There’s no question that “Good Night Oppy” is a documentary in the eyes of its director Ryan White, even though the film features special effects of its two robot subjects roaming around Mars. “The process we took to create those visual effects is completely steeped in reality,” he says in the latest episode of Variety Doc Dreams, presented by National Georgrapic. “I don’t see them as recreations, I see them as a real documentary way of taking on visual effects, and I’m seeing that more in my colleagues’ films. Why can’t documentary filmmakers have access to tools that have been in the toolkit of scripted filmmakers from the beginning of cinema?”
“Good Night Oppy” tells the story of Opportunity, nicknamed Oppy, and Spirit, the two Mars rovers that launched in 2003 and were expected to operate for only 90 days but instead explored the planet for nearly 15 years. The movie features archival and interview footage with the scientists and engineers, along with recreations of the rover’s treks over the landscape in search of water.
White is a huge space geek, and when he was a child he wanted to be an astronaut. With many filmmaking partners, one of which is Jessica Hargrave White’s childhood best friend, there was a correlation between these two robots attempting to do the impossible and what White and Hargrave set out to do. “Very early on, the engineers saw varying personalities, and they still don’t know why that is,” White says. “Spirit was seen as the problematic rover and Opportunity was seen as Little Miss Perfect. If you look at Jess and my history, it’s very director-producer, too. The directors are the ones always causing the mess and problems, and producers are basically there to make sure we don’t get into too much trouble. So there’s definitely a lot of Spirit in myself, and Opportunity is Jess. She loves rules. I hate rules.”
The team behind “Good Night Oppy” inherited thousands of hours of footage from NASA and had over 300 crew members working on the project, from sound design to the visual effects artists at Industrial Light and Magic. With a 105-minute runtime, there are about 35 minutes of re-created sequences of Opportunity, and its twin robot Spirit on Mars.
In addition, White instituted the help of Emmy-winning composer Blake Neely and sound designer Mark Mangini, a two-time Oscar winner for “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and the current reigning champion for “Dune” (2021). “These are big names in Hollywood, artisans that are attached to huge budget spectacles and here they are, with you, creating this intimate story about two robots. Showing that cinema is for everyone and everyone has different skill sets for the way we tell them.”
One of the film’s most pivotal scenes sees the scientists sending signals to Oppy to have the robot take a “selfie” of itself toward the end of its life, 14 years after it launched. The scene almost didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie. “I feel like almost every scene in a documentary at some point ends up on the cutting room floor. You have to be open to losing even your most favorite moments in service of the story.”
Monica has a BA in Journalism and English from the University of Massachusetts and an MS in Journalism and Communications from Quinnipiac University. Monica has worked as a journalist for over 20 years covering all things entertainment. She has covered everything from San Diego Comic-Con, The SAG Awards, Academy Awards, and more. Monica has been published in Variety, Swagger Magazine, Emmy Magazine, CNN, AP, Hidden Remote, and more. For the past 10 years, she has added PR and marketing to her list of talents as the president of Prime Entertainment Publicity, LLC. Monica is ready for anything and is proudly obsessed with pop culture.