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Cut off from contact with Earth, one crew member dead and bound for unknown territory: Jupiter's moon of Europa, where ice and potential life may exist.
The six astronauts at the core of Sebastián Cordero's new independent sci-fi adventure "Europa Report" have some big challenges ahead of them, but even greater feats of derring-do were performed by the cast and crew during our visit to the set in December 2011. It was Day 16 of a very brisk 18-day shoot at the newly christened Cine Magic Stages in Riverfront Studios at the edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and some scary stuff was afoot.
1. A Spaceship in Brooklyn
This is not something you see every day, but the filmmakers built this three-story marvel from scratch. We enter it via a climb-up on a gantry that was, by the way, not secured to anything, making it the wobbliest, scariest steps any of us had ever experienced. Inside there's a plethora of ad-hoc equipment, some more advanced then others, with lots of visible wiring, bulkheads, hatches and sleeping quarters smaller than the average seven-year-old's. There's a lot of similarity to another Jupiter-based movie, "2010" (1984), which also featured a cooperative international crew looking for life on Europa. More intimidating than any other aspect, though, were the omnipresent video cameras ...
2. Big Brother is Watching You
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Once you've been on a movie set or two you're used to seeing a video village with two or three camera feeds from different angles, but to see as many as eight at once is overwhelming, to say the least. Under the guidance of Enrique Chediak, the same cinematographer who made brilliant use of DV camera footage in Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," they've shot the film in 1:85 aspect ratio, but in editing they will utilize multi-views like a reality show.
As things escalate the actors tend to ignore the cameras. "This allows the actors to be in an environment where eight cameras are shooting simultaneously," says Cordera. "It’s really interesting to see how much they can do. Their characters are aware they are there but they've practically forgotten what each of them are doing. We play a lot of stuff off-screen."
3. This Just Got Real
Only weeks before we arrived on set NASA announced that there are frickin' lakes under the surface of Europa. Something similar to the film will actually happen in 2020 when a probe will be sent to explore these new deluxe discoveries. "The data suggest there is significant exchange between Europa's icy shell and the ocean beneath. This information could bolster arguments that Europa's global subsurface ocean represents a potential habitat for life elsewhere in our solar system." Holy crap!
4. People Die
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The scene they are shooting today involves a fateful situation with an airlock, where astronauts played by Sharlto Copley ("District 9") and Michael Nyqvist ("Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol") leave the ship to go on a spacewalk. There's green screen and some spinning on wires. Sharlto is the rock star engineer while Nyqvist is the most experienced. Getting suited up in 100-pound uniforms is a time-consuming process. The sight of Copley in his bulky spacesuit sitting and going over his lines is highly surreal. One of these two is not going to live through the ordeal, and it might not be who you think.
5. Simulating Space is HARD
Wires, green screen, moving gimbals and various lifts were all employed to simulate Zero-G. Sometimes it was simply people sitting on yoga balls, which are then removed in post-production. Namaste indeed.
"Sections of the ship have artificial gravity and other sections are zero gravity," says Cordero. "That's also a challenge. Every time they get in the spacesuits it’s a huge logistical nightmare. Those are practical obstacles that get in the way."
6. S**t Goes Down
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This spaceship has a blackbox, and since it’s a found footage movie we can safely assume stuff goes horribly, horribly wrong. Producer Ben Browning adds fuel to that fire by telling us about the practical scale model of the ship they've built for FX purposes, which he assured was going to get "f**ked up." "That's the only reason you build a model," Browning says.
Producer Kevin Misher says the hope is that the tight quarters will effect the performances, lending an air of paranoia and claustrophobia to the proceedings. The director agrees.
"It's a very claustrophobic movie because we're inside the spaceship 80% of the time," Cordera confirms. "That's something that adds a lot to the tension of the story, but it's also quite a big challenge in terms of storytelling, having so few angles."
8. 'Blair Witch' in Space
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Since this movie was shot we've already gotten the moronic found footage moon voyage "Apollo 18," but that was relying on old technology (and a hack-y plot). "Europa Report" is as state-of-the-art as it gets.
"It's a really unique conceit, even though I think we've seen a lot of found footage movies recently," Cordera declares confidently. "This one took a perspective on it that was very close to science in setting up a story about space travel from cameras that are monitoring this journey. All those cameras have to be placed more from a scientific perspective rather than what you would normally do aesthetically. Having all these rules and obstructions ends up freeing you in many ways. You don't have a camera going into a close-up. If you want the close-up the actor has to somehow find his way into it."
9. Aliens Among Us
Having seen the film now it's probably fair to say that they find something on Europa. What it is we won't say specifically, but it's perhaps the most National Geographic-like of all the movie aliens of recent years, all of which seem to be aping Ridley Scott's "Alien" in one form or another. When you see the flick you'll know what we mean, and it'll be worth the trip.
"Europa Report" is now available on VOD and will be released in theaters on August 2.