By Mark London Williams
In Sunshine, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s follow-up project to their kinetic zombie thriller, 28 Days Later, the world is ending not with a flesh-rendering bang, but with a chilly whimper.
The sun in the mid-21st century is dimming (no mention is made of whether this pleases the far right, with their insistences that global warming is nothing to worry about), and a team of astronauts is sent toward the sun to drop a bomb in the middle of our most famous local nuclear reactor and ignite a “mini big bang” that will once again make the star blaze, melting the snow later revealed to be falling on places like Sydney.
Although the film was caught in the hurly-burly of late summer releases, its effects work by supervisor Tom Wood, working out of Brit-based Moving Picture Company, is bound to be remembered into awards season.
Wood had previously overseen MPC’s work on films like Kingdom of Heaven and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, among others, but this time he was charged not with recreating history or making magic seem plausible, but with making the near-future seem real and helping to construct a ship that could believably withstand a fervid visit to the sun.
Wood credits Garland’s script as the genesis for the film’s plausibility, noting the writer had “done his research,” and that scenes like the shearing off of communication antennae that tip too close to the burning orb are “brutally real.”
The ship and its crew are protected by an elaborate shield, and as real as it seems, there was still some sleight-of-hand on Wood’s part. “We did have to fake the reflected light” in the shearing scene, he says. “You can’t see a beam of light until it hits something,” so a more visual solution was arrived at.
Still, “we were deliberately conscientious of how real (the film) should be.”
For the various sunspots and solar flares both crew and audience would encounter, Wood and crew used a NASA website which features satellite imagery of such phenomena. Named, appropriately, SOHO – the very name of the London district renowned for its post-production work – the satellite “sends back hourly images of the sun. You download images of really incredible events. Very few of these are (visible) light,” however, since the sun also has plenty of work to do in the X-ray and ultraviolet fields, as well.
But with all the “bizarre, incredible images from NASA … we had to replicate them and combine them together.”
Those images weren’t the only thing MPC was combining: There was the convergence of sensibilities with other department heads, particular production design – overseen by Mark Tildesley – which “had huge input” into the look of the ship.
The shield was “far larger than we ever predicted it would be,” and so Wood found himself combining not only software – he had to write special code to handle the extra shielding — but miniatures as well, if “miniature” is the right word. The shield was “certainly the biggest model MPC has ever built.”
There was also collaboration with DP Alwin KÃƒÂ¼chler, who was shooting lens flares to a great degree, using “an array of toys.”
“We were pretty much led by the live-action photography,” he says, including the aforementioned shot of snowy Sydney, which was actually shot in Stockholm in winter and then augmented with mattes.
There were lots of mattes, in addition to the models and the special bits of rendering code.
There also was a lots of previz, though Boyle notes his team “didn’t want to spend huge amounts of time on R&D,” not when there were NASA images available, and because the time allotted had to be used to for building and rendering.
A “sun wall,” a kind of tanning deck where the crew can safely observe the sun directly, and the interior of the vast bomb intended to reignite the star, both took months to develop, so Wood and company had to make decisions as they went along.
That wall also is part of what Wood terms the film’s suspension of disbelief: “You can’t (really) film the brightness of the sun,” but viewers can still “get a brief idea of how bright the sun is.”
And that, in turn, helps cement the near-documentary feel that Boyle favors, as Wood worked to make as much of the film as possible look like it was shot with camera, as opposed to created inside a workstation.
It was all pretty ambitious, Wood says, and he’s glad for it. Indeed, such ambition is currently serving him well – he’s working with supervisor Dean Wright on Prince Caspian, the second installment of Disney’s Narnia franchise.
Whether the characters experience any extreme weather in that one, he isn’t saying.
Written by Mark London Williams