Space is a glamorous place to work, but for astronauts it is also a dangerous environment. A new science fiction short on Vimeo called "Others Will Follow" beautifully shows that tension. A human mission to Mars proves fatal to most of the crew, and the lone survivor is compelled to communicate with Earth — but has a lot of obstacles in the way.
Space.com spoke with filmmaker Andrew Finch, who was inspired by a famous contingency presidential speech created in case the crew members of Apollo 11 — the first mission to the moon's surface in 1969 — had died. Although the concept is transposed to Mars, Finch says he still feels the speech has resonance for the new situation. [What If Apollo 11 Failed? President Nixon Had Speech Ready]
Space.com: How long have you been interested in spaceflight? Were you like the little kid at the beginning of your film watching the astronauts, or did the space bug hit later than that?
Finch: I think I got the space bug through television network Syfy [which was then called SCI FI] and an interest in aviation. I was born in 1990, so I don't remember watching any big televised-space related events. My parents and I watched "Star Trek: The Next Generation" while I was growing up, which was probably my first exposure to sci-fi. I had a full-wall mural of the space shuttle Columbia in my bedroom, and regularly went as "Star Trek" Capt. Jean-Luc Picard for Halloween. But I think my interest in real space exploration has grown over time as I learned about the significance of the Apollo missions and became interested in what SpaceX is doing.
Space.com: Part of the film has lines that are based on the famous Apollo 11 contingency speech for then-U.S. president Richard Nixon, written in case the first astronauts to land on the moon died there in 1969. How did you first find out about this speech, and how did it influence the creation of the film?
Finch: The contingency Apollo speech is what started the whole thing. I found it online somewhere in 2013, and thought it had a lot of great imagery and positive sentiment, even though it was assuming disaster. I set out to write a one- or two-minute short with the speech playing against a mission to Mars, and it quickly snowballed into a nine-minute extravaganza as I tried to give it a narrative about passing on inspiration.
Space.com: In a real-life scenario, how do you think we'd be able to carry on with exploration after a high-profile disaster like that the one in your film, so far away from home?
Finch: Of course the goal is complete safety, but it is amazing to me how few people have actually been lost in the history of space exploration. Our society has accepted that 3,000 people will die in the United States alone each and every day, just by driving around in cars. I would hope that we can see the inevitable loss of a crew in deep space as being valuable, and all the more reason to continue.
Space.com: On what design were the spacesuits and spaceships based? The Martian lander in particular looks really cool.
Finch: Thanks! I modeled the suit mainly after the Apollo A7L [the suits worn by astronauts during the Apollo missions] and some high-altitude helmets. I tried to do as much homework as possible about what ship design might have been used if a brute-force Mars mission [happened] in the early 2000s. I decided on a large transit vehicle based on modules from the ISS [International Space Station], and then a large descent vehicle with a separate ascent stage. [Spacesuit Suite: Evolution of Cosmic Clothes (Infographic)]
I tried to give thought to orbital mechanics, the amount of fuel the ship would need to carry, and the placement of thrusters and tanks. The ship has a lot of realistic external detail that hopefully looks like it's there because an engineer was trying to solve a problem, instead of an industrial designer trying to make something look cool. The interior set was based mostly on the space shuttle interiors; the avionics were based on real panel schematics from a book called "The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual" (Ballantine Books, 1988) that I conveniently found on my parents' bookshelf.
Space.com: Were there any unusual techniques used in the live-action part of the filming to simulate space?
Finch: I built the interior capsule set to be able to roll over, so that I could position gravity in whatever direction was most advantageous for a given scene. We did use wire work at one point to suspend an astronaut.
Space.com: You produced many of the special effects yourself. Can you talk about how you achieved that?
Finch: I built miniatures for the ship exteriors and used model rocket engines to provide reactive lighting and to kick up dust and smoke. Some elements were fully CG [computer-generated], and almost every shot had some form of compositing or adjustment. I tried to base as much as possible on real footage, and use CG where it wouldn't be noticed or where it was unavoidable.
For the shot when the astronaut floats into the stars, I really wanted to see what it would actually look like if I were able to shoot an astronaut in the shadow of the sun and expose the camera for the luminance/illuminance of the galaxy. I went out to the desert, away from Los Angeles' light pollution, and captured an image of the Milky Way using multiple exposures with the camera on an equatorial mount. I merged them into a high-dynamic-range image that I could use to simulate that scene, which was pretty fun.
Space.com: What's next for you? Are you planning a follow-up film to "Others Will Follow," or heading in another direction?
Finch: I always intended "OWF" to be a self-contained short, and I don't have any plans to expand it into anything. I would like to continue to make realistic science fiction, but with more help and more money next time. Maybe something involving non-anthropomorphic artificial intelligence . . . we'll see.