‘Stowaway’ VFX Cinematographer Jannicke Mikkelsen Breaks Down the Tense Spacewalk Scene

Cinematographer Jannicke Mikkelsen is used to working with non-traditional filmmaking techniques, methods and in unique environments. In fact, it’s kind of her thing. Over the last decade, the Norwegian film director and cinematographer has solved innovative tech challenges with and for David Attenborough, the rock band Queen, Apollo11’s 50th-anniversary installation for NASA and was a mission specialist — their videographer and data manager — aboard the 2019 World Record flight polar circumnavigating Earth.

Most recently, she was the VFX cinematographer for “Stowaway,” a Netflix release starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Shamier Anderson and Daniel Dae Kim about a perilous journey to Mars that is compromised when an extra passenger shows up.

“Usually,” says Mikkelsen, “visual effects are kept separate from film production, which has never made sense to me, especially if you’re like you’re shooting a sci-fi, a VFX-heavy movie or a 3D movie. With ‘Stowaway,’ the lines did blur more, in terms of department heads’ responsibilities, but this more holistic approach to filmmaking makes it more efficient, in my opinion.”

Hand-in-hand with Unity and RISE VFX, Mikkelsen built the pre-visualization on Unity’s virtual camera rigs inside their proprietary game engine. Along with director Joe Penna, editor Ryan Morrison (who also co-wrote the script with Penna) and director of photography Klemens Becker, Mikkelsen worked for a month looking through her viewfinder into space where she saw a massive rotating spaceship on its way to Mars, all in RISE VFX’s studios in Berlin.

Mikkelsen breaks down the EVA (extravehicular activity – i.e., the spacewalk) scene when Zoe (Kendrick) and David’s (Kim) characters have to make their way from the crew module (MTS), across the solar array, to the rocket booster (Kingfisher) where they will retrieve the spare oxygen from the liquid oxygen fuel tanks, and return back again to the crew module with the oxygen tank that will keep them alive until they get to Mars.

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THE SPACEWALK

In the production of “Stowaway,” I operated as a cinematographer immersed inside a virtual world to capture the EVA sequence.

On this journey, the astronauts experience gravity and microgravity (weightlessness) on a spaceship in constant rotation around its own axis, while the entire rotating spaceship is on a high-speed orbital trajectory towards Mars. Needless to say, orientation was the single most confusing challenge for the entire film crew throughout the many stages of this scene production.

In creating the scene, we start inside of the Unity game engine where all we have is a black empty space and stars all around us. There is no up, down, right or left. We added the 3D module of the spaceship and to the model we add the rotational movement which is approximately two rotations per minute.

We added the sun, Earth, Moon and Mars — the other planets in our solar system are only seen as slightly brighter stars. The sun is was our only option for lighting the scene, and as there is no up or down, I actually had the creative freedom to position the sun to offer us the best lighting situation for our scene.

The scene starts with Zoe (Kendrick) and David (Kim) walking on the roof of the MTS, making their way from the hatch to the tethers they are about to climb. Operating the virtual camera hand-held on the studio floor, I follow Zoe and David walking towards the tethers.

I worked side-by-side with D.P. Klemens, who watches over my camera images on his monitor to see the action taking place inside the game engine. We actually added a little drone-like sensation in the hand-held camera movement to reflect the tension of being in space since the true shake of handheld wasn’t working for us. I also had the ability to swipe through a wide variety of lenses and test which one worked best for this scene, a luxury we are not afforded in real-time on a traditional film set.

Here, we wanted to reflect the tension in the scene as Zoe enters space and takes in the enormity of the universe around her and the severity of the task at hand.

To capture the scene, I actually had the ability to walk anywhere in space — I didn’t have to specifically walk on the spaceship to capture the scene.

We also had the added ability to lay down tracks anywhere in space, add a crane or jib arm if we wished, create floating walls, and move/cheat positioning of props that didn’t work for the frame. These added benefits to shooting virtually create a luxury scenario for any D.P.

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THE SOLAR ARRAYS

The most challenging scene to shoot virtually took place at the center utility module, where the solar arrays are situated.

At this location, the astronauts are weightless and so is was my virtual camera, and the movement of the camera is subject to inertia. A fun fact? We didn’t actually spin the spaceship, but rather the stars around us.

However, the experience of a spinning spaceship feels just as real, and the film crew were not only combatting loss of orientation at this location, but also the feeling of nausea.

On the approach, Zoe and David gradually enter a state of weightlessness. For the camera, I moved from a mounted hydraulic lift, gradually easing into a more fluid movement. The importance of the scene was to stay close to Zoe, and we couldn’t figure out exactly what camera mount would give us all the axis we needed to capture the weightless action on a rotating spaceship, so we tried all the traditional camera mounts built-in virtually.

I ended up free-styling most of this scene using a combination of hand-held camera movements and a first assistant who could compensate for the direction of inertia by using a game controller to keep Zoe and David in focus and in frame. I’m pretty sure there are some crazy behind-the-scenes videos of me jumping around the studio floor like a mad hatter trying keep David in my frame as he free-floats when Zoe pulls him in.

It was an extremely physically demanding camera operating movement where I moved from digital superhuman speed to a realistic 1:1 sync speed with David.

We also lost orientation multiple times because it was easy to assume that left to right was the direction of travel we should have been going, but in reality, we were flipping the camera up-side-down to compensate for the rotation to establish orientation for the viewer and make it look less confusing for the audience.

The direction of the direct sunlight was far easier to deal with here as the sun is shielded by the solar arrays that power the spaceship. It was rather exciting to have a new lighting element filter the light on Zoe and David — an element I know Klemens Becker greatly appreciated when he re-created the scene in the physical world.

When we moved to the Kingfisher — the rocket booster that acts as a counterweight to create the rotation necessary to simulate gravity — we had to switch mindsets and virtual camera physics to adjust back to gravity. It was strange because as a cinematographer I was so deeply immersed in the scene that I felt that same nausea re-adjusting back to gravity once I had spent a few days in virtual weightlessness. It was a really weird phenomena to experience.

As Zoe and David descend, or possibly ascend — it’s hard to tell with a rotating spaceship — to the Kingfisher (the rocket booster) gravity is gradually increasing as they free fall attached to the tether. When they land on the top of the booster, the camera mount goes back to hand-held with, again, the slight drone-like bounce to it. I was operating with the shoulder rig and watched the scene through my viewfinder. The potential fall into nothingness was an important aspect to capture and rather challenging: We needed to get the viewer to understand that we were back to gravity, and a potential fall would mean Zoe could be slungshot into an eternal orbit around the Sun if she failed to rappel down the side of the Kingfisher.

That fate only becomes apparent as Zoe opens the side hatch and the hatch disengages and freefalls into space. We used a number of virtual camera mounts on this scene. It was a dream scenario how quickly we could switch from hand-held to dolly tracks to crane and jibs. It really allowed us to explore the scene fully to see what worked best for the story. In real life, the budget of the movie would have restricted what camera angles and movements we would have been able to test out, but here, it was a simple flick of a button and fun selection of digital adjustments to simulate real-life movements. While Zoe rappels down the side of the booster, I built a track to dolly down next to her with a lightly adjusted camera head to reflect the bounce every time her feet landed on the surface of the booster. It was a challenge to re-create gravity virtually, and we needed to create the anxiety of a potential freefall. So, the direction facing away from the center of the solar array needed to feel faster, more slippery and jarring, while every action moving towards the solar array needed to feel more floating, calmer and give a sense of security. Inside the Kingfisher booster, we went back to IRL camera operating and let Earth’s gravity do its thing.

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