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It's Hard to Politicize a Robot: Ryan White on Good Night Oppy

"Good Night Oppy" tells the story of the two intrepid Mars Rovers that won the hearts of people all over the world by outlasting their expected 90 days and continuing to explore the red planet for more than 14 years. 

I spoke to Ryan White the morning after “Good Night Oppy” won the top Critics Choice documentary award. White talked about what connected people to Opportunity and her rover partner Spirit, how this film connected to the movie that made him want to become a filmmaker, and what it was like to sort through a thousand hours of archival footage to tell their story.

It was fun to see NASA give Spirit and Opportunity their own wake-up songs, just like they give the human explorers in space. So let me begin by asking if you have a personal wake-up song.

My personal wake-up song made it into the film because I very gratuitously got to pick that first song. Every other song in the film was played in a moment that we needed to use in the film and played a story role. But the opening scene, I got to pick my wake-up song, the B-52's "Roam."

The archival footage was astonishing. I kept asking myself how many cameras there were because you had so many good angles to choose from and captured almost-intimate moments of the NASA people’s reactions to what was happening.

We inherited almost 1,000 hours. NASA are incredible documentarians. We saw, even in “Apollo 11,” how well they were documenting those missions back in the '60s. And so, we were very lucky to inherit all that footage. A lot of times it was only one camera in the room, which was amazing visually, but a nightmare for my sound designer because he would have this wonderful footage of mission control but it's from old cameras where the microphone was in the camera and the person might be on the other side of the room. So, he had to cull through thousands of hours of mission control audio. 

NASA had one embedded cinematographer named John Beck Hofmann who shot a remarkable percentage of this mission from the very beginning. And there was a lot more footage from the first year of the mission. Then the robots kept surviving. The filmmakers were there less and less, and then they would show up for the critical junctures in their missions. And of course, they started filming a lot at the end of both missions as well. But it was an incredible archive and it's like one of those filmmaker folklore stories that I always hear about from my friends where they get this archive and have no idea what's on it, but it's handed over to them. I'd never made a film like that, but that's totally what this was like. And I had a huge team of people watching every minute of that looking for all these amazing moments. It was like looking for needles in a haystack.

Of course, there’s no archival footage of the rovers on Mars other than that classic “selfie,” because they were the ones taking the photos. So, how were the images of the rovers rolling around the surface of the planet created?

We had hundreds of thousands of photographs. Each robot had nine cameras on her and they were shooting photos all day long. And then there's two orbiters above Mars that shoot photography down on Mars, which are called high-rise photographs. And so, we know what Mars looks like. We know exactly what every day of these robot's journeys looks like because they are covered in cameras. And so, the question was can we bring that to life in a photo-real way? 

I made this film with Amblin Entertainment so they know their special effects, and they connected me with Industrial Light and Magic. I said, “Can you use all this photography to create an authentic Mars? Because I don't want to make a cartoon. And so, if it's going to look like a cartoon then let's not go down this path.” And they said, “We've never done that before. We've created Mars but it's usually around an actor in Utah somewhere, and we create the world around him or her. But we've never built it from the ground up.” 

But they loved the idea of the challenge of that. So, it became a very documentary way of doing visual effects, which they had never done before. It was completely tied to real photography. And I have to say the biggest compliment we've been getting are from the people at NASA when they're watching the film and saying, “Oh my God, how did they do that? It looks exactly like what Mars looks like.” So, that's thrilling.

Why is it that we respond in such a visceral, personal way to these stories of machines?

It's not just machines. My favorite film growing up was “E.T.” And so, to get to make a documentary with Amblin was so incredible. And E.T. in the Basket is on our poster, which I keep pinching myself about. But I think it's a tale of those times of human beings connecting with non-humans. Our film has a scientific message, too about climate change as well. 

I think it's something when you strip the humans away. It's hard to politicize a robot. So, no one's arguing with the fact that these robots discovered that there has been some sort of insane climate change on our sister planet because they're robots, they have a few tools that take measurements that prove that. 

I think it's something similar in the feelings we have. I remember a tweet went viral in 2019, and that's when Opportunity sent her last communication to Earth. “The battery is low and it's getting dark.” They had millions of hits on Twitter. And so, there was something about this little robot on trouble in another planet that did something to people's hearts. It's very Wall-E-esque. That idea of her traveling alone and is she going to be okay. 

I hope people are connecting with these robots in the film because of the humans behind the robots. The robots are the humans. They created those robots. They drive those robots every day. It's just these human beings can't go to Mars safely so they send these robots as their avatars. So really, it's two robots standing in for thousands of people that poured their hearts into them.

Were the robots really responding in such conversational ways? Because that, of course, helps to personalize it, too.

We used to have a whole scene detailing how those conversations happened and I was gutting when we finally had to cut the part that showed how it goes through binary code and travels through this wormhole up to space. The orbiters that I talked about, they used to be characters in our film because they're often personified as the big sister in the sky looking down on the robots, and the messages go through them down. And we just realized you have to be sort of judicious in a feature. People don't need to know every single technical detail on how these messages come. And so, we do it in sort of an instant messenger way, but it is all through binary code and then it's translated by NASA. So, “my battery is low and it's getting dark” they get that message in binary, then they translate it for us civilians.

I assume NASA had a "what if" long list of things they wanted them to do if they did go past the expected 90 days. But 14 years is a long time. Did they ever run out of things for them to do?

No. The final journey to Endeavour Crater took almost three years for Opportunity. So, a rover that was supposed to last for 90 days and in the middle of her life, they're sending her on a three-year journey to get somewhere. I think every year that they outlasted the odds, the bond with them grew more and more. And I've heard from a lot of the scientists and engineers that I've talked to, even ones that were in the film, that the older generation of people, like the people that were there at the beginning, they were just loving every minute because it was an extended warranty that they never expected. 

They say it was the younger generations that took it the hardest when both robots died because they never expected to get to work on these robots. We have two young women in our film, and it was these robots that inspired them to get into the space field, and then suddenly they're PhDs at 30 years old and they're getting to work on Opportunity. And so, they were the ones that really wanted the robots to never die. The older generations were kind of at peace with it, that they had outlasted the odds so much. 

But what's interesting is the current rovers, there's two rovers on Mars, one named Curiosity, one named Perseverance. They're not solar-powered anymore, so NASA doesn't really say how long they could live. I think they could outlive us. They have a nuclear battery and they're not relying on the sun anymore. And so, those rovers could be exploring Mars for decades, if not longer.

What are you doing next?

I'm making a film about Pamela Anderson that is coming out very soon on Netflix. And as my friend joked the other day, “It's just another film about a white woman running on the sand," which is my new favorite explanation of the through-line of my documentaries. 

"Good Night Oppy" is on Prime Video now. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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