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Moon Dust

The 45-minute IMAX film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D uses footage of actors portraying NASA moon explorers. Sassoon Film Design, Santa Monica, Calif., was one of the project’s visual effects vendors, and was responsible for 50 shots in the film, including specific lunar surface environments. Creating believable lunar dust for those shots was a major challenge, says Johnathan Banta, digital supervisor at Sassoon.

“In 1/6 gravity, dust falls like lead pellets with no air resistance,” he explains. “We analyzed original moon footage and stretched it to 24fps to understand how long the hang time was, so to speak. We then created a 3D model of an astronaut’s feet, and had our artists match-move it to the actor onscreen. A volumetric particle system was used to render the imagery, but in some cases, we used hardware rendering for efficiency’s sake. The Electric Image Animation system [from EI Technology Group] was our main rendering engine for hard-surfaced objects and environments, and [Autodesk] Maya rendered particles. By splitting rendering packages, it helped minimize the need to further expand our render farm.

“The skill we refined most during the whole project was 3D tracking 4K stereo plates, and scene re-creation from archival photos. Our 3D tracking software, SynthEyes [from Andersson Technologies], did a really good job in that respect.”