Filmmaker Roland Emmerich has specialized in destroying the Earth on-screen for decades. His 1996 alien-invasion blockbuster Independence Day saw city-sized spaceships obliterate landmarks like the White House and Empire State Building as well as others across the globe. In 2004, he jumped way out ahead of the curve with the climate crisis epic The Day After Tomorrow, which sent tornadoes ripping through the Hollywood sign and an insta-freeze blanketing an entire hemisphere. In 2009’s 2012, gargantuan tidal waves flooded the Himalayas, while the 2016 sequel Independence Day: Resurgence somehow upped the ante even more, this time with a planet-sized mothership wreaking havoc as the aliens came back for vengeance.
Where could he possibly go from here? The answer is Moonfall, due out in theaters this week from Lionsgate, and somehow, some way, Emmerich has leveled up.
To briefly set the stage, the film tells the story of a moon jerked out of orbit and set upon an elliptical crash course with Earth. The steady, horrifying free fall yields catastrophic effects as the moon’s increasing gravitational pull sucks up masses of humanity and vast bodies of water before dropping everything back into place for another pass on the next orbit. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will no doubt weigh in on the “accuracy” of such a profound hypothetical event in due time, but, whatever the likelihood, it all makes for bonkers big-screen spectacle as only Emmerich could achieve. And this is all before getting to the mind-blowing spoilers of why this is all happening in the first place.
One of the film’s biggest set pieces finds a small manned expedition attempting to launch the out-of-commission Space Shuttle Endeavor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, just as the moon makes one of its destructive passes. It has come to be called the “gravity wave” sequence, and for Emmerich, it started with a bold idea and the forced economy of a $140 million independent production that was somehow squeezed into a two-month shooting schedule.
“Visual effects and the freedom you have has become better and better,” Emmerich tells A.frame. “I had only 61 days to shoot this movie, so I said, ‘OK, let’s do all CGI.’ Because we could never build it in time. There would not be enough money anyway.”
The sequence makes huge strides with a notoriously difficult element in computer-generated effects: the mechanics of fluid movement. Dazzling innovations have been celebrated and, indeed, Oscar-nominated over the years, from James Cameron’s The Abyss to Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm to Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Then came a game-changer with Scanline VFX’s development of the Flowline fluid effects system, which the Academy recognized with a technical achievement award in 2008.
Scanline senior VFX supervisor and co-founder Stephan Trojansky immediately became a part of Emmerich’s secret to success, helping to realize the tidal wave sequences in 2012 and Independence Day: Resurgence. For Moonfall, a new imaginative wrinkle was added: how do you make a vast body of water rise up in an anti-gravity environment while at the same time hurtling towards an object, in this case, an impending shuttle launch meant to save humanity?
“Roland had this idea that it creates basically tornadoes, tendrils, that kind of spiral and move the water up into the sky,” Trojansky says. “But along with that is, how do you sell these lumps of water going up in anti-gravity? We talked about footage on the International Space Station where they take water and – in zero-g – the water is just bubbling around, creating these perfect spheres. That was a little bubble on a spacecraft, but if you’re in zero-g on Earth, now we have bubbles that are the size of a swimming pool!”
And bear in mind, Scanline’s efforts with water effects are just one part of this package. Multiple effects houses worked on the picture, including Pixomondo, DNEG and Framestore. But key to the whole enterprise is how the computer elements would interact and match with practical builds and special effects applications. That’s where production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli and his team came into play.
“The good news about Roland and Pete Travers and the visual effects team and I was we were conjoined at the hip right off the bat,” Petruccelli says. “We were creating all the elements and pre-visualizing everything upfront. Because of COVID, we had some time, and the most important thing was that we used that time to really work out what the sequences were.”
The tangible assets of the gravity wave sequence included a mission control set, a launch access arm and a shuttle cockpit where actors Patrick Wilson, Halle Berry and John Bradley are positioned. The integration of the overall gravity effect by the practical effects team involved at times placing sets on a gimbal or simply applying old-school techniques like wires to pull a row of chairs, giving the overall sense that something astronomically significant is afoot in the build-up to the wave itself sweeping ashore.
“In the capsule, more than the gravitational pull from the wave, we had to get the actors’ bodies in position so that they would react the right way during a launch,” Petruccelli says. “So we tilted the set to a 45-degree angle, made sure that all that stuff worked with a hydraulic rig and motion-control units that would make the ship shutter and shake the whole way through. And then, we integrated water systems throughout the entirety of the sequence. So – rain, water splashing, basically inundating everything.”
It was truly “all hands on deck” to accomplish a jaw-dropper as our heroes race against time and odds to rescue the planet from calamity. The VFX teams ultimately worked on the sequence for the full six months of post-production, all the way up until print mastering, not only because there were so many moving parts, but because Emmerich is a filmmaker who loves to tinker with the small nuances and close-call beats of a moment like this for as long as possible. It’s something that endears him to people like Tojansky, who is always eager to see what the director will think up next.
“The entire undertaking is just gluing all these pieces together,” Trojansky says. “Usually, each individual topic would be a movie on its own. But the complexity that Roland has is like working on multiple movies at the same time. That’s something that stays in the memory for the artist.”
Moonfall hits theaters Feb. 4.