An admission: I totally forgot about the great CG spacesuits in ‘Space Cowboys’

Righting that wrong with the film’s visual effects supervisor.

One of the aspects people remember very fondly about Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000) are the miniatures, and for good reason. A number of miniature models expertly crafted by the ILM Model Shop were utilized on the film, including for the space shuttle and IKON satellite/missile seen in the film.

Key points:
– How ILM crafted the CG spacesuits for the film
– What was involved in filming actor faces to project into the suits
– How early previs became an important part in making the movie

Models and miniatures were, of course, still a major part of ILM’s arsenal back then. But 20 years after the release of Space Cowboys, I had forgotten that a number of space walk shots of the astronauts also utilized completely CG spacesuits, with the actors’ filmed separately and their faces projected into the space suit helmets. This was done in combination with practical spacesuit shots, as well.

To find out more about the digital side of the spacesuit VFX, I decided to ask visual effects supervisor Michael Owens about his memories of that side of the film, two decades since its release.

For the first spacewalk by Clint Eastwood’s character, some angles made use of a practical spacesuit, while others employed a CG suit and miniature background cargo bay. This shot features a CG suit. Hal Hickel, now ILM animation director, animated this and the other CG elements described in the captions below.

b&a: I’ve always thought space walks present an interesting problem in filmmaking because you want to shoot as much practically as possible, but how do you do weightlessness, how do you do close-ups versus wide shots? What was the thinking behind the spacesuit shots and how you’d achieve them on this film?

Michael Owens: When we were doing the space walk shots, we did a miniature for the space shuttle as a plate, and for the IKON satellite, but we knew we had to do the suits in CG for wide shots to be able to convincingly make it look like they were doing a space walk. Then we needed to project their faces onto them.

Michael Owens, center, with the space shuttle miniature and ILM model shop crew. Picture courtesy Manuel Alducin.

b&a: For close-ups, were the actors still filmed in practical suits?

Michael Owens: Yes, we did that on stage against bluescreen. What’s interesting is that Mission to Mars was also going on at the time, and I’d heard from John Knoll about what they were doing on that film. It was a much larger budget and was a big release, but I heard what they were doing in terms of space shots and I thought, ‘Oh man, they’re going to make us look stupid!’

Anyway, when the characters are at the IKON satellite, I wanted them to be able to appear to ‘float’, so I wanted the camera to be able to be cockeyed gravity-wise so that you never quite knew where gravity was. We were using several Titan camera cranes to be able to puppeteer these guys around in their spacesuits. Then I’d heard something went wrong with the physical effects – they couldn’t move the IKON set. It was supposed to be able to rotate. But, it wouldn’t. It stayed level with the ground the whole time. I thought, ‘Ah, we’re screwed here…’.

So Clint comes in after I’d been trying to rehearse with these guys and knowing now we had a major problem. It was the only time I’ve seen Clint upset – he wasn’t upset with me because he’s never been upset with me. He said, ‘It sounds like the tail’s wagging the dog. We’re going to change and keep moving on.’ And we just kept shooting.

I think we just barely got by with selling the weightlessness in those close-ups. Obviously in the wider shots, those were CG characters.

The cargo bay is an ILM Model Shop miniature, with a CG spacesuit and face projection. The door here is also CG.

b&a: What do you remember were the challenges back then of replicating the kinds of cloth simulation or animation required for spacesuits?

Michael Owens: This was at a relatively early stage in cloth simulations. The good news was, subject-wise, those suits were pretty stiff. So you didn’t have them fluttering in the wind or anything like that. To do it, we had the actual suits that we could play with and photograph and get texture reference from.

Resolution was an issue and lighting was an issue. Back then you had to work really hard on making the lighting and your point sources work properly. We also had lots of NASA footage and stills to show what the costumes should look like in those settings.

The IKON miniature set up for motion control shooting.

b&a: The thing that I think makes a bunch of those shots ‘invisible’ is that the faces of the actors were projected into the visors. How did you manage that in terms of the plate photography and then the projections?

Michael Owens: Well, I do want to say that the work done later on Gravity where they had that whole light box LED set-up for the space shots, all in-camera, was just brilliant. Obviously we didn’t have that technology available to us then. So, you go back to that time and in some ways what we did was fairly simple. If you’ve got the CG spacesuit, and you have the actor photography, and you have a separate element of a shield, you can do all that stuff. You can put their reflections on the shield and you put the face behind it.

What was a little tricky – and it sounds silly – was photographing the face as an element in real life and then tracking that back onto the face of the CG spacesuit character. To get there, we did animatics first and then we would emulate that action in a manual way with photography of the actual film characters, and then we’d map that back onto the CG characters.

Today, you just do it and it works. Back then, it was like pulling teeth! It was difficult to do. Even now, I see little moments where you go, ‘Ah, that’s just a little off, it’s not tracking correctly.’ But I don’t think anybody really gets bothered with those shots.

Eastwood’s character strapping into the MMU is CG. The closer shot of him flying past camera involves a CG suit, with the face a 2.5D setup (a 3D face was attempted but not used). The Donald Sutherland character giving a thumbs up employed a CG suit. The cargo bay is a miniature.

b&a: Did you shoot the actors on bluescreen for the helmet shots?

Michael Owens: No, since we only had to capture the face, which already had a mask on it under the helmet, we could easily roto that. So really we were just tracking that part of the face. We roto’d the face out and that fit into the CG element, which was a double-helmet set-up.

b&a: Any other memories from Space Cowboys you wanted to share?

Michael Owens: I remember when I first met Clint, he came up to us to talk about the project at ILM. He thought there were going to be like 14 visual effects shots in the movie. And I was just like, ‘Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking…’. I said, ‘I know you don’t storyboard, but given the nature of this and given the nature of space and everything else, let me pick a sequence and let me storyboard just a page.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’

Then I showed my storyboards to Clint and he goes, ‘Oh wow, this is really helpful. I really get it now.’ And I said, ‘Well, can I finish the sequence off?’ So I finished storyboarding the sequence off and presented it him. He goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, this is really helpful.’

Then I said, ‘Well, if you’re buying this, I think to take the sequence to another level you need animatics, because this is space and camera movement can be very complicated unless you really know what you’re doing.’

We were doing previs in-house at the time at ILM. The art department was so great, they were brilliant. Clint agreed and I did the sequence as previs. He goes, ‘Oh yeah, I get it now. Perfect.’

Shooting the IKON miniature.

We ended up pre-vis’ing the last quarter of the movie completely! It really, really helped. We knew exactly what the shots were supposed to be like. This is relatively early days of using more sophisticated previs. We didn’t really overdo the detail of it, but it told you what the camera was doing and told you what the characters were doing in space, in three-dimensional space.

They ended up cutting all of it into the movie and then just kept replacing those shots whenever we produced something in VFX. That’s the other part of making these things work correctly is having that map to work to, so you know what you need for the costumes and how to map the faces. You’re working towards that and not fighting what the shots should look like.

You know, it was a film we did at ILM where there were a lot of limitations placed on us. At the time, I was a little frustrated – ‘How come they get those resources?’ – but it really was the right thing. It turned out to be a film where we used the right techniques.

The ILM crew loved working on the project. Clint gave us and me, especially, enormous creative freedom. It was just an enormously wonderful thing to work with Clint for the first time. And the crew that I had at ILM was just fabulous. That was the pinnacle of my days at ILM, it was really quite wonderful.

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