The Designer Behind the Greatest Fake-Mars Mission Ever

By Corey S. Powell | October 16, 2015 3:09 pm
Life on Mars: Fictional astronaut Mark Watney contemplates a very realistic landscape in The Martian. (All images credit: 20th Century Fox)

Life on Mars: Fictional astronaut Mark Watney contemplates an exceptionally realistic landscape in The Martian. (All images credit: 20th Century Fox)

With its strong showing at the box office, The Martian joins Gravity and Interstellar in the club of science-fiction movies that succeed by emphasizing the science and downplaying the anything-goes fantasy elements. But even in this rarefied company, The Martian stands apart. Unlike Interstellar, it is rooted in present-day technology and challenges. And unlike Gravity, it fully respects the physical rules of space travel; in fact, it makes them central to the plot.

The Martian comes at a pivotal time for NASA. With space imagery getting better and better–taking on an almost cinematic quality–the need for human exploration in some ways seems less obvious than ever. At the same time, the difficulty of getting any concrete answers about life on Mars (or even definitive answers about water and methane) illustrates the huge limitations of doing science using robots. Artificial intelligence and remote control are just not cutting it. By treating the human exploration of Mars with scientific respect and genuine emotion, The Martian make its case more powerfully than NASA’s slick posters and earnest Congressional testimony have managed to do.

The movie’s vision belongs to director Ridley Scott, but its hugely perceptive look and feel is largely the work of production designer Arthur Max. So I caught up with him to find out exactly how he went about making The Martian seem so authentic. Along the way, Max also made a convincing argument for scientific accuracy as an inspiration for great storytelling–something that is very familiar to those, like me, who get goosebumps with every new image sent back from Pluto. An edited transcript of my interview with Arthur Max follows:

The Martian is full of hardware that looks very true to genuine NASA engineering. How did you go about creating that?

The fist thing I did was go to the Jet Propulsion Lab. They were very kind and gave us a tour of every square inch of their facilities. We looked at the Martian testing facility, where they’ve got a clone of the Curiosity rover all hooked up with thousands of cables. It’s just the most beautiful object, with polished alloy and gold-coated gold components, matte-black anodized aluminum and brilliant white paintwork…and a brand new set of tires. And then they’ve got the most amazing things stored in old tin sheds, gathering dust—prototypes of previous things, duplicates—which is very much of the ilk with our story, unearthing the Pathfinder lander on Mars and all that.

There’s not much real-life precedent for the crewed spaceship, the Hermes, and for the habitat on Mars. What inspiration did you draw on there?

We also went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where NASA did the manned projects. We visited their mock-up of the International Space Station; it’s a big test facility, they train astronauts there. I took pictures of all kinds of bits and pieces to inventory the mechanisms and the look of panels and things. Also, NASA uses octagons often. Circles and octagons are prevalent–they are the shape language of space because they are inherently strong forms–so you can’t be busted too badly for using them.

Then we give all the NASA hardware a bit of an upgrade design-wise. The NASA people were very flattering. They said they had designed a control panel to look like the control panel of the derelict ship in Prometheus [which was also a collaboration between Max and director Ridley Scott]. They actually look to us, to movie designers, for inspiration.

Hardware in The Martian follows the geometric design principles of real NASA hardware, as well as the modular construction of the International Space Station.

Spaceship design in The Martian follows the geometric engineering principles of real NASA hardware, as well as the modular construction style of the International Space Station.

Did the NASA engineers sometimes push back and tell you, “No, you can’t do that, it isn’t right”?

We were told that anything we wanted to put a NASA logo on had to be run by them. And that was just about everything: the Hermes, Mark Watney’s equipment, his space suit. There were a few items we had to accommodate, particularly on the Hermes, because we wanted to conform to NASA’s design thinking for their next interplanetary ship. They have very schematic engineering drawings which show the various systems, but they don’t really show you what it all looks like visually. We had to cook it up and run it by them. They’d tell us about placement of antennae and where the nuclear reactor would be for the ion propulsion engine.

The same was true for the life support systems in the habitat: They were modeled on the latest ones NASA has in development, which are gigantic, for large numbers of people. We have a crew of six [the fictional crew in The Martian], so we scaled down what they had, and modularized it so Watney could take it apart and bring it on his rover. We juggled the elements around, but the component look is correct.

Those seem like a lot of constraints. Is it frustrating trying to design a movie around a precise, inflexible set of engineering guidelines?

The opposite, actually. Like Michelangelo, I believe the constraints of the subject are a benefit; instead of limitations, there’s a really good design, and I’d rather have constraints than not because it gives you something to bounce off of. It gives you discipline. You set up rules for yourself, and thou shalt not break the rules, and then you end up with a design consistency. You are creating a world, and you need some kind of framework to hang your ideas off. Otherwise it’s just anything goes, which you see a lot of these days, and which I just decry, because it has no historical reference.

Were there any places where you had to dispense with realism anyway—where it just completely got in the way of your story?

The reality is that NASA would have to insulate the shit out of their capsules (as Mark Watney would say) against cosmic rays and little meteorite particles. Whether it’s the recovery capsule or the ship itself or the habitat on Mars, those environments would have about 12 layers of shielding, several layers of Kevlar, various foiling, an insulation layer, than an outer protective reflective layer. For us to have light coming into the set, though, we put a translucent membrane over the Mars habitat, so there was some warping in the fabric of the rules. But it’s entirely possible that somebody will invent a light-transmitting protective shielding! They’ll need it if they’re going to build greenhouses on Mars.

The same thing applies to the suits, where Watney cuts the glove on his finger to get the “Iron Man” [jet-propelled] effect. It’s against everything NASA tries to achieve with their suits, because they’re designed not to be penetrated in any way. When I went to the suit design department at the Johnson Space Center and motioned this part of the script, they were aghast. They spend all of their energy and resources to make that impossible. That was the strongest reaction I’d had from the engineers.

I was also struck by how believably the astronauts moved. The Martian respects the rules of inertia much more rigorously than Gravity or Interstellar. I’d love to know how you did that.

We looked to our inspirational source, which apart from NASA was Stanley Kubrick, who also collaborated with NASA in the 1960s. He used a gravity-wheel set. We have the ability now to use CGI as well as computer controlled trolleys that travel on tracks—you control the speed, length, angle. We could time the movement of the actors to coincide with the moving set and deliver them down a hall as it was turning, which was pretty damn cool. The set was a gigantic piece of engineering on a giant gimbal built by our special effects department with giant roller bearings and huge belt-driven motors on the computers.

The crew quarters and the gymnasium [on the Hermes spaceship] that you see in the movie that was another set on another stage that was built full-size on a gimbal that could move about 15 degrees in either direction on a set of hydraulic rollers. The actors would leave the corridor set, which was that long octagonal spine, go down one of those holes, go down a ladder, and then turn up in a set, with a continuity all on the move. Try to lean at an angle of 15 degrees–you’ll fall on your face. So the actors had to hold onto something and walk into shot as the set started to move toward them. Then as they hit their mark, the set would stop hydraulically. All the furniture was locked into place and bolted, all the dressings were velcroed. And it worked!

Did your science advisers help you figure out the physics of the motions you were trying to simulate, especially in the complicated space-walk sequences?

Rudi Schmidt of the European Space Agency was our on-site technical adviser, but Ridley [Scott] really just worked it out himself. The shooting of it was a pain, though. You’re constantly fighting real gravity. Getting it to look like it is in zero gravity requires a lot of stunt rehearsal, a lot of heartache, and a lot of takes.

It's hard to tell where real locations end and CGI begins. For the real part, Jordan stands in convincingly for Mars; a farm vehicle plays the rover, which is why it has such robust wheels, needed to withstand Earth gravity.

It’s hard to tell where real locations end and CGI begins in The Martian. For the real part, mountains in Jordan stand in convincingly for their counterparts on Mars; a farm vehicle plays the part of the Mars rover. Those robust wheels are necessary to withstand Earth’s surface gravity, which is nearly three times that on Mars.

The scenery in The Martian looks remarkably close to actual imagery from NASA’s rovers. How did you find such good Mars analogs here on Earth?

It was quite an adventure. While we were scouting locations, the Arab Spring was springing in the Middle East. We were originally going to Morocco, but things were hot there. Ridley has a relationship with the King of Jordan from other projects he’s been involved with, so a small group of us were able to do a scouting trip to Jordan under heavy escort and using some of the king’s helicopters. We popped off some of the mountainscapes there, because they are very similar in geological character and color to Mars. We were in and we were out. Nobody knew.

Then we looked at a lot of pictures of Mars and thought about what would happen over time. The challenge was reproducing our set [in Budapest] identically in Jordan. The habitat and rover look real because they had to function: The doors had to work, they had to shield to some extent, they had to stay put—and there were some heavy windstorms in Jordan. Forget what everyone says about the wind on Mars. We braved the storms of Jordan and survived. There were some days we had to stop work, cover the set with tarps, and anchor the tarps with vehicles because the winds were so great. That’s why it looks real: It had a heavy dose of aging.

That rover is also a big part of the film’s plot. How did you come up with its design?

It’s based on the unmanned probes like Curiosity and Spirit and Opportunity. It’s also inspired by what we saw in NASA’s Mars probe test center—the wheels, those big fat spun wheels with the spiral hub caps, are based on the wheels they’ll be using. But we couldn’t mimic their hollow-core honeycomb wheels, because we had to have a vehicle that really drove. It is essentially a farm vehicle under there, a high-clearance-axle crop vehicle. We hid the engine behind fake battery packs and put a solar panel on top of it so it looked electric. It had the real controls; Matt Damon and his double both learned to drive it, they could get up to 25 mph. It was quite a caravan.

Arthur Max, photographed right here on Earth.

Arthur Max, photographed right here on Earth.

How did it feel working The Martian compared to Prometheus, where the setting and the technology were essentially works of pure fantasy?

Fantasy science fiction is less compelling than a story where your audience understands what the rules of the games are. In science fiction set in the distant future, Mark Watney would have some cool jetpack with a super-glove where each finger could steer, or he’d have antigravity boots, that kind of stuff. Audiences these days have seen all that. When you have to work with what actually could happen, that adds edge and excitement. In The Martian, when he comes crashing into the hull, he comes crashing into the hull.

But if you’re going to take on something that is more science than fiction, you’ve got to stick with it. You have to follow it through on every level. You can’t suddenly fudge, because it will break the bubble. Everyone will spot it.

Follow me on Twitter for more space and astronomy news: @coreyspowell

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About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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