Digitally Directed, The Mars Missions

Categories: Art Mars Retrospections

In the first of a two-part series, the film-maker for the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) video, Daniel Maas, talks about how the stunningly realistic mission simulation came to life. In this part, he describes the inner workings of how such realism is obtained. His eight-minute video required over 12,000 frames playing at 24 frames per second for its film quality. From research to compositing and rendering, his art took three to four years to complete. In the subsequent part Maas answers questions about how he learned his techniques of Hollywood animation for rendering the red planet and its rovers.

I begin the production process by collecting photos, diagrams, and blueprints of the hardware and environments to be depicted. These references guide me as I build digital models of the robotic probes and their surroundings. By constantly comparing my results to real-world images, I ensure that my designs are accurate and realistic.

Combinations of blueprints, photos, and diagrams provide the reference materials
Credit: Daniel Maas, Maas Digital


Using a CAD system, I assemble primitive 3D shapes (planes, boxes, spheres, and cylinders) into three-dimensional replicas of the probes and their instruments. During this process, which typically takes two to three weeks, I also assign material types to the surfaces of the model: metal surfaces which later take on a metallic look, plastic surfaces will appear plastic, and so on.

When modelling is complete, I assemble the separately-created chassis, instruments, solar panels, and antennae into a complete digital space probe, designating their relative positions and axes of motion.

I also insert "handles" to control each major moving part, much like rods on a puppet. Using these I can quickly and easily manipulate the model into my desired position.

Modeling and setup in 3D computer-aided designs
Credit: Daniel Maas, Maas Digital

For each scene of the video, I position the digital models and simulated camera within the 3D environment, just like a director arranges a film set.

To create motion, I indicate where the models should appear at various key moments; the animation software then interpolates their positions throughout the whole shots.

At this stage I work with a low-quality preview of the first image. These rough renderings give a good sense of the composition and timing, and can be generated quickly enough for interactive use.

After the final animation sequences are approved, it’s time to generate high-quality renderings of the digital models and environments. To achieve a realistic appearance, I coat the 3D surfaces with detailed painted images or photos. The rendering software automatically adds shadow and reflections using ray-tracing.

These computations are quite time-consuming; a single frame can take minutes or even hours to generate.

Compositing the environment in movable layers
Credit: Daniel Maas, Maas Digital

The entire Mars Rover animation was rendered on a network of 8 PCs.

Each frame took anywhere from one minute to two hours to compute (there are 24 frames per second of footage).

I often decide to render a scene in several different layers or passes — like a single frame consisting of three separately rendered elements. Each layer is color-corrected, blurred, and moved individually, then combined into the final frame. This technique also saves time if one element needs to be re-rendered, since the other layers do not need to be generated again.

Finally, to add an authentic touch to the computer-generated images, I simulate several defects of real-world cameras, such as film grain (random noise) and soft glows around bright highlights.

These deliberate degradations help to remove the unrealistically sterile appearance of raw computer renderings.

Maas Digital released custom software – a high-quality star field renderer – as a product other animators can use (see Starpro). Images shown are copyright, Maas Digital, kindly supplied by Daniel Maas, and reduced considerably in resolution from their originals for web production.

Related Web Pages

Maas Gallery
Martian Chronicles: Steve Squyres’ Mission Journals
James Cameron’s Mars Design Reference
James Cameron III: Space, the Reality Show
James Cameron IV: The ET Challenge
Mars Reference Design Details
Pancam: Surveying the Scene – Martian Style
Interview with Nathalie Cabrol – Pasadena, Spirit Mission Sol 4