Creative Lead Mike Sadd has been with Lux Aeterna for 11 years, contributing to some of its most ambitious projects, including ‘Our Universe’, ‘8 Days to the Moon and Back’, ‘The Crown’, and many more. As a talented artist with a deep interest in cosmology and space, Mike excels at transforming scientific facts into captivating visual experiences. Mike speaks to VFXwire exclusively – exploring his passion for cosmology and how he incorporates it into his work at Lux Aeterna.

Where did your deep interest in cosmology stem from? 

I’m not exactly sure if there was a specific thing. I’d always had an interest in science, and although I wasn’t especially studious as a child, I’d love the concepts and imagery that surrounded the subject. I’d pour over kids science books and watch TV shows like Horizon, QED, Equinox (great title sequence back in the day), and even things like the University Christmas lectures. Then when I was about nine or 10, the Hubble Space Telescope became operational and we were gifted with all these amazing images of far flung phenomena that made you want to just go out there and touch the stars. Later came probes like Juno, Cassini and New Horizons, giving us an endless supply of wonderment.

I’ve also been a massive sci-fi fan for as long as I can remember. I’d hoover up pretty much anything if it involved spaceships, aliens, distant worlds, some advanced technology or a malevolent supercomputer, it’s all great dream fuel. 

I’d also love to work out how they did all of the special effects; what was a model, or a matte painting, stop motion or puppet, and how the composite was completed. This was all before DVDs and YouTube, so all I had to go on was a few books and the occasional TV documentary. It definitely helped start that deep-rooted fascination that led into what I do now, and why I’m so passionate about it. 

What was the first (cosmology) project you worked on and what learnings did you take from it?

‘Wonders of the Universe’ with Brian Cox was the first proper cosmology project and that was over 12 years ago now. I’d done a few space related visuals for various clients prior to that, but this was a quantum leap in terms of scale and involvement. We were keen to take a very collaborative approach with the production, working with the directors and series producer to really craft a unique artistic approach to the visuals. The ambition was high in both camps, and we had to make a modest budget go a long way! 

We decided to use specialist macro photography of chemicals in petri dishes as a source material, which is something that had been done back in the 1960’s and 70’s, but do it in a fresh way by integrating it into the CGI workflow to create immersive graphics that had a very organic feel. There was a staggeringly steep learning curve in how best to use the footage as source material in Maya, and as elements in the After Effects composite process to create a wide range of cosmic phenomena, from stellar nurseries to supernovae. 

We learned a lot during that project and it was a vital jumping off point for us, not just from a craft perspective, but also as a mindset of how to approach the process, and it’s something we’ve been building on ever since. I’m very proud of the work we did back then and all the toil was worth it, but looking back a decade later and we’re in a different league now.

What key considerations are needed when approached to deliver on a project like this?

Budgets can vary wildly, so you have to approach a project with a mind to how many toys you have to play with when you get into the meat of the production. However, first things first – do your research. It’s not always easy but you can only really appreciate the full scope of what you’re trying to visualise if you take a deep dive into the science behind it first, as it’s usually far bigger and madder than you first thought! You get these great ‘holy s**t’ moments which can really turn your perspective on a story upside down and provides you with a whole list of do’s and don’ts, which is great for the creative process as it often forces you to come up with unexpected solutions and bring ideas to the table which the directors weren’t expecting.

There are also science advisers on the production side – they’re essential in providing additional and supporting information, as they usually have a research background, and can better grasp the less user-friendly research papers. We spend a lot of time talking to them and the directors to get the most granular level of information available and really distil what the story is about and how to represent it. Sometimes the data of a particular subject itself is scant, or on the edge of scientific speculation, which can be exciting as we’re into ‘best guess’ territory and can sometimes lean into a more ‘artistic’ perspective.

We usually get a list of initial storyline points before anything has been filmed, which is an essential opportunity to discuss with the directors about the stylistic approach of how you can link the GX to the on location, which might be in the cinematography, or how you use lighting. Setting up specific shots for transitions between the footage and GX, or gathering plates to use as source material later on. I love that collaborative aspect of it, where you’re really part of the creative process, rather than simply serving up a shot. 

Storyboarding, concept art and animatics are key to taking the initial script idea and starting to hone them into visuals that the editors can work with. Directors can really vary in terms of their scientific knowledge or flair for cinematography. Some are highly prescriptive in their shot descriptions, others will look to you for inspiration. Ultimately you’re there to guide them and give them the shots they didn’t know they needed. 

It can be a complicated process: Considering the flow of each shot to get the most out of an overall sequence. Talking with the artists here (Lux Aeterna) to work out the most effective technology and techniques to produce a shot. Avoiding any potential narrative pitfalls. Keeping the overall style feeling consistent and to do all that while keeping it within a budget!

We always like to get the scientific accuracy of a scene as precise as possible – especially when it comes to aspects like scale, motion, and lighting. This goes back to giving us a useful framework of authenticity that will dictate our choice of lenses and how we can choreograph a sequence in a way that would seem realistic if we were to somehow send a team out and film it for real. It can cause a number of headaches, especially when the director needs to push the narrative in a way that conflicts with what would be physically possible, but we always manage to find something that works. 

Then a new piece of research will come up, which might change the way a shot will behave and we have to go back to the drawing board. Occasionally there will be a long discussion about one piece of science getting in the way of the narrative of the main story. Ultimately the decision about that comes down to the show’s editorial team and we’re here to tell the story in the most beautiful way possible.

What are the most challenging shots to replicate and why?

Due to the riches that NASA et al have given us with regard to stunning nebulae, vistas of the worlds in our solar system, or the surface of the sun, we’ve got oodles of reference for a good chunk of the scenes we’re asked to create. This can be a double edged sword in the respect that we know exactly the look we have to achieve to really sell the shot. Whereas if we were to recreate a distant object or phenomena that currently exists as only a handful of pixels on an image, or some raw spectrographic data, we’ve got a good degree of artistic licence!

The most challenging visuals to create are ones that are entirely non visual. By that, I mean interactions at an atomic scale, where light simply becomes too bulky to let you see. Or something like going to the heart of a planet where light will never reach, to portray a hypothetical physical process that is barely understood. That’s the really exciting stuff, where we have to somehow fit the round peg of our visual sense into the square hole of the extraordinary, and do so in a way that not only looks amazing but also elegantly tells the story to a layman audience. 

Again, it can often come back to finding some piece of research that twists your perspective around to the point where you find the right language to sell the scene in an unexpected way.

Are there any go to tools that are particularly good at producing cosmology VFX shots and sequences?

I don’t believe there is necessarily a ‘right way’ to create these sorts of visuals. We’ve got a whole toolbox full of ways to achieve a desired result, with a bunch of talented artists working in Houdini, Maya, Nuke After Effects, Gaea… The list goes on and on, but it really comes down to the question of budget, visual narrative, and storytelling.

Our recent sequence for ‘The Crown’ was a real rollercoaster of Hollywood CGI. Heavy use of immersive Maya and Houdini simulations, glitzy comp work in Nuke, and that exactly fitted the bill. 

At about the same time, we were involved with ‘First Contact’, a one off science documentary about the hunt for extraterrestrial life, interwoven with dramatised scenes of a near future event involving a passing alien artefact. It was tonally very different and so we approached the project with a more analog, almost nostalgic feel that fitted the timeless and meditative mood of the overall film. We used Maya and 3DSMax, but discreetly and did things like projecting typography through distorted glass and re-filming them to create unique effects. Using images of rocks as textures for the fleetingly seen alien artefact and footage of chemical reactions as elements for nebulae created in After Effects. 

Have you ever had a pinch yourself moment on the job?

The work is always fun and you do end up working with some lovely people and some interesting characters! I don’t have many celebrity tales, but if I can do some brutal name-dropping: sitting round a script reading table with a whole load of production staff including Eric Idle, Warwick Davis, Brian Cox and Arlene Phillips, then catching Brian out on a science point was quite funny! He was an absolute gent by the way. 

There are little moments, like having a casual email exchange with a scientist about a piece of research, when I suddenly realised they were a department head of NASA was a nice reminder that even that rarified world of incredible people is still accessible.

Strangely, some of the most heartwarming points were quite out of the blue. One was recently, when we had been working on a sequence recreating the surface of Pluto and an eminent researcher who had studied the Pluto data and even processed some of the real images we’d used as reference, sent us a really lovely message thanking us for the sequence that “made me really see them in a new way that I found breathtaking.”

The other was when I was on Reddit some years ago and someone had posted a gif of one of the big Milky Way shots I comped for ‘Wonders of the Universe’ a few years earlier, with a comment about how these shots filled them with awe and made them want to pursue a career in astronomy. Working on these shows behind the scenes, you get so immersed in the production, that you often forget these things can go out into people’s lives and they’re not just moving wallpaper, but something that can actually generate wonderment and inspire people. Life can come full circle sometimes.

Allan Torp Jensen
Author: Allan Torp Jensen

Allan has worked on visual effects for feature films and television for 20 years. He has experience of the full VFX pipeline but has focused on compositing for the past 15 years and has been a Lead Compositor and Compositing Supervisor on various shows. He has worked with the talented people at Cinesite, Bluebolt VFX, Automatik VFX in London, and Weta Digital in New Zealand. For the past five years, he has worked remotely at his own Torper Studio on various high-end TV and feature film projects.