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Aug212011

DMP is not a porno term

Moon called for quite a few Digital Matte Paintings (often referred to as DMPs), which are essentially illustrations or photo montages brought to life with camera movement and a few tricks here and there to make them feel real and look like actual footage. We had twenty two DMP shots in Moon, and I had four days to get all of these roughed out and prototyped for the rest of the VFX team at Cinesite to then complete and get into the film. Due to the nature of these shots, I managed to get them 95% complete before I handed them over as I just basically stayed up for three days working on them solidly as it's quite rare I get to spend a chunk of time like that actually doing illustration. I had a large bank of reference images that I'd found in books and on the net, and used that as a basis for these digital paintings. Although they look quite complex they are were actually pretty quick to do. I used to use an airbrush back when I was doing my Graphic Design/Illustration degree and as anybody who likes science fiction and has taught themselves to use an airbrush knows, one of the first things you'll successfully paint is a planet. A nice, round planet with lots of graduated shading on it.

I'd been thinking about how to portray the lunar surface since the beginning of the project when the script was still being written. I knew we were potentially at risk from getting stuck in grey, boring looking areas for large chunks of the film whilst the action was taking place across the lunar surface. I can't be working on a Science Fiction film and have it look boring, not allowed. I was concerned about this and knew we would have to work hard to pull this off as we had hundreds of shots to complete and I didn't want all that work being done and people coming back to me saying it looked boring!

When we were in pre-production and working out geographically where everything was in the film, Duncan bought a limited edition light for the living room. It was a 14-inch or so "Moon" that lit up which was designed by Buzz Aldrin from his cartography from the Apollo era missions. We were having a party that weekend and were trying to make the house look a bit more presentable and so we risked electrocution by changing out the main light in the lounge and hanging it form the ceiling. It was a pig to put up as it was really solid and heavy as it was made from some kind of thick resin and was covered in little spiky bits representing the topography of the moon. Duncan got a black pen and drew an arrow pointing to the Sarang facility and marked down the Earth-facing side so you could see what was what. At a couple of points it was actually quite useful as a quick reference whilst we were lying around in the lounge eating Mexican food after getting back from the studio way too late talking about the next days shooting. It lit up really nicely, and everybody seemed to like it at the party. I hung it a bit low and every time somebody got up off one of the sofas, if they weren't aware of it, they'd smash their head on it. A lot of people brained themselves on our Moon. We left it there when we moved out so for all I know it's still hanging in that lounge. I bet the new people that moved in had no idea what it was for and just thought it was a bit weird and dangerous.

This was the first DMP image I did and I got a lot from it even though I don't think we used it in the final film. I liked the way the image keeps moving into darkness and the way the Lunar surface is defined by the rim in only a portion of the image as I think it helps give the it a sense of mass. You read the dark area at the left of frame as a big chunk of rock even though it's actually just a big dark shape. When you have very little time, it helps to try to draw smart and this was a good solution as it adds drama to the shot whilst simultaneously saving me lots of time. I know I'm running the risk of sounding lazy but I was really really tired and I always had a million things to do. I quite liked the composition of this and so I did a reverse composition and dropped some animation in there to bring it to life a bit.

I liked the way this was going and so I deceded to try a sister-shot with the earth in the foreground. Again, a quick bit of animation to bring it to life and as you can see it's very close to the final shot as it appears in the film.

It was really nice doing these shots as I pretty much had free reign to do whatever I thought looked good. Most of the DMP shots were used as spacers between scenes and so in doing these I was typically just going for a nice composition. After I'd done the reverse Earth/Moon shot I went back to an alternate version of the first one I'd done and knocked this up, which ended up becoming the shot we used for the opening titles.

I really wanted to put something more into these shots and to try and bring something new to them. Most people are familiar with photography of the lunar surface and even though in a sense it is very beautiful, there is a danger that on film when watching shot after shot in a sequence the grey palatte could easily make the film look drab. In treating the Matte Painting like just that (an illustration) whilst also keeping things photo-realistic, I had very few options to work with, so I decided to see if I could try and make things more dramatic by playing with light.

Some quick tests with gradients were all that was really needed to know that I had found something that I liked the look of. Keeping the DMP shots across the terminator where half the image is in darkness and half is in daylight gives a more interesting composition and I liked the idea of half the screen just falling off into darkness. This was good as it re-enforced what I liked about the first shot I did as I'd unconsciously established the heavy-shadowed look right from the first piece. Often when you have a series of images to do you may not realise you have solved a style-issue until you're on the thrid or fourth piece and still trying to develop things and then you start adding back in ingredients you did from the first and second and it immediately looks better. I love it when a plan comes together. Quick bit of lunar trivia here: The terminator is the line formed by the edge of the illuminated portion of the moon. Or, in other words, the edge where it falls into shadow. This was our friend in Moon as it adds drama to what would otherwise be a relatively flat shot and it saved us a shit load of work. Double win. I'm glad I worked this out early on as it would have been a painfull thing to discover later when I was going back and covering up loads of painting with big dark patches and having to admit to myself that it was an improvement. I like the name "terminator" too but I'm resisting making jokes about it which I'm sure you'll agree is a bonus.

I liked the way this helped keep some drama in the images. There's an aspect of the Moon's dark side that is often miss-understood as it's not actually "Dark". Also, there are two different kinds of "Dark". There's the litteral "Dark side" which is of course the side of the moon that is occluded from the Sun at any given time. The Moon does of course rotate and so this area is constantly moving in the same way the Earth moves from day to night in a regular cycle. However, on the Moon this period lasts for around fourteen days light, then fourteen dark, so a Lunar cycle (day) is actually 24 Earth days. Even the area in shadow is not actually pitch-black, as it would be lit by millions of stars. Without an atmosphere this could actually be really bright. At the beginning of the film we see Sam 1 up in the tower beginning his working day and checking in on the harvesters. The bright light outside is the Sun setting, which happens 28 times slower on the Moon than it does on the Earth. We put this in at the last minute as it turned out we couldn't afford to do the VFX of nice lunar views from the tower-windows and so we closed the blinds almost immediately and blamed it on the bright light. The original plan was to have these shutters open all the time so whenever Sam was in the tower we would have a beautiful lunar panorama behind him. I'd designed shutters into the set as I thought a real facility would have them and when we were stressing on-set about running out of money we just decided to close them for most of the film and then open them again at the end when the Eliza rescue ship arrives. It saved us a ton of money as each individual shot with this background in would have run somewhere between eight to twelve thousand pounds. We reconciled it with ourselves as it contributing to Sam’s sense of isolation and being closed off from the outside world and it also made the tower dark and moody which I liked.

We took a few liberties with what the lunar surface on the unlit (dark) side of the Moon might look like so thanks for not judging us too harshly on the results. I just thought the Rovers would look cool driving around in low light using their head-lights so that's what we did.

The other "Dark" side is actually "Radio-Dark" and is the half of the Moon that's facing away from the Earth. Due to the way the Moon rotates, half of the surface is permanantly facing away from the Earth and so radio signals cannot reach it. This is why Lunar Industries has to use satellites to relay the communications, as they are far enough out to receive signals directly from earth and then bounce them back down to the occluded lunar surface.

Although I was starting to like the way this was going I felt it needed a bit more so I sat down with a cup of tea for a bit of a think about it. It occured to me that the lunar mining operations on the Moon could very well, over time, cause environmental damage to the lunar surface in a similar fashion to the way strip mining affects the Earths' surface. I liked the idea of something regarded as essentially a big, dead ball of rock suddddenly appearing vulnerable to the ravaging of the big energy companies' in their relentless quest for profits. I thought this was a nice, subtle way to paint in a bit more of the canvas of Lunar Industries being a bunch of evil bastards chasing the yankee dollar and so I worked into the existing images to put some geometric shapes in there that looked like they could only have been created by machines.

This is the same image as above with the environmental damage added. I really liked this look as it's quite subtle but hopefully it got noticed in the film. One of my favourite films is Silent Running and my childhood fondness of this story is where a lot of the inspiration for Moon came from, so I'm glad that I got a little bit of an environmental thing going on in there even if it is pretty subtle. Big shout out to Doug Trumbull. We ended up having two of these DMP shots in there showing this damage, as we didn't have the resources to work into the rest of the shots as much as we'd have liked. At least we got a couple of them in there though.

It was really nice doing the DMPs as I just got cosy at my computer and settled into it. It was actually quite nice having such tight restrictions in that the moon is essentially grey and cratered and this meant that as I had such a small amount of wiggle-room to try and come up with a new look it really made me focus. I know it's not particularly cool to blow your own trumpet but I am very proud of these environmental damage DMP shots so I'll just have a little toot. Paaaarp. Out of my system.

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    Gavin Rothery - Directing - Concept - VFX - "Making of Moon" Blog - DMP is not a porno term
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    Gavin Rothery - Directing - Concept - VFX - "Making of Moon" Blog - DMP is not a porno term

Reader Comments (3)

Just to let you know, I do recall noticing the damage in the shot and thought it went a long way toward establishing the company as classic movie-world "Big Bad Company" that doesn't care about anything but the bottom line. Generally I hate when movies overdo that in present-day settings but in a Science Fiction piece set in the future it works as a cautionary tale and was clearly critical to the plot in Moon.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Cheers Ken, so glad it got noticed.

January 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterGavin Rothery

Gavin, I found your Moon blog a couple of days ago. Glad I did!

I was first made aware of Moon from the Jonathan Ross set-visit when you were in production and could not wait to see it. It did not disappoint in any way. Loved the story, the setting, the pacing, the atmosphere of complete desolation. Thanks for your amazing contribution to the film and for sharing the process with us here.

I can assure you of this- the gridwork harvester trails were completely evident from the first viewing, one of the myriad of realistic touches that infuse the film. Repeat viewing reveals much more of these textures, but I'm convinced they all subliminally added to the believability from the git-go whether or not they were consciously registered by the viewer.

Thanks again.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian McKenna

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