Space station film school: How astronauts shot this glorious IMAX movie
"A Beautiful Planet" director Toni Myers reveals how you make a film on the International Space Station, the dangers of cosmic radiation and her love of "Interstellar".
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
To become an astronaut, you already need to be pretty highly skilled. But in order to tell the story of spectacular IMAX documentary "A Beautiful Planet", the crew of the International Space Station needed to add a new skill: filmmaking.
Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, "A Beautiful Planet" is a revealing glimpse into the day-to-day life aboard the ISS. Not only that, as per the film's title, the view expands to majestic vistas of the Earth below, clearly showing the impact we as a species have upon the planet we call home. It's a stunning and humbling vision, captured from the unique perspective of the astronauts who shot most of the film.
To share this unique perspective with audiences back on earth, director Toni Myers and cinematographer James Neihouse gave each crew of astronauts about 22 to 30 hours of cinematic schooling. The space aces learned how to use the digital 4K Canon cameras, as well as filmmaking fundamentals such as lighting, framing and recording sound -- all in a spaceflight simulator.
"Towards the end of their training we turn them loose with the cameras in the simulators and they have to make a little movie," said Myers of the group's final test before heading into space. "They have to direct their fellow crew members in the scenes, and then we throw it up on an IMAX screen."
"That's the best teaching school there is," said Myers, "because if the principles we've taught them haven't sunk in you sure see it at 60 by 80 feet!"
The astronauts were then sent into orbit armed with a laundry list of things to shoot. They were able to collaborate with their director back on Earth too: "Communications are a lot better than they used to be with the station," said Myers, "so if they have questions they call me on the cellphone...Quite often they would have an idea about shooting something we hadn't discussed and they would call. They'd shoot it, and I would be able to send them back a PowerPoint with screen grabs and arrows pointing and saying, 'This is not quite framed right, try again, this is a little out of focus.'"
Myers has edited and directed a number of films about space, many in the oversized IMAX format. She's worked on films focusing on the Hubble telescope, the Mir space station and the Columbia space shuttle.
"Beautiful Planet" was the first of these projects shot on digital cameras. "NASA said right up front there's no way we could fly traditional IMAX cameras and 70mm film [to the ISS] any more," said Myers, "because the shuttle had retired and there just wasn't the up-mass to go back and forth."
But the switch to digital had huge benefits. "There was never a take 2 when we flew film," remembered Myers. "A roll of film was three shots and you were done." The astronauts revelled in this new freedom: between them they shot a whopping 11.5TB of footage.
Still, digital filming isn't without its problems in the environment of space. "You have a different set of worries. The camera chips get hit by cosmic radiation so you get pixel hits. But we anticipated that and had them shoot dark frames before and after scenes so you have a map of where to remove them."
Those filming problems are, of course, on top of the challenges of living in a fundamentally hostile environment. The documentary shows the infectious joy and camaraderie of the astronauts sharing their life-changing experience, but in some scenes you get a sense of the danger always close by.
Having shown the astronauts suiting up for a spacewalk and heading outside the protective bubble of the space station, Myers marvels at "the focus you have to maintain every second you're out there. It's so complicated it's almost abstract -- there's no up or down and you don't even know which part of the station you're on, so it's very easy to get lost or confused. One wrong move...if you slice through your suit it's all over."
That inherent drama has powered a recent cycle of movies about astronauts, including "Interstellar", "Gravity" and "The Martian". As someone who's filmed the real thing, which space-faring flicks does Myers rate?
"I loved 'Interstellar'," she said of the epic 2014 film directed by Christopher Nolan. "I spent some time with Chris Nolan -- he had seen all our films when he was growing up. I loved it because it tackled the most difficult part of human exploration, which is that it's a multi-generational journey. It was a real work of art."
"I should be careful," she smiled, "because Alfonso Cuarón [director of 'Gravity'] flattered me enormously by going to see our film 'Hubble' nine times, to soak up the physical appearance of Hubble and how astronauts behave in space. That said, they didn't even try to be even vaguely scientifically accurate...Sandra Bullock whipping off her spacesuit and just having her regular t-shirt made everybody laugh.
"I thought of it just like a theme park ride," said Myers, and admitted "Gravity" was something of a guilty pleasure: "Having worked so hard to cover the building of the space station," she laughed, "it was kind of fun to see it all fly apart!"
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