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How ‘Good Night Oppy’ director Ryan White captured life on Mars

His new documentary follows the amazing journeys of twin NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity — and the humans who loved them

Ryan White, director of the documentary "Good Night Oppy."David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In January 2004, twin NASA rovers landed on Mars. Named Spirit and Opportunity, the NASA robots were only expected to last around 90 days. Fast forward years later, and the rovers were still kicking, rolling around the Red Planet and sending photos back to their human parents on Earth.

Director Ryan White captures the rovers’ awe-inspiring pilgrimage in “Good Night Oppy,” a documentary that is part archival treasure trove, part VFX showpiece (with Mars sequences by Industrial Light & Magic, the effects company founded by George Lucas), and part emotional epic. White, who directed “Ask Dr. Ruth” and co-directed “The Case Against 8,” knows that Spirit and Opportunity are delightful enough to inspire their own “WALL-E” spinoff tales, but his film also spotlights the tight-knit team of scientists and engineers who shepherded the robots into space.


Earlier this month, “Good Night Oppy” played at Coolidge Corner Theatre on the opening night of the GlobeDocs Film Festival. White came to Boston for the event, and spoke to the Globe over Zoom about his cosmic crowd-pleaser. The film opens at Landmark Kendall Square on Nov. 4, and will be released on Prime Video on Nov. 23.

A still from "Good Night Oppy."GlobeDocs Film Festival

Q. What do you remember from when the rovers landed on Mars in 2004?

A. I was in college, so I was a disaster zone in many ways and don’t remember it. But I’ve always loved space missions. When I was growing up, I followed all of that. But I feel like as we get older and we enter adulthood, we lose a little bit of that sense of wonder that we have as kids. I definitely did. My entry point to the doc was 2019, at the end of Opportunity’s mission, when a tweet went viral. It was her final communication to Earth, which was translated as, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” I remember reading that and being just gutted by this idea that a robot was in trouble.


Q. The documentary makes use of incredible archival footage from inside NASA. What struck you when you first sifted through that trove?

A. I can’t say I looked through all of it, because it was almost 1,000 hours of footage. A big team looked through it all. It was a treasure hunt. It was like looking for needles in a haystack every day. It’s not like NASA hands over that footage and there’s a tape log. They were like, “We have no idea what’s here, but you’re welcome to look.” I consider myself a verité documentary filmmaker, which means I’m normally following something unfolding in real time with my camera. This was different for me in the sense that the story had already happened. I had never made a truly archival film before. Every day was a discovery.

One moment that comes to mind is the scene of ABBA’s “SOS” being played when the team is trying to recover Spirit. NASA didn’t point us to that. That was my editor. And I’m a control freak as a director: I like to see something every day from both of my editors. And one day he said, “I think I found something really special,” and then he sent me that scene with the scientists mouthing the words to “SOS” looking so depressed.


Q. A lot of the film unfolds in animated, photorealistic sequences on Mars. Can you talk about the process of creating those with Industrial Light & Magic?

A. I don’t call them animation; I call them visual effects, since animation is often seen as cartoony. The idea from day one of this film was: How do we take the audience to Mars with the robots? How do we make the audience feel like they’re on this adventure with them? Industrial Light & Magic was very honest. They said they’d created a Mars before, but not a real Mars — a Mars that actors shot on a desert in Nevada or something. They savored the challenge of creating a completely authentic Mars. We had the boon of hundreds of thousands of photos that these robots had taken, and hundreds of thousands of photos from above Mars that the satellite orbiters took.

I know I drove them insane at times, but the challenge was to create a completely real Mars down to the lighting on a certain day, or the weather that Spirit was going through, or the amount of dust in the air. Industrial Light & Magic lit those scenes in that way. I’m sure it’s something an audience would never notice. But I love that even down to those minute details, everything we did is as accurate as possible.

Q. So it might be the most accurate depiction of Mars to date.

A. Now, NASA is watching the film, and scientists and engineers are seeing that world. That’s why they sent these robots — because they can’t go to Mars themselves, so they send these robots as their avatar to see that world. They’ve seen it in color, but they’ve never seen it photo-real, and hearing from them, “Oh my God, it felt like we were there on that mission” — that’s the biggest compliment.


Q. The movie really works for all age groups. I read that you even tested rough cuts with kids. Do you remember any of their feedback?

A. Tested is definitely too sophisticated of a term for what we did. There was no formal testing. The people that made the film, those families watched it. So our sample size was quite small. But that’s the genius of this mission, right? It was “WALL-E” before “WALL-E.” They designed something purposefully that was lovable and adorable. They designed a creature, not by accident, but by design: It was something that the public can fall in love with, because we are the ones funding that mission as taxpayers.

The best was at the Hamptons Film Festival. The [artistic director] brought his 4-year-old to the film. I wasn’t in the screening, but afterwards I was like, “How did the 4-year-old like it?” He said, “Well, he took a nap during the archival parts, but once the robot landed, he was totally into it.” He said that his kid kept saying after, “That robot was so funny.” And I’m not even sure if there’s anything funny that the robot does. But he was like, “Even when my kid woke up in the morning, he was like, ‘Dad, that movie was so funny.’”


Q. The film depicts this intense bond between the NASA engineers and the rovers. The team anthropomorphizes the robots and calls them their children. It struck me as an apt metaphor for filmmaking. I’ve heard a lot of directors refer to their films as their babies.

A. It really is analogous. I love my job so much — to a fault. Like, I wish I could learn to love my job less, because it dominates my life. People always ask me, what’s your favorite film that you’ve made? And I’m sure that’s what it’s like to be a parent. I can’t choose a favorite. Spending time with these people, they’re the same way. Morning, afternoon, night: They’re obsessed with these missions. The idea of launching a robot, it’s like sending your kid off to college. That to me is totally what it is to put a film into the world. You’ve nurtured something so much, you’ve debated every single second, and then it’s up to everyone else how it’s received. You have no control anymore.

I walked into the theater at the Coolidge for the last 20 minutes of the film. I wasn’t watching. I know every word. I was watching the audience, like, creepily from the side, watching people’s faces as they experienced it. I think it’s something similar for these scientists and engineers. It’s faith, right? It’s that leap of faith. You’ve tried your hardest to create something that you hope will work, and then after you send it out into the universe, you see what happens.

Interview was edited and condensed for clarity.