Space scenes and Arctic storms bring new challenges for ‘Midnight Sky’ cinematographer
If anything seemed appropriate by the end of 2020 it was the arrival of a prestige film with a post-apocalyptic plot, especially one set in the aftermath of a global catastrophe that leaves few survivors.
Directed by and starring George Clooney as an aging astronomer who may be one of the last people alive on Earth following a mysterious pandemic event, “The Midnight Sky” also comes at a time when the world continues to reel from the COVID-19 crisis and the heightened sense of mortality it brings. In his dual role, Clooney may be the ideal guide to help us make sense of what it means to be so precariously close to oblivion.
Although somewhat hidden behind hermitic amounts of graying facial hair, Clooney’s face still holds the camera, and the viewer, with alarming intensity. “That’s what I love about the film,” says his cinematographer, Martin Ruhe. “You have these big Arctic landscapes and also the vastness of space, but the story surrounding the characters is really quite intimate. And when you get George’s face in close-up, it’s just such a pleasure to watch him.”
Clooney and Ruhe first collaborated on the 2019 miniseries “Catch-22,” a reimagining of Joseph Heller’s satirical masterpiece about a fictional U.S. Army air squadron during World War II. For that project, Ruhe was nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Award for his stunning combination of naturally lit close-ups, tight aerial shots and ground scenes on the base that conveyed the extreme heat of the Mediterranean location.
The various settings of “The Midnight Sky” — a research station in the Arctic, an observatory in La Palma and the Aether, a spaceship returning from a two-year exploratory trip to a new planet — gave Ruhe a very different yet similarly shifting set of conditions to work with. Shot in 65 millimeter on the Arri Alexa 65 with vintage glass in Iceland, on stages at Shepperton Studios outside London and in Spain’s Canary Islands, the film deftly mixes location, studio and visual-effects shots. “It allowed me to delve into very different worlds on a single project,” Ruhe says happily.
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During preproduction, star Felicity Jones’ real-life pregnancy altered both the script and the filming of zero-gravity scenes featuring the Aether’s astronauts. “We planned for people on wires during the spacewalks,” Ruhe says. “But when we got the news while filming in Iceland that she was pregnant, George made it clear she would never be on wires.”
With CGI work from London-based Framestore and Northern California’s Industrial Light & Magic, the team considered using digital effects and overlays to make Jones’ pregnancy disappear. “Then George said, ‘Hey, they’ve been in space for two years. People have sex, so why not add a baby and make it part of the narrative? Netflix went with it, and we changed our style of filming the weightless scenes as a result.”
Looking at space footage in other films, the team realized “there is no up and down, no level. We decided our camera should never be leveled and instead gave it a constant spinning motion. It is floating. When watching those scenes, you never get a sense of what is the right side up.” Using a virtual camera system on an iPad Framestore, the team created a “pretty accurate previs” — a digital preview of the scene — for the spacewalk, the dramatic airlock sequence that follows it and several other key scenes.
“Gravity,” in which Clooney also starred, was a major influence but more as a departure than a template. “Clearly, we didn’t want to copy any part of that film. We consciously did it less perfect than “Gravity,” says Ruhe, who chose vintage lenses detuned off the center spot by design. “We started with a less-than-perfect image and we actually detuned the Arri Prime DNAs even more to get what we wanted.”
Clooney was all in at all times, including during a real storm captured on location in Iceland last fall and during a pivotal underwater scene (shot in the studio), where he did 95% of his own stunts. “In Iceland, we knew we had to expect the unexpected,” says Ruhe. “If you’re out on a glacier and the wind comes up, you’re not thinking about light any more. You’re thinking, ‘Let’s just get a camera to a stable position where we can film the scene.’”
The actor-director and his 7-year-old co-star, Caoilinn Springall, “were such troupers in the storm,” says Ruhe. “The crew was in ski masks and goggles, but those two had to bare themselves to the elements,” including inside a real ice cave carved into the permafrost. A few shots in the storm were finished on stage at Shepperton using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, the same system used for “The Mandalorian,” to project virtual environments from practical shoots onto giant LED walls on the studio set.
Ruhe will begin shooting Clooney’s next feature, “The Tender Bar,” starring Ben Affleck, in Boston in the coming months. Despite the challenges of travel and production during the pandemic, he couldn’t be happier. “George is a very visual director, and he’s constantly pushing you. Even if at first I’m unsure how to make it happen, we figure it out. That builds a lot of trust. When he picks his people, he doesn’t second-guess them. It’s a fantastic way to work.”
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