Sunshine (2007): Danny Boyle Fashions the Future

Sunshine is a joint venture with Fox Searchlight, a company that finances and produces British films and provides access to an international distribution network.

In the year 2057, the Sun is dying and mankind faces extinction. Earth’s last hope lies with the Icarus II, a spacecraft with a crew of 8 men and women, led by Captain Kaneda. The mission is to deliver a nuclear device designed to reignite our fading sun. Deep into their voyage, out of radio contact with Earth, the crew hears a distress beacon from the Icarus I, which disappeared on the same mission 7 years earlier. A terrible accident throws their mission into jeopardy and soon the crew find themselves fighting not only for their lives and their sanity, but for the future of all mankind.

Director of photography Alwin Kuchler, production designer Mark Tidesley, makeup and hair designer Christine Blundell, and costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb were Charged with giving cinematic life to director Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s vision of a near-future space mission

The striking visual effects were created by the London-based Moving Picture Company, headed by visual effects supervisor Tom Wood.

“Sunshine began its 15-week shoot in August 2005, and post-production took place in London.

Visual Look

Boyle worked closely with Kuchler (“Proof,” “Code 46”) to create the film’s distinctive look. Boyle explains: “Visually, it is very important that the film is unusual cinematically. When they approach the sun, the question of the balance of light was key, and Kuchler is a great cinematographer for that challenge.”

For Kuchler, it was only when he started prepping “Sunshine” that he began to realize quite how difficult it was going to be, working with an element as dominant, beautiful, and powerful as the Sun itself. He decided to shoot the film in Anamorphic.

Kuchler explains: “I could never ever compete with the beauty of the real Sun. One of the things I wanted to get across was the physical sense of light. The whole spaceship is designed around the fact that it’s being protected from the Sun. On one side you have the gold shield, which reflects all the sunlight away, and on the other side you have absolute darkness. We shot certain sequences in a very dark environment, which you get used to, so when the Sun plays a role, we wanted the audience to have a physical reaction to it.

If you were to take just a teaspoon of the material that makes up the Sun and place it on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the whole of England would be vaporized. Imagine that scale and how you transfer that to celluloid. It made me very aware of the limitations when competing with that power.”

Spaceship Interior Design

To create the interiors and exteriors of the Icarus II, Boyle reunited with production designer Mark Tildesley, who had worked on “Millions” and “28 Days Later.”

Boyle notes: Mark is a genuine creative person and, like me, loves photography books, which was a great language for us to work through. We knew the parameters, and that it was going to be more NASA than ‘Star Wars’ in terms of the balance. So NASA was a great influence.

Producer Macdonald explains that, “Once we decided to set the story in the near future, the concept for the design came from reality. To get that reality for the film, a lot of the ideas for the design were inspired by the research we did involving nuclear submarines, oil-rigs, and, of course, NASA. We learn that on a
Space Shuttle, every single screw has a number and a fitting, and that is the only screw than can go into that hole. We wanted to get some of that level of detail into the film.”

Boyle collected a portfolio of images and visual references for “Sunshine,” which he made available to both cast and crew. Boyle’s brief to Tidesley was to design the Icarus II with the sense of being an organic, living thing tat could break down and could need to be fixed.

Tidesley explains: “We wanted to make the ship very real and believable for the audience so they would buy into the mission. We also wanted the actors to feel that they could have been living in this confined space for month on end. We talked about not using ‘space funk,’ meaning beautiful things for the sake of it, and more about beauty in science, so that meant finding a beauty in that reality. We also made a policy that, in terms of the way we look at our set, we are not reinventing everything. In that sense, we are imagining there are still elements of our world that people would recognize.”

The Icarus II consisted of a massive shield, a mile in diameter, made up of gold panels, which protects the ship from the sun by deflecting the Sun’s heat away from the ship. Behind the shield sits the bomb, the size of Manhattan, and of equal mass to the Moon. In comparison to the shield and the bomb, the living quarters were very confined, consisting of a main corridor that ran the length of the ship. Off this corridor branch the social area, the sleeping quarters, the flight deck, the observation room, the med center, the Earth room and the oxygen garden.