Behind the Scenes // EXPLORATION

Like many creatives, we are completely fascinated with space and floored by the idea of exploring it. So we were naturally excited when we heard about CineSpace, a new short film competition focused on films that utilize NASA’s actual footage archive. One entry called EXPLORATION came to our attention since a handful of our effects were used in it. We thought the film was really well done and decided to get the inside scoop. When we found out the UK based filmmaker Ryan Thompson is only 22 years old, we couldn’t help but share. Ryan was kind enough to answer some questions about the film and share his VFX process along with a VFX breakdown video.

What inspired the storyline for EXPLORATION? Did you already have an idea for it before the CineSpace competition, or was it created entirely for the contest?

Growing up, I became obsessed with creatures and monsters in film and TV such as Labyrinth, Goosebumps and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So naturally I leaned towards making horror films, but I always try different styles and genres to see if I am as versatile as I hope to be as a director/creator. I do the rounds every month just checking for any film competitions or festivals that catch my eye, and as soon as I saw ‘NASA’ I got excited. It sounded like an excellent competition and it gave so much creative freedom, with the main objective only being that you are to use NASA Archive footage/imagery for minimum 10% of the projects running time.

When I think of NASA, as I’m sure is the case with most people, I immediately jump to the space race and man landing on the moon. I think of pride and ambition and wanted to celebrate that in this short, so that was my starting point. I came up with several ideas which I still like and will hopefully use in the future as my own shorts. These were more narrative and sci-fi based, but my mind kept going to a sort of compilation/documentary summation style – shots jumping back and forth between time, between archive footage, between people and space.

“I want our collective achievement to be the focus, so that when the short finishes, it leaves you feeling proud of our species.”

What is the primary thing you want the viewer to take away from the film?

I want people to feel pride. I want our collective achievement to be the focus, so that when the short finishes, it leaves you feeling proud of our species and the drive and ambition we can have to push boundaries and explore, be it this world or the stars. Although the finished film isn’t exactly how I had it in my mind, I think it evokes the emotional and patriotic response I intended.

What did your live production rig consist of?

‘EXPLORATION’ was filmed over 4 months in an extremely indy way. All the actors are friends and family, so it revolved around their work schedules and when we did shoot, it was incredibly run and gun, usually with just a tripod and cheap LED lights. It’s not the best way to film something but I’m glad it worked out well in the end.

It was also my first time working with the Sony A7S (or any DSLR for that matter) which I purchased a few weeks prior to shooting. I think it’s always good to have some sort of physical prop, even in a VFX heavy project such as this, which is why I used ski gloves and a motorcycle helmet as part of the astronaut gear.

Ryan Thompson - Exploration - Astronaut

Walk us through your post-production tools and workflow.

I spent a long time going through the NASA archives, sorting through hours of clips and thousands of images. The imagery they have captured over the years is incredible, my personal favourites being Saturn 5 rocket cams footage (for example at 00:38 and 02:27) and the International Space Station Time-lapses.

As with 99% of all my projects, I worked completely within Adobe After Effects CS6. I even use it as my editor, which often confuses people, but I find it easy. I started with the space shots since I didn’t need to film anything for those. The majority of space shots consisted of 2D images used as 3D layers (images from the NASA archives) and several layers of Optical Flares for the sun.

  • Before-eyes
    Before eyes After

A lot of the footage I shot was on green screen so often the background environments were static images used as 3D layers that I had taken myself, or once again from the NASA archives for scenes such as inside the International Space station. The opening shot’s landscape was constructed from photos my father took in Italy last year, and the night city streets are collaged backgrounds of footage and photography my father and I took in London.

For any 3D objects such as the moon surface I used a 3rd party plugin for AE called ‘Element 3D V2’. I did originally have 3D space stations and satellites too, but wasn’t happy with the digital look of them so they were removed from the shots.

This is the third project I have used Lens Distortions products in. For this I used clips from the Legacy 4k pack. I love the quality and style which worked perfectly for that ‘ethereal’ space look. They give both a glossy and dream like feel whilst at the same time adding realistic lens reaction to a shot.

You’re VFX work is fantastic in this film. Any scenes that were particularly fun or difficult create? Did you use any post-prod techniques for the first time? What are some of your favorite scenes from the film?

Thank you very much. Although the majority of these shots were completely new for me, they all seem to need the same basic techniques as any genre or style: rotoscoping, chroma keying, matte painting, colour grading, etc. One thing I enjoyed with this above my usual work is how colourful and saturated it is, so the end colour grading process was really interesting. It completely changed the look of my original idea for the better.

This has been one of my most difficult and time consuming VFX projects. The most notable shot being the sun over earth at 01:10. I went through 8 revisions of the shot, trying to get the sun flares just right, and the earth’s clouds to look 3D vs a flat plane.



Ryan Thompson - Cinespace - Exporation

I ended up being able to fake the clouds perspective change by simply using the liquify tool built into After Effects, and slide the top of each cloud up an extra 50% (or more, respective to their visual size) and do a simple animation of the effect which works well in conjunction with the camera move. This was one of the shots that I originally had a 3D version of the Hubble Telescope in the foreground, but it was just falling flat and I presumed the obvious VFX would pull a lot of people out of the moment.

The fireworks are also VFX so that was a new one for me.

My favourite shots include the difficult one mentioned, as well as the wide shot of the rocket takeoff as the spectators watch at 01:48, and the astronaut looking out the window down to earth at 2:33.

Ryan Thompson - Cinespace - EXPLORATION

“The majority of my ideas and projects are generated and inspired from music, ‘EXPLORATION’ being a prime example.”

The score is fantastic and is a perfect fit for the film. Tell us about working with the composer. How did you describe what you were looking for in a track? Did you go back and forth quite a bit or just let him run with it?

I met Benjamin Squires (the composer) on a short course at film school a couple years ago and absolutely loved his creativity and talent. We first worked together last year on my project called ‘Pulse’, the first short I used lens distortions in. He was one of the first people I spoke to about the competition when I found out about it, and I was hoping he was as interested as I was to collaborate again. I actually came up with my four main ideas for the short whilst listening to his work on repeat.

More often than not, the composer will write the score whilst watching a locked edit version of the short but in this case we both felt it was right (especially due to timing as I knew I would only have the edit complete in the last week of the competition) that the score should be written and completed during production/post. Benjamin didn’t see anything until the short was online so in some ways I guess there could have been reservations but both works come together so cohesively that we are both very happy with the result.

I told Benjamin which of his tracks I was using as the temp idea track and tempo, and threw around words such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘patriotic’. The first draft he sent was basically 99% of what you hear in the short, we just went back and forth over certain details till we got this final version which works so perfectly with the imagery, and served as motivation for me in my final month of editing.

As filmmakers, we’re always looking for sources of inspiration. Where do you look to be inspired?

I would say listen to music. The majority of my ideas and projects are generated and inspired from music, ‘EXPLORATION’ being a prime example. It doesn’t have to be music you would usually listen to recreationally. I find it paints vivid imagery in your mind which could always serve as inception for something great.

To see more of Ryan’s work, check out
He currently uses Legacy 4K from Lens Distortions.

I love the quality and style, which worked perfectly for that ‘ethereal’ space look. They give both a glossy and dream like feel whilst at the same time adding realistic lens reaction to a shot.

Ryan Thomspon

Filmmaker, VFX Productions