Good Night Oppy

February 22, 2023

Director Ryan White’s inspirational documentary Good Night Oppy, available on Amazon Prime, details the remarkable story of NASA’s twin rovers – Opportunity (a.k.a. “Oppy”) and Spirit – which were originally intended for a 90-day mission but managed to survive the unforgiving conditions of Mars for up to 15 years, traveling miles across the Martian surface searching for evidence of water in the planet’s distant past.

But what makes the film so compelling is not just the extraordinary engineering behind the mission and the scientific discoveries the robots were able to relay back to Earth, but White’s focus on the human element of the story. The scientists and engineers who devoted decades of their lives to the mission came to see these two robots as their children.

White turned to longtime collaborators Helen Kearns, ACE, and Rejh Cabrera to edit the film. “Both Rejh and I have worked with Ryan and [producer] Jessica Hargrave on many projects before, so whenever Ryan calls me, I’m going to answer the phone,” says Kearns, who started in November 2020, and worked through February 2021, when she took maternity leave and handed the baton to Cabrera. “After my mat leave, I came back and we worked on the film together almost to the end. We finished up in November 2021,” she relates. “It was a pretty intense year, but really fun and super fulfilling.”

Kearns explains that due to the pandemic, they had to approach the whole project in a different way. “Normally, Ryan and Jess would start by spending time with the subjects, getting interviews with them, and then Rejh and I would start watching those interviews and start to cut things along with the archival.

But because of the pandemic, Ryan and Jess were not able to start doing those sit-down interviews right away. So instead, they did these one- or two-hour-long Zoom interviews with a ton of people who worked on the rovers and we used those interviews to write the screenplay and structure the main arc of the story.”

From that starting point Kearns was instrumental in developing the script and also shares a writing credit on the film. “We didn’t even have archival footage at that point. It took NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) a little while to get this massive amount of archival material together for us,” she says. “When Rehj started, we were finally getting the archival trickling in, so he started by really digging into the archival and building scenes based on what we knew we needed based on the screenplay and the Zoom interviews.”

Associate producer Grace Oathout led a huge team of people who were charged with sifting through mountains of archival footage, logging it and flagging the more interesting scenes – a process that was instrumental in helping the editors sort through a massive amount of footage.

When Kearns came back from maternity leave, the editorial process became much more collaborative. “I love working with Rejh because we have a kind of shorthand,” says Kearns. “We know what to expect from each other. If I get stuck on a scene, I can pass it over to him and he’ll work on it for a little while. So, I think there’s probably not a single piece of the film that’s solely Rejh or solely me. It’s really a collaboration.”

“We’re like two peas in a pod when it comes to editing,” Cabrera adds. In fact, he started out as her assistant editor until the 2017 docuseries The Keepers when Kearns gave him his first scenes to edit and he was bumped up to associate editor. “Working under Helen, I learned so much about editing and to this day, I’m still looking up to her and when I get stuck, I think, ‘What would Helen do?’”

In addition to the archival footage and original interviews, much of the film relies on VFX sequences of the rovers created by ILM. Early in the editorial process, the editors worked closely with storyboard artist Josh Sheppard to work out the timing of those sequences.

“We would cut a scene starting out with just slates that were describing the shot that we wanted to see, and that evolved to storyboards, and then we worked with [Josh] to time out the shots and figure out how long a shot would take and what would happen beginning, middle and end of each shot. And then we handed those storyboards and our edited sequences with those storyboards over to ILM, which would start creating shots based on that.”

Cabrera says that working with so many VFX shots was one of the key challenges of the film. “It’s sort of like you’re trying to view your editorial two steps ahead,” he says. “How do we edit so that we’re not constrained, but we’re not abusing the really valuable time of great artists? It’s not something that we’re used to in the documentary world – envisioning what your edit will look like in a month.”

Stylistically, Cabrera explains that they hoped to capture some of the sense of childhood wonder of narrative films like E.T. from a big-picture, macro standpoint. “I was very much in that mindset, but speaking from my standpoint, when you jump on projects, you kind of bring a lifetime of inspiration into the editing room, [when it comes to the question] what’s the vibe that you want to feel from the film?”

“I think the voices of our subjects were really guiding us in many ways,” adds Kearns. “Like the passion that they had for the work that they were doing, and the way that they connected with these robots was the glue that held the whole film together. And that’s really what was guiding us as we were making the film.”

The film builds to the heartbreaking moment, when after 15 years of boldly going where no robot has gone before, the team must face their worst fears when Oppy won’t wake up after being hammered by an intense Martian sandstorm. “I think part of what makes Ryan such a gifted director is that he is always kind of seeking out … the human soft spot, the human core and every story, and that was one of the things he was most interested in when he was talking to these scientists. And I think [what] really came through in their interviews is that they really wear their hearts on their sleeves when they’re talking about the rovers.”

Cabrera explains that one of the things that makes White a good documentarian is the fact that he’s a good listener. “That same skill-set that makes him a great director on set makes a great collaborator in the edit.”

The film’s music derives largely from NASA’s tradition of beaming a ‘wake up’ song to astronauts as an early morning alarm clock. Members of the JPL team carried on this tradition and took turns picking the daily song, which, of course, does more to inspire the humans on the ground, than the rovers on Mars.

Cabrera explains that early in the process, sound designer Mark Mangini handed over a palette of sounds that he had recorded and gathered to use in the cut. “It was a joy to get to use that in the edit. That isn’t something that I’m used to for documentaries, but gave us a buffet of awesome stuff to work with and that was part of the process of finding the DNA [of the film].”

Kearns adds, “That was also critical for the edit, and it’s something that as documentary editors, we don’t very often get to have that kind of early approach to sound design. As soon as we started getting in these sounds that he made, we realized, ‘Oh, there’s so much possibility for the kind of personality that we can infuse into Oppy,’ and we created a little bit more space every once in a while for those little sound moments to come through.”

The editors give a shout out to their lead assistant editor Berenice Chavez who was promoted to associate editor during production. “Bernice was awesome,” says Cabrera. “She would have a stab at certain scenes and make changes to scenes as we were attending to other things, and so she had a huge creative impact on the film.”

The editors were also assisted by Nick McGregor. “We had a ton of graphics that went along with all of the little rover communications, and he did a lot of that,” says Kearns. On a personal note, Cabrera explains that as a university science major who had gone on to pursue a career in Hollywood, working on Good Night Oppy reignited his passion for science. “I hope the film inspires audiences to look around them and appreciate the magic of science wherever that takes them,” he says.

“There’s something really beautiful and inspiring about people who are doing this kind of work,” Kearns adds. “I hope that audiences take away some inspiration about what’s possible. This is a story that’s 20 years old at this point, but it’s incredible what we achieved with these rovers and it’s really inspiring. I hope that young people are touched by this story and inspired to go into whatever kind of STEM field that they are interested in.”

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