‘Let’s try something really bold’: Inside Nasa’s Oscar doc Good Night Oppy | Documentary films

Good Night OppyAn excerpt from Good Night Oppy
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Oopportunity is a whole character. I’m talking about the star of Ryan White’s Oscar-winning, crowd-pleasing documentary Good Night Oppy: a NASA-designed rover sent on a 90-day mission to Mars in 2003 that surprisingly stretched to 15 years.

Opportunity, or Oppy as some affectionately call it for short, is a mix of wheels, wires, antennae, and solar panels that combine with traits familiar to humans. She has a neck that looks modernized from a kitchen sink waste pipe. And its head has horizontally distributed cameras in binocular formation like eyes. And when the rover – in an early scene from Good Night Oppy – pulls up in front of what she assumes is a Martian obstruction but turns out to be her own shadow, we can’t help but give her a comedic personality.

Oppy looks and sometimes acts like Wall-E, the adorable trash compactor from the 2008 Pixar movie tasked with cleaning up Earth after humans left our planet as a wasteland covered in red dust. Good Night Oppy director White has heard this before. He smiles knowingly on a Zoom call from Los Angeles, admitting his film has been called a documentary response to the Pixar film, although the wording should be the other way around. “NASA is very careful to emphasize that spirit and opportunity came first,” he says.

White welcomes the comparison. Nasa rovers like Spirit and Oppy clearly inspired Wall-E and the Pixar film in turn provided inspiration for Good Night Oppy, a doc mixing archival footage of Nasa engineers working on the terrain with CGI recreations of what Oppy and Spirit did. March.

White’s documentary often feels in conversation with films from the past that spark childlike wonder and bring those stories about science and space exploration back to earth with humor and pathos. The relationship is right there on his poster. Good Night Oppy is produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment. Their logo positions ET, the lovable alien from Spielberg’s 80s classic, in the stars above Opportunity.

“ET was my favorite movie growing up,” says White, a self-proclaimed space nerd whose previous documentaries about tennis player Serena Williams and sexpert Dr. Ruth were about extraordinary personalities who stayed down to earth. He explains that Spielberg’s ET provided him with a direction to shape a story around a machine whose sole purpose is to study space rocks. “It’s a movie about a non-human character that hopefully the audience will bond with or feel that emotional attachment to. And then at the end of the movie, you have to say goodbye to that character. It’s sad, but it is also very encouraging.”

Photography: Courtesy of Prime Video

Amblin, alongside Peter Berg’s Film 45 company, approached White with the project in 2020, two years after Oppy’s last transmission from Mars reported low battery and dark skies. The producers of Amblin and Film45 had obtained NASA’s cooperation and access to the mission’s archives. White pitched the idea of ​​not just relying on archives and talking head interviews to tell the story of Spirit and Opportunity, but building a narrative using CGI that would put audiences on Mars alongside the two rovers. The filmmaker argues that it was the only way to truly do justice to a daring mission that – as his documentary with gripping pieces tells – had far too many chances to fail. “If we’re going to make a movie about this incredibly innovative and daring mission,” says White, “we should portray it in the movie as well, and not play it totally safe in some kind of educational DVD. Let’s try something really bold.

White says he made this presentation at a dinner with Amblin and Film 45 on March 12, 2020. The next day, March 13, Trump declared Covid-19 a national emergency in the United States. The world shut down, but that didn’t have a negative impact on Good Night Oppy, as much of the documentary was going to be made with stock footage and visual effects rendered by artists working remotely from the whole world. They were making a movie that takes us as far as science can reach at a time when our orbits were reduced to the space between home and the grocery store.

To recreate Mars, Amblin connected the filmmaker to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the visual effects company created by George Lucas in 1975 to make Star Wars. It’s just another strand of Good Night Oppy’s shared DNA with sci-fi movie history.

Ryan White
Ryan White. Photography: Earl Gibson III/Rex/Shutterstock

ILM had never attempted photorealistic recreations of Mars before, but according to White, they had data from Nasa to be as authentic as possible in Good Night Oppy. Sun direction, sky tint, and dust level would be accurate at the exact moment rendered as Opportunity and Spirit roam the Red Planet picking up rocks, getting stuck in quicksand, or stopping to brave storms. dust and deep frosts.

The film is also keenly aware that data collection, science, and accurate images of a desert planet are unattractive to audiences without narrative hooks. “Try to explain gamma spectroscopy to an eight-year-old child,” astronomer Steve Squyres says in the documentary as a challenge, before explaining how Spirit and Opportunity made NASA’s work widely appealing. The robots with their adorable Wall-E-like traits took on a life of their own in the public consciousness, long before they lent Good Night Oppy an empathetic persona to hang its narrative on.

This human connection comes across very easily in the film, especially because NASA engineers projected so much emotion onto the rovers, often depicting Spirit and Oppy as if the robots were their children. Engineers also tend to explain everything in human terms, such as when a system malfunction or error is described as a cold or pneumonia.

“These robots are the replacements for those people,” White says, explaining how NASA engineers basically lived vicariously through rovers because they couldn’t dig into Martian rock themselves. “They inevitably project human qualities onto this robot.

“It’s not just emotion and sensitivity. It is also the design. They could have designed a robot in different ways. Surely they could have designed a robot that didn’t look like Short Circuit’s Johnny 5. But they did. They created a cute, adorable robot with a face and an arm. It was not by chance. It is by design.


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