This Mars documentary required a lot of Sols

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At the beginning of the documentary Good Night Oppy, footage from late 2002 shows Steve Squyres, dressed in scrubs, staring down in silent awe, his eyes welling up as he shakes his head in disbelief. Squyres, the principal investigator on NASA’s first Mars rover mission, watches his babies take their first steps.

At least that’s the sense one gets from the improbably sentimental journey at the heart of this film (which begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday) about the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity (aka Oppy). Squyres vividly remembers experiencing this exact moment from the movie.

“The first time it came to life was a very, very moving experience,” he recently said of Zoom.

Squyres had waited a long time for the moment. A former geologist, he had spent 10 years working on research proposals for Mars, including three failed submissions to NASA, before spending another six years, including three mission cancellations and revivals, building the machines.

As much as “Good Night Oppy” describes the depth of the human achievement behind the Mars Rover mission – which was initially planned for a period of about 90 days but instead took 15 years – the film is anchored above all by a kind of sheer dedication and connection to the robbers.

“We have projected all our hopes, our aspirations and our dreams into these machines,” said Squyres. “We built them so lovingly. You use a word like lovingly advised when talking about a piece of metal, but we put everything we had into those things.

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This is especially evident in the thrilling stretches of the film in the control room after the rovers begin to endure the trials and tribulations of life on Mars. Director Ryan White and his team had free rein to sift through nearly 1,000 hours of footage, much of it documenting the mission’s tumultuous first 90 days, when the cameras were constantly rolling. As the years progressed, cameras were mainly deployed for emergency situations.

“NASA is smart enough and story-driven enough to know to cover those beats, even if it’s not going to be used immediately,” White said of Zoom. “But the audience was also on this journey, so when Spirit of Opportunity was in crisis, the audience also felt like they were in crisis. So NASA had to handle that from a PR perspective.

As the film flips through these archive footage, the backbone of “Good Night Oppy” was built around a screenplay White wrote, a new concept for the longtime documentary filmmaker. He drew up a script based on dozens of preliminary interviews with the rover teams. Those early conversations, which took place about a year after Oppy was officially declared dead in 2019, gave White the poignant move that would guide his film.

The interviews “were very therapeutic for people to come back to that mission and talk about it,” White said. He used those conversations as a guide to imbue the film with the kind of emotions expressed by the teams, aiming to “make much more than just a science film or an educational film,” he said.

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However, the final component that sparks the audience’s own visceral connection to Spirit and Oppy came from a collaboration with visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic. The viewer can get a glimpse of the rovers’ mission, primarily through simulated sequences that were based on the rovers’ own photos, satellite imagery of Mars, and various data from NASA, which deliberated on the process.

“From the very beginning, the idea was, if we’re going to do this, we want to bring the audience to Mars in a way that’s never been done in a movie before,” White said. The animated scenes were rendered to be cinematic and immersive while also accurately reflecting the reality of the Martian terrain and geography.

The simulated robbers themselves, from their exact appearance to their movements and capabilities, have been carefully designed to mirror Spirit and Oppy while also giving them a human look.

“‘Wall-E’ came up because it was such an engaging movie about this little rover trying to do things, so we kept that on our periphery,” said Abishek Nair, one of the visual effects supervisors who led the animation , in a Zoom interview. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to make it cartoony.”

For example, the rovers’ actual ability to switch between filtered lenses was animated to resemble blinking eyes. The result creates a strange bond that mirrored the experience for those at NASA.

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Rover team members experienced the early days as “more of a mission,” White said. “The longer the robot survived,” he said, “the more that emotional connection with them grew, where they saw a child or a living, breathing thing.”

Parents cried during screenings, White noted, viewing the robbers as a version of their children. For older viewers, it can be a touching tale of aging and the gradual breakdown of a body.

Squyres remembered those last moments vividly. After Spirit died in 2011, the crew gathered for an Irish vigil of sorts, drinking beer and reminiscing. “We were actually in a pretty good mood because we finished the party and got back to work serving Opportunity the next day,” he recalls.

Oppy’s death years later, however, was different and brought real finality to the family that had formed around it. As the last wake-up song – a tradition to start the day with for the team chronicled in the film – Squyres chose Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”, which fondly reflects on the end of a relationship, before one last failed attempt to contact Oppy.

“That was it,” Squyres said, still emotional years later. “There was no party after that.”

The post This Mars Documentary Took A Lot Of Sols appeared first on New York Times.

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