hothouse on set, just as Mark Watney grew them in his greenhouse. 

Opening quote
"It was more difficult doing this movie than actually going to Mars," joked Max.
Closing quote

The portrayal of Mars was overall so realistic that there was ultimately little to do in post-production. Using CGI, they turned the sky on Mars yellow, added some carbon dioxide clouds and mountains and called it a day. This was convenient, considering that the release date was moved up from November 25 to October 2, but Scott still laments one sequence that he didn't have time to do:

Opening quote
"He would have found the edge of a glacier, definitely," he said of potential reshoots. "It would be fascinating …"
Closing quote
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