‘The Martian’ Production Design Took Cues From NASA Concepts

Also: Why production designer Arthur Max owes his union credentials to Brad Pitt's limo driver.

The Martian
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Production designer Arthur Max has 13 feature films to his credit, and all but two of them have been Ridley Scott productions. It’s a consistent collaboration that has yielded two Oscar nominations (for 2000’s “Gladiator” and 2007’s “American Gangster”), and one that has run a wide spectrum, from intimate dramas (“G.I. Jane,” “Body of Lies”) to large-scale undertakings (“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings”). Like 2012’s “Prometheus,” their latest collaboration, “The Martian,” takes Max and Scott off-planet for a bit of a sci-fi dip, though one much more grounded in the reality of space travel.


You’ve been incredibly loyal to Ridley Scott. Outside of two David Fincher projects, “Se7en” and “Panic Room,” all of your feature work has been with him.

I met both of them through commercials, at a stage where commercials were not only selling something but they were also very entertaining and I think set the bar for advertising. And especially Ridley. He’s part of that era of British advertising when commercials were actually more interesting than a lot of the films they were making at the time. They were surreal. They were stylish or they were cinematic in concept. But at the same time you didn’t have to put your name on them, so you could experiment to the point where you made a mistake and no one would know. You could use new technologies and equipment. So it was a great training ground.

After the British cinema industry collapsed under Margaret Thatcher, I came here and I couldn’t get arrested for American films for the fact that I had no American credits. I couldn’t get in the union. So I was obliged to work on commercials because it was the only thing I was allowed to do. I had just finished doing a job with Ridley’s company and I was preparing to go back to the U.K. where I was living at the time when one of his producers came up to me and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m just doing my petty cash receipts and I’m traveling back to London.” She said, “No you’re not. You’re coming over to Propaganda with me because I’ve got a job with David Fincher and they need a designer because there was an illness and the guy that was supposed to do it wasn’t physically able to do it.” So it was an emergency.

That was how I met Fincher and I worked on several commercials with him for a while, and then suddenly out of the blue came this project called “Se7en,” which was an indie film at the time. And then Brad Pitt came along and he had a limo in his contract and the limo had a union driver. So anybody on the film had to be in the union consequently. I was already on the film under contract so I got unionized.

Thanks to Brad Pitt’s limo!

Thanks to Brad Pitt’s limo driver.

That’s brilliant.

And that’s how I got to work with Ridley because the next thing I know I’m in the union and I can work with him on features. Talk about lucky breaks. That was my lucky break.

What about music videos? Did you work on those at all?

I did something in London but not in this country. I was more involved with commercials. And I wasn’t there for very long.

Propaganda was a great company.

I did some Nike spots with him. That’s all I remember doing was a bunch of Nike spots. But, you know, it’s luck of the draw. I think also his usual designer was ill or unavailable so I got the call for “Se7en.”

So how does Ridley keep you on such lockdown?

Well because he does different genres and interesting projects one to the next. And we get on. There’s also an evolution of a shorthand vocabulary and it’s just easy to work with him. He knows me, I know him.

I spoke to Michael Kahn recently, Steven Spielberg’s longtime, virtually exclusive editor. It’s interesting to talk to the two of you, who have such consistent collaborations with filmmakers like this. What does that consistency do for your work?

Well, it saves a lot of breath! But I think, whatever the genre is, there’s a kind of vocabulary of elements, whether it’s lighting or shape language, to use a phrase, and how you can apply that to any genre. How the set dressing, the density of which, the detail of which, contributes to the storytelling, which comes out of commercials. You know, “How do you tell a story in 30 seconds?” There’s got to be a lot of visual information, a lot of dense visual cues to people to tell a story in a very short period of time. So you apply that only in a longer version to a film. The richness of lighting, the conception of scale. You go from doing “Se7en” and then you end up doing “Gladiator” and suddenly there’s a whole kind of exponential, quadratic jump of scale. And how do you cope with that? Don’t ask me. You just do it.

Speaking of which, within Ridley’s work, you do have these interesting jumps in scale. From something like “Gladiator” to, say, “American Gangster.” And then back to something like “Prometheus,” which is this big build.

Yeah but with “American Gangster,” for instance, you think smaller scale but you have to realize there were 155 different locations in 68 days of shooting plus eight days in Thailand. So 76 days. So do the math. We were doing,  fractionally, two-plus locations per day, and I don’t mean just around the corner. I mean moving the unit in period, dressing blocks and blocks of New York City streets with hundreds of cars, signs and graphics.

OK, bad example! But “The Counselor,” for instance…

“The Counselor” was a small movie. I loved “The Counselor.” I think it’s one of Ridley’s best. Just listen to the dialogue. It’s literature. It’s Cormac McCarthy world, the ambiguity of it. The non-resolution of the story and the characters. It’s typical of his universe. I love all that world. Unfortunately I think it wasn’t to the taste of a modern audience. It was a little bit too literate and too obscure and too unresolved. But there were six people in the art department doing all of that. We’re all doing everything. That was fun. It was more fun than doing, say, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which is probably the biggest production we did, or “Exodus,” with a huge art department and several countries with dozens and dozens in the art department. You lose the intimacy and the control and people step outside the box all the time and before you can stop them. They’re turning the concepts on you, which is human nature to a large group. You set up certain design parameters, rules of the world you’re trying to create, and then people are always trying to add their own personal take on it and it usually diverges from your own. And if you set up rules of color palette and lighting and sort of proportion ideas of shape and people start embellishing those things, then you lose the integrity of the design.

And the audience senses it. In simple terms it just gets very mixed up and confused, whereas if you stay faithful to the rules that you’ve established — for example, in “The Martian,” the color palette is white and black and silver and gold and orange. Why? Because those are the colors that are functional and practical to do with solar and cosmic radiation shielding, and the materials that are to do with weight and strength and tolerance of extreme temperature. So there’s always that. People will start adding color because they like color and they get bored with the same palette. But if you look at the movie, I mean even the planet is black and orange.

Is that where your research started here, was to define what kind of a palette you were getting out of the practicality of the kind of things you would be building?

It came out of discussion with NASA and JPL as I started noticing that there was a lot of white and gold and orange, so I asked the question. And the orange comes from the fact that the tape that they use is a specific type of tape called Kapton, which is the only tape that is resistant to gamma rays and solar radiation and won’t break down. Most tapes you buy in Home Depot will just break down in space. They won’t stand up. It’s like this amber orange, transparent tape. We used it on everything. And gaffer’s tape, which is silver or black or white. They use lots of it on the space station because it’s strong and the adhesive resists breakdown. And it’s integral to the storytelling.

So the more you talk about the specifics of the narrative, the more constrained you are in terms of your design, which I love. Life support systems, propulsion systems — the rover had to be fulfilling certain functions in the story, so it had to incorporate all these elements into it. The NASA research rover that they’re working on in Johnson Space Center is very different from ours. It’s not aesthetic. It’s very slow-going, to navigate very difficult terrain. But it’s white, it’s gold. It has all-wheel steering and individual suspension, wheels that are much smaller than ours. But ours would do 25 miles an hour and look great doing it. And they loved it. The wheels were based on some of the research Mars rover designs that I saw being developed at JPL for their next series of probes. And they were designed to save weight so they were these kind of spiral spring designs, which were self-suspending. So we incorporated that idea.

Given that level of sourced detail, did you ever run into any closed doors as far as their proprietary design information, anything they didn’t want to get into with you?

Not really. I had to sign certain nondisclosure agreements with both them and the studio not to reveal anything before the film came out. No, they’re fairly open. I mean a lot of their designs are still on the drawing board, particularly the ones to do with the propulsion systems. But they’re also on YouTube. To drive the Hermes there’s the ion plasma propulsion system, which is nuclear powered, their concept. They have diagrams and engineering formulae and schematic drawings of how that will all work, which we thought was so cool. We incorporated it into our Hermes system but they didn’t know how it would look. We just invented how it would look. But it conforms to the engineering that they’re thinking of using. They do have a working model. I believe NASA engineers are developing it privately and if you go on YouTube and you Google “ion plasma propulsion engine,” you’ll see a demonstration of it. We used what we saw on that demonstration and handed it over to the visual effects department and said, “Look at this, it’s a cool blue flame. And it’ll get you up to about 17,000 feet per second.” It’s what’s coming. But they had no idea how it would look and they just said to us, you know, “This is what we’re thinking of doing. We look to you to make it look cool.”

Speaking of visual effects, what are your thoughts on the influence of CGI and the dominance of it in the world of production design. A lot of your work has obviously worked in tandem with that.

It’s hand-in-glove these days. I mean we couldn’t have done this movie without working very, very closely on a daily basis with the visual effects department, with the physical and special effects department or the stunt department with camera and who else. Apart from my own department or the aspects of my department, which are the model makers, the set decorators, the prop men and the construction, the greensmen all under my umbrella. We all attended group meetings almost every day and sat around with physical models of set concepts or looked at digital animations based on these concepts with Ridley and everybody as a team to try and figure out how to make the film. And one of the biggest conundrums, at least for me and the visual effects department and the stunt department, was the gravity wheel and how to get them off the bridge and down the rabbit hole and into the rotating wheel where they would achieve gravity. And that’s really the only way you can do it currently, at least, you know, in a vacuum of space. And how to do that, to have them flying around going down these tubes into those little pods of the rec room or the gymnasium? And then there were two others that were implied to give it balance, because you must maintain the center of gravity of an interplanetary vehicle. You can’t have like an asymmetric design. So we had to have two more, but we presumed that would be like a science lab, that may be sleeping quarters. But we weren’t scripted in those. We could have been. Anyway, how to do that?

So we scratched our heads. We looked at Kubrick’s gravity wheel, the famous Ferris wheel set where you see Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood running [in “2001: A Space Odyssey”]. And we tried to figure out how they did it. We couldn’t because of the scale of the diameter that Ridley wanted and the size of the Hermes, which was, you know, 200-plus yards. It’s like two football fields long. So the wheel in proportion is quite large. It was over 65 feet in diameter on the interior. So you’re talking about a big wheel. Kubrick’s wheel — we looked at the footage — was built on the biggest stage at the time and was about 40-odd feet high. So that was too small for us. We looked and looked and looked at his footage and particularly Dariusz [Wolski] and I were watching it and there was one part of the sequence where Keir Dullea goes around and comes down the shaft out of the core and goes down the shaft into the wheel, much as we did. And when it gets around the back of the core there’s a little stutter in the camera, just imperceptible. But it’s there, and when you slow it down you can see that there’s like a jump, so we surmised that they stopped the camera, stopped the wheel, reset and then carried on. So then it came: “We don’t need to go around. We can do 180 and we have computer control wire rigs and we can time the move and the movement of the set piece so they arrive in perfect unison and go down the rabbit hole.” Then we pick them up on a different set, which is this full-sized compartment that was quite big and rotated, I think, through 45 degrees on a hydraulic gimbal, which was smooth and variable speed and didn’t shudder just because it was hydraulically moved. No gears, no cables.  So you could just stop it on a dime and nothing would move.

And where did you build all of this?

We built it in Budapest in the Korda Studios, which has the biggest — the reason we went there was because it has the biggest stage it the world currently. It’s as big an area as the advanced stage in Pinewood, the previous record holder. But it’s 20-odd feet higher. So we also could then put up the biggest green screen in the world, a four-walled green screen. It was enough space to do a big Martian landscape, drive our rover around at speed, reset, go right around, build our habitat and later put our ascent vehicle legs.

It sounds like a big playhouse.

It gave you enough distance for it to be convincing.