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Life on 'Mars': Inside National Geographic’s Epic Multiplatform Initiative

Mars is a six-hour documentary-scripted hybrid miniseries that tells the story of a quest to colonize Mars from the perspective of a fictitious crewed mission in 2033.10/31/2016 12:15 PM Eastern
Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

National Geographic Channel says it wants to redefine television storytelling with its ambitious cross-platform project Mars, which premieres in 171 countries and 45 languages in November.

Mars is a six-hour documentary-scripted hybrid miniseries that tells the story of a quest to colonize Mars from the perspective of a fictitious crewed mission in 2033. Amplifying its scripted narrative and visual effects, Mars includes interviews with present-day scientists, evangelists and innovators who are leading the development of space technology and the push to colonize Mars.

Tim Pastore, National Geographic Channel president of original programming and production, explains the thinking behind the series’ hybrid storytelling style: “We’re hoping to spark imaginations as we weave together the story of making life on Mars an exciting and real prospect for a new generation of space enthusiasts. Combining a unique blend of feature-quality drama with documentary sequences, Mars will unpack what the greatest minds in space exploration are doing today, and dramatize the world they are creating as they pull off mankind’s greatest feat: interplanetary travel and colonization.”

The Daedalus crew. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky.

The multiplatform effort was executive produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Rosenberg of Imagine Entertainment, and Justin Wilkes, Jon Kamen and Dave O’Connor of RadicalMedia. Director Everado Gout also serves as an executive producer on Mars.

“We approached the fiction portion of this project as a feature film, shooting in a very cinematic way,” says Damian Garcia, director of photography for the series’ scripted portions. “Mars is clearly divided into two different narratives and with two different styles, and I think that’s an important asset of the show.”

Mars envisions the future of space travel funded through a corporate-public partnership of two fictional organizations: the Mars Mission Corp., a consortium of aerospace companies that builds and manages the hardware for the Mars program, and the International Mars Science Foundation, created by a coalition of space-faring nations to carry out a mission to Mars.

Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky.

The scripted portion focuses on Earth’s first crewed mission to Mars aboard the spacecraft Daedalus. Its maiden voyage in 2033 is crewed by a team of six with specialties including hydrology, biochemistry, mechanical engineering, robotics, exobiology and botany.

Garcia says the production team was meticulous in basing the scripted narrative on real-world science. The series’ writing team worked with a group of experts, both in the public and private sectors, to understand how the science could serve the story. Dr. Robert Braun, an aerospace engineer and professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, provided expert consultation on all scientific aspects of the fictional storyline. Dr. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, acted as a space advisor, working closely with the cast to help them hone their portrayals.

The team responsible for the visual look of the series aimed for a realistic depiction as well. Sophie Becher, the production designer, turned to NASA and private space technology company SpaceX to help inform her designs of the Daedalus spaceship and Olympus Town, the film’s Mars colony. Costume designer Daniela Ciancio researched the types of fabrics being created today to make spacesuits lighter, stronger, more flexible and radiation-resistant.

Director of photography Damian Garcia, director Everardo Gout and 1st AD Ali Cherkaoui during production. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky.

Garcia notes, “My main concern as DP was to help to create these distinct narratives—Mars and Earth—inside the fictional portions, and make them work together harmoniously, despite a very different treatment in lighting and camera work. In the Mars section, we tried to create a very claustrophobic and rough feeling, generating with the camera the idea of being part of that complicated and [nerve-racking] mission. Whereas Earth is full of air and space, so the camera work is much subtler and calmer,” says Garcia.

Mars was shot with ARRI Alexa Mini because the DP and his team liked its small size and the texture of its imagery. “We used the Alexa Mini because a great amount of the series happens in tiny places, and the small Alexa is great for that.” Garcia adds that since much of the series was shot handheld, the crew wanted to remain agile in the Mars interiors.

During pre-shoot preparation, Garcia, Gout and Becher tackled the creation of the claustrophobic and uneasy atmosphere they wanted to convey during the mission phase. The DP says of the effort, “Sophie constructed some beautiful and tiny spaces to create that feeling.”

Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky.

While adapting to those tiny spaces was challenging for the camera and grip units, the teams collaborated with the art department on a solution. “We created a scheme that permitted us to light the various places with practical lights. That tight confinement was very important for the narrative, and somewhat a character in itself,” Garcia adds.

Garcia shot the scripted parts of Mars with Cooke 5/i prime lenses. “These are lenses I really love and I try to use as much as possible because they have a beautiful performance and contrast. I’m very happy for this particular choice,” he says.

Daedalus crew members Amelie Durand (Clementine Poidatz), Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi) and Hana Seung (Jihae). Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky.

Despite the complex technical goals of the series—melding segments of Earth, space and Mars in both fictional and documentary formats in the present day and in the future—Garcia says the production was a joy.

“From the very beginning we decided to shoot this show with a lot of freedom, trying not to seem too tied to the large number of visual effects in the series. We thought it would be great to portray the Mars situations with freedom and playfulness. That was a big challenge for VFX, but lucky for us we worked very closely every day with [VFX supervisor] Russell Dodgson from Framestore, who’s an extremely talented man and a team player. He was an integral part of the creative process, and we made many decisions together,” Garcia says.   

Mars Extends Experience Across Multiple Platforms

An interview with Elon Musk

National Geographic’s cross-platform Mars initiative includes a companion web series, interactive experiences and supplemental interviews, as well as the November 2016 cover story of National Geographic magazine and a standalone book, Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet.

The prequel series Before Mars, which will be made available online prior to the Mars series broadcast, expands the story for viewers. Before Mars tells the story of two central characters from Mars—twins Joon and Hana Seung—when they were young and struggling to fit in. The prequel series will consist of six episodes running three to five minutes each.

There is a wealth of information about the project available on National Geographic’s site, but the virtual reality experiences—including piloting a rover and landing a rocket—are all found on www.MakeMarsHome.com. Also available are behind-the-scenes videos and supplemental interviews from experts including SpaceX CEO and chief technology officer Elon Musk and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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