Telling a Tense, Tight Story — with Humor — in a VFX-Heavy but Fact-Based Science Fiction Film

The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, is more science "faction" than fiction, as Damon referred to it during a recent TV interview, a visually arresting, funny, sometimes goofy but mostly gripping film that was made with the full cooperation of NASA. The level of detail laid out in the original novel by Andy Weir has mostly made its way to the screen, and so has the book's inherent humor. According to editor Pietro Scalia, ACE, a longtime Scott collaborator, "If I had to be stranded with somebody—and we all essentially were during production and post—I'd pick Mark Watney because he's so darn fun to be around. And every day on set was enjoyable working with Matt Damon."


Scalia cut one of Damon's earliest performances, in the actor's Oscar-winning breakout hit, Good Will Hunting, and has also worked with Oliver Stone and Bernardo Bertolucci. Damon's performance in The Martian, says Scalia, is one of the truly great things about Ridley Scott's new film. "The self-deprecating humor is the essence of this character, and he really captured it. It's one of the main, relatable things that keeps us interested all the way through. But another amazing aspect of the film is Ridley's idea to place so many GoPro cameras throughout the Hab (the astronaut's habitat)."

Principal photography was shot in stereo 3D with some 11 Red cameras, including Epic Dragons and Scarlet Dragons fit with Angenieux Optimo lenses, and more than a dozen GoPro Hero4 cameras. "It was a crucial decision. It meant we weren't stuck listening to a standard voiceover, which would have gotten very boring very fast."


The convention of the video diary—not that far removed from any other YouTube vlogger who is isolated in a bedroom somewhere with a video camera, speaking to no one or anyone who will listen—greatly informed Scalia's editing style. "From the first time he actually starts his video diary and he looks straight into the camera, it was important not to cut and sustain that one shot. He's looking straight at the audience and addresses them. The audience immediately identifies with him, and every time he addresses the camera he's speaking directly to the viewer. That's an intimate connection."

Although Scalia typically goes on location with Scott during pre-production, as he did for Black Hawk Down and Prometheus, due to scheduling conflicts he and his editorial team arrived in Budapest when filming commenced last November. "Since we shot Prometheus in 3D, we were already very familiar with the workflow," he says, "and we continued to edit on Avid Media Composer 7 because we just felt it was the most stable."

The team connected 10 MC systems through ISIS storage, adding "more and more drives as the project grew," he says. "When you have that many cameras and rigs it gets complicated, but my assistants and the rest of the editorial and technical team, from the visual effects editor to the crew, make it possible for me to start editing right away. They are sorting and preparing vast amounts of data and material daily. I use the same crew and assistants, so they know how I work, but in the end, we had close to 250 hours of footage, per eye, and another 60–70 hours of GoPro footage. I couldn't do any of it without such a great support system and having the assistants manage the storage in the ISIS and just keep track of it all as it comes in."

In those first days of shooting, before production shifted to the red sands of Wadi Rum in Jordan, Scalia asked Scott what Mars would look like. "He has consistently conjured so many arresting images of landscapes in space but in order for this movie to work, it had to be very, very specific in how we showed the science. 'Just shoot everything,' I encouraged him. 'Not just coverage but very specific coverage. Don't hint at anything.'" Scalia says he and Scott have worked together so long they've developed a mutual trust that makes working together not just enjoyable but ultimately keeps everything on schedule. "Like a good marriage you have your ups and downs but after so many years you begin sharing similar ideas and sensibilities and you obviously develop a shorthand. Ridley gives me complete creative freedom, and it's a real luxury for me to bring my own point of view and interpret the material. He leaves me to it. I can choose performance takes, music, anything, and present it to him."


Ridley Scott (right) directs Matt Damon on location.

When production moved to Jordan in March, editorial split up into several teams. Scalia and several assistants went to Provence and set up in a spacious farm house near where Scott lives. Another team went to London to work efficiently with the visual effects vendors Framestore, The Senate, Prime Focus, MPC and ILM London, and a set of assistant editors went on location in Wadi Rum. "We were all working on the same material and only reassembled all together in London once we finished our director's cut," he says. "But moving all the equipment to different edit rooms during production, and the logistics involved, was challenging." 

The eventual post schedule ended up much shorter than usual, given the size and length of such a VFX-heavy film. "Ridley always shoots really fast and rarely does more than three takes per scene. This time around he completed production in 14 weeks," says Scalia. "We finished post within about nine months. The studio really liked what they saw and decided to push the release schedule up by seven weeks, which is something you don't hear a lot. We knew we could do it but we weren't sure if that was enough time for visual effects to get to the quality we needed them to be. But we've done it before and we all worked six to seven days a week for months." 

The end result is a "really gorgeous film and needs to be seen on a big screen," he says. "I think my favorite part of the film is when Watney leaves the Hab and travels across Mars. It's just such a beautiful set of scenes on an epic scale." Scalia also has a soft spot for the montage set to David Bowie's "Starman," which he says was fun to cut.


He also says the last act of the film was the most difficult to assemble, in part because it was long and contained many complex shots. "There are a lot of visual effects and animation elements in those final scenes," Scalia says. "We worked with previs and stunts and wires to visualize the shots but had to keep the tension high and everything tight. It just took a very long time to get where we ended up."

Even after those scenes were shot, he adds, "we realized we could raise the stakes even further. We actually had a few days of reshoots where we went back and shot inserts of grasping hands and the tether in various stages of success. Recomping that new footage with effects and bringing it into the edit was very, very labor intensive. But it works on an emotional level but it also keeps the tension high. I'm really happy with the way it turned out." So was NASA, which screened the film up in the International Space Station for its astronauts.

When NASA found evidence of water on Mars, announcing it just days before the film's release, Scalia said he got a few questioning emails from friends. "'Come on, tell me,' one asked. 'Did you guys plan that announcement with NASA so it was timed with the release?' It's a great coincidence but seriously? There's only so much a filmmaker can do."