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Stanley Kubrick's Special Effects Guy Helped Make This Indie Sci-Fi Thriller Possible

Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) helped an emerging director make outer space in a fish tank.
Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Ad Explorata

Special effects master Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) withdrew from Hollywood blockbusters in the 80s, returning only for Terrence Malick's 2011 opus, The Tree of Life—until now. Trumbull recently opened his vintage special effects lab in Massachussetts to director Mark Elijah Rosenberg for his first feature, Approaching the Unknown. The film follows a lone astronaut played by the ubiquitous Mark Strong, who embarks on a one-way mission to Mars. Along the way, he experiences unimaginable visions of deep space, visualized through incredible analogue effects.


He and Trumbull eschew the ubiquitous application of CGI, opting instead for an experimental process that involves mixing large amounts of colored liquids in massive water tanks. "Rather than going for computer graphic realism, we wanted an impressionistic tactile feel for all the space sequences," Rosenberg tells The Creators Project. "It’s a psychological drama more than an action film, so it’s about his mental state deteriorating as he faces the momentous decision he made while he’s on a nine-month journey." His special effects artists worked closely with Trubull to create interplanetary scenery that, by its alchemical nature, is impossible to imagine. Whereas computer-generated effects are planned out frame-by-frame, the final product for Approaching the Unknown was just that—unknown.

We spoke to Rosenberg about making low-budget sci-fi in 2016, how he modernized the craft of special effects, and what he learned from the legendary Trumbull. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Ad Explorata

The Creators Project: Where did the inspiration to do this film come from?

I decided to make Approaching the Unknown because I was interested in human beings alone, pushing themselves to extreme isolation and wonder. I wanted somebody who was exploring the edge of human experience; someone who was willing to sacrifice everything in their entire life for a glimpse at something glorious and unique.


How would you describe your approach to the visual effects?

I wanted to have a tactile and a visceral experience of space. I didn’t want to use computer graphics because, really, it is about the character’s sensory imagination of what’s out there more than the actual emptiness that’s in space. So I wanted to have models and space itself have texture and weight and depth that you can’t get with CGI. To create space, the closest analogy that I could get to what it would be like to be in space would be to be deep under the ocean. It looks empty, but you know that there’s tiny little microbes and whales and this enormous, rich substance all around you. For the emptiness of space, we actually created these giant tanks that we fill with glycerin and corn syrup and saltwater. And then it’d be swirling in inks and dyes and glitter and dust so that space itself was viscous and present. And we built these physical models. You can really feel that on screen, that these are real things that are there that are creaking and shaking around in a way that’s very natural because they’re real.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Ad Explorata

How did you come to work with Douglas Trumbull?

Not many people work in practical models anymore, so we were looking for who some of the experts of this in the world. Trumbull is the godfather of all modern miniature making and special effects. So we tracked him down and he was amazing because he’s somewhat left the Hollywood world to create his own studio in the Berkshires. His studio is a wonderful place to play and to experiment, but with the guidance of the world’s leading expert in it.


Your improvisational approach to special effects is very different from the way you would do this in CGI, where you have the concept and execute it with a lot of busy work. The way you guys are doing it is more playful.

Working with practical models was very much an improvisation. There was a lot of play and experimentation and things that would go wrong and happy accidents. That terrified me as the director, because I have a vision and then sometimes you can’t exactly get that vision. But there were so many wonderful things that happened that were solutions to problems that we didn’t know we’d have, and then we’d have to come up with some great shot. So that kind of pressure on me—and really on the entire team—to come up with something great when we didn’t know exactly how to do it was really stimulating.

The stuff with outer space and working in the cloud tank where we were making all these crazy mixtures and we have hundreds of hours of dye and inks splashing around in super slow motion in these tanks: You really never know what you’re going to get when you start mixing up these crazy potions. And then you’re taking all those layers of the image and compositing them and creating beautiful images that I never could have storyboarded in advance.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Ad Explorata

What is the most difficult part about working with this type of approach to special effects?

When you’re working in practical models and doing continuous motion animation, you actually need to let a shot play out in real time. So for a 15-second shot, that means that we need to actually shoot frame by frame over the course of about an hour and a half. We would spend six or eight hours setting up a shot, setting up the camera movement, the lights, the ship movement, the background had to be perfect. Then you press play and record on all the machines and they do their own thing for two hours. No one can move and you hope that nothing goes wrong. If someone bumps the camera, or the light, or the ship, part of the ship flakes off because it’s all glued together, then that whole take is ruined. There was a tremendous amount of stress where we’d spend hours setting something up, and then everyone would hold their breath and press play and record.


Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Ad Explorata

You’re using almost 1980s-era kind of visual effects technology, but then also very modern motion-controlled camera programming kind of stuff.

We used 80s-style motion-controlled cameras, and what we did have from the 21st century was the pre-imaging. So we could map out a shot using contemporary computer graphic programs to say “Well, the ship is gonna do this and the camera’s gonna do that, and the light will be here so it’ll flare at this point.” But then when we actually had everything onto the motion-controlled machines, those are that 40-year-old machines that are running this DOS software that no one except the original operator knew how to run at all. So there was this crazy problem of trying to translate our 2015 computer imaging back to 1980s software.

 When did you decide it was important to do a film that had visual effects and go into outer space and do something that’s very inaccessible to a low budget film maker?

I chose to do a sci-fi film with practical special effects because I was crazy ambitious and didn’t know any better. I actually thought that this would be easier. I thought, “Well, but it’s all in one room. It’s just this one guy in this one space. I don’t need to go out and get 18 locations the way that some mumblecore film does.” And of course I was wrong. This was much more complicated. And I similarly thought, “Well, I don’t know about computer graphics and that sort of stuff, but I can make a model and I can put a camera on it.” So part of it was kind of quixotic naïveté on my part, but then I also wanted to do something that was ambitious and distinctive.  We could do something on a relatively low budget that was creatively ambitious, and that you don’t need $100,000,000 to imagine what space is like.


Watch our full documentary about Mark Elijah Rosenberg's film, Creating Cutting-Edge Sci-Fi with Analog Effects | The Process, below.


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