Meet the uni that rivalled a leading VFX studio

Teesside University staff and students created the VFX for hit documentary Last Man on the Moon.

Still from Last Man on the Moon

Lecturers and students worked on the VFX for the documentary movie

The story of Apollo 17 astronaut 'Gene' Cernan, in documentary film The Last Man on the Moon, has been getting great reviews, not least for its VFX. So it's perhaps surprising that they weren't created by one of the major VFX studios, but by a group of lecturers and students at Teesside University in Middlesbrough.

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It's been a mixture of surprise and relief, for Penny Holton, senior lecturer in 3D Animation at the university, who describes the project as "kind of a leap of faith". Following a 15-year career working as an animator in Soho, she'd thought her days of working on big productions were over.

Still from Last Man on the Moon

The work was completed during the academic holidays

But when her partner Mark Craig – a graphic designer who'd been trying get into documentary making – landed his first big feature film, she couldn't turn him down.

So Penny assembled a team of fellow lecturers to work through the summer holidays on visual effects sequences that reconstructed the historic Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions. The team used Maya to ensure the technical accuracy of the spacecraft.

Still from Last Man on the Moon

Maya was the main software used

"Initially because we were short of time we bought a Turbosquid model of the Apollo and then completely UVed it and created new texture maps for it, so that gave us a head start. But there were no Gemini 9 models that were any use, so that was modelled from scratch.

"We also had to do an Earth, a Moon and an umbilical.One of my ex-students had been working at Framestore on Gravity, so I asked how he did the umbilical on that. And we ended up using the same cloth-simulation technique."

Still from Last Man on the Moon

The students got their first-ever film credits on the project

Working alongside Penny were Paul Noble, Dave Cockburn and Chris Wyatt, all senior lecturers in Animation at the university, and former lecturer Em Johnson, with help behind the scenes from Michael Ryding, the school's head of digital enterprise.

Some of Penny's students – Bianca Iancu, Caitlin Watts, Emma Berry and Heather Gretton – forewent their summer break to do some retouching work. "There were an awful lot of stills taken on the Moon that had crosshairs to remove, for example," recalls Penny.

"The students didn't get to do any CGI this time, but we're currently in talks over a big feature, and now we've found our feet with this one, we're going to get them more involved."

Still from Last Man on the Moon

The team used the same cloth simulation technique Framestore had employed on Gravity

The students didn't go empty-handed though: "We paid them and gave them a screen credit, and had a special screening on Graduation Day," Penny says. "It was their first-ever credit so they were very excited and their parents were besides themselves."

And the lecturers got the validation that they could still cut it. "Someone saw the film at Sheffield Doc Fest and asked: 'Who at Framestore did the animation?'" smiles Penny. "So that suggests we did a pretty good job."

For more information visit The Last Man on the Moon Facebook page.


Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he’s worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella. Follow him on Twitter @tom_may.