Eye Piece: How I Trained Astronauts to Shoot the Stunning 4K Footage in A Beautiful Planet from Space

A Beautiful Planet is the seventh IMAX film shot in space by astronauts, and continues a three-decade long association with NASA that began in 1984, when IMAX cameras were first flown aboard the space shuttle.

Directed by Toni Myers, with myself serving as DP, A Beautiful Planet is a follow-up to our 1990 IMAX documentary Blue Planet. It looks at Earth from the vantage of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), an unusually expansive perspective that reveals the effects humanity has had on the planet.

The idea of taking IMAX cameras to space originated with Michael Collins, the command module pilot for Apollo 11. Collins was serving as director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1976 when the facility opened, and the museum included one of the early IMAX screens. After seeing the power and immersive quality of the IMAX images, Collins suggested to IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson that the best way to share the experience of space flight with the general public would be to fly an IMAX camera on NASA’s yet-to-be launched space shuttle.

It would be five years before the shuttle flew, and another three years before the first IMAX camera would leave Earth. The results were definitely worth the wait. Those first images from orbit of the earth were breathtaking, and even before we completed the first IMAX space film, The Dream Is Alive, plans were being formed to make a film looking at earth from the vantage point of space. That film would become Blue Planet.

A Beautiful Planet, though, is the first IMAX space film to be shot entirely on digital cameras. One of the first things NASA told us when we initially pitched the film was, “You cannot fly film.” With the retirement of the space shuttle, there just isn’t enough room to fly film up into space and back down to Earth in a timely manner, so we set off on a search for a reasonable digital solution.

Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the Gulf of Mexico are seen in this spectacular view over Texas. Gas and oil well flares are visible

Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the Gulf of Mexico (with visible gas and oil well flares), shot from space

Shooting IMAX on Digital

One of the first issues centered on aspect ratios. Traditional IMAX projection is 1.43:1, and with screens as wide as 120 feet in the mix, filling them with a digital image that is 16:9 was going to present some challenges. Rather than letterbox the image, our plan was to crop the sides of the image and use post-production techniques to improve the resolution, enhance the sharpness and reduce noise.

Another challenge was image resolution. No one has ever really put a quantitative resolution number on film. Many agree that an Academy 35mm frame is close to 4K, and if that is the case, an IMAX frame is equivalent to 12.7K. There aren’t any cameras out there that shoot 12.7K at 24 frames per second; not even close.

In 2012, we began testing several of the top-tier digital cameras side by side with 15 perf IMAX  film: the Arri Alexa M (2K, but with a 4:3 sensor), the Sony F-65, the Phantom 65, the Red Epic and the Canon C300. We shot in the ISS, at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas and at a yacht harbor in Kemah, Texas. I wanted to see what the cameras could do in a space-like environment and how they would handle a lot of fine detail at various distances. Part of the testing included having current and former astronauts evaluate the cameras for size, user-friendliness and zero-G usability.

Those tests narrowed down the field to the Epic and the Canon C300. Even though the Canon was an HD camera and we were looking for 4K or better, we liked the way the image looked. We’d also had some previous experience with Canon material, as we had flown a Canon XH G1 HDV camera on Hubble 3D with remarkable success. We also knew that the C500 4K was in the works. A year later, when that camera hit the market, we repeated the test with the C500, recording uncompressed 4K out to a Codex Onboard S+, and the Epic at 5K. In this final test, the Canon C500 emerged as the clear winner.

One of the real challenges for digital cameras when shooting for the giant screen is resolving fine, high-frequency details in the wide shots. It is this level of detail that allows for those wonderful vistas IMAX is known for.

While we felt the C500 was well-suited to the task of recording day-to-day life on board the ISS, we were not as confident with its ability to capture the earth shots with the clarity we needed. This led us to look for another solution for shooting the terrestrial-looking images.

Cupola Observation Module. The Cupola is a panoramic observation platform on the International Space Station

The Cupola, a panoramic observation platform on the International Space Station

An (Un)Earthly Hyperlapse

We decided to use a full-frame still camera to shoot image sequences—basically a “hyperlapse” of the Earth as it moved by at 17,500 miles per hour. There were two advantages to be had with this idea. First, the full-frame still sensor at 1.5:1 aspect ratio closely matched the IMAX aspect ratio, so we would end up with 5K resolution. Second, we would be able to use longer shutter speeds to get the exposure necessary for night scenes of the planet.

The next question was how would this hyperlapse material look on the IMAX screen. The answer came quickly when we looked at the first test: not watchable. We had to come up with a solution, and that fix was to interpolate the in-between frames, converting the low-frame-rate time lapse to 24 frames per second.

Fortunately, an astronaut friend of ours, Don Pettit, just happened to be aboard ISS, so we asked if he could shoot a test for us. We converted the image sequences he sent down, put them on the big screen and they looked amazing! We had found our solution for Earth shots.

The final flight package would be two cameras, the Canon 1DC with two Canon Cine Prime lenses (14mm T3.1 and 24mm T1.5), and the Canon C500 recording out to a Codex Onboard S+ with two PL mount lenses (an Arri Master Prime 12mm T1.3 and a Canon 15.5-47mm Cine Zoom.)

Getting the Gear Flight-Certifed

Everything that goes to ISS has to go through a rigorous series of tests in order to get flight-certified.  These tests can take many months to complete, and there’s no guarantee your hardware will pass. NASA looks at material lists to identify anything that might be toxic to the crew on orbit. They evaluate things like electromagnetic emissions, heat dissipation, sharp edges and power consumption. If the hardware is battery-powered, the batteries and charging system will be tested, which can be a very expensive process.

The CF cards, the Codex solid-state drives and the Onboard S+ recorder had to be tested for radiation susceptibility. This was done at the radiation laboratory at Indiana University, where they bombarded the hardware with a year’s worth of radiation in about three seconds. The results were positive, and we were confident our data would survive low Earth orbit.

NASA Commander Barry (Butch) Wilmore enjoys Zero-G

NASA Commander Barry (Butch) Wilmore poses with various pieces of shooting equipment on the ISS

As luck would have it, NASA had already flight-certified the Canon BP-955 batteries that powered the C500, so those were good to go. The good folks at Codex designed and built a custom battery plate for the recorder that would use two of the BP-955 batteries, so powering that system was easy. We only had to certify the batteries and charger for the 1DC.

After months of very hard work by some very dedicated individuals at NASA, our cameras were approved to fly.

An Astronaut Film Crew

I often joke about being the only director of photography that had to teach his first unit how to shoot—but what a first unit! You really can’t beat astronauts for students; they are some of the fastest learners on (or off) the planet. We were very fortunate to be flying on ISS at the same time as several really dedicated crews. Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Terry Virts and Kjell Lindgren were our primary cameramen. Samantha Cristoforetti, Kimiya Yui and Scott Kelly served as additional camera operators, and all of the crews were our actors.

Basic photography is part of the initial training astronauts receive at NASA prior to being assigned their first flight, so the crews had a fundamental understanding of things like exposure, f-stop, shutter speeds, lens selection and focus. What we had to do was get them up to speed on our cameras, the “buttonology,” the differences when shooting for a giant screen, and the basic aesthetics of IMAX cinema.

Neihouse and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during an IMAX® camera training session at the Space Station Mockup and Training Facility (SSMTF) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston Texas

Neihouse (left) and astronaut Scott Kelly during an IMAX camera training session at the Space Station Mockup and Training Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

When an astronaut is assigned to be an IMAX shooter, they are scheduled for about 25 hours of extra training in the months before their flight. In that time, we—the IMAX space team of director Toni, sound trainer Greg Smith and me—had to get them up to speed on shooting for the giant screen. They had to learn everything an earthbound film crew has to do: setting up a scene, determining the action, lighting the scene, determining exposure, composing the frame and recording audio.

During training, we developed a “shopping list” of shots we wanted the crew to get: things like exercising, holiday celebrations, new crew arrivals, daily routines that show what living in space is like. There were also Earth targets, which were the main theme of the film; about 150 specific locations on the globe were on the list.

All of our camera equipment was launched to the space station aboard the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon supply vehicle on September 21, 2014. The Dragon is one of four commercial cargo vehicles that fly to the ISS and the only one that returns to Earth without burning up in the upper atmosphere.

There were quite a few advantages the digital cameras brought to the production, not the least of which was a much longer run time. With our film cameras, we would get at the most three minutes per 1,000-foot load, which is limiting, to say the least. The most film we ever flew on a shuttle mission was 10 rolls, which is 100 pounds of film and a lot of storage space, but only 30 minutes of shooting time. The crews were always under pressure to get the shot right the first time, since there was not enough film for second takes.

With the digital cameras, we flew 12 Codex data packs, which were about the size of a cell phone and weighed only 7.5 oz each, but could record 30 minutes of raw uncompressed video per pack. The 1DC and the C500 proxies recorded to SanDisk 32GB CF cards, of which we flew 50. All of this data-storage capability allowed the astronauts to shoot at will, without the worry of running out of storage media.

IMAX film cameras are loud! I have often said they sound like sewing machines on steroids, so all of previous sound recording in space always had this constant din in the background, and past films required us to do a lot of automated dialogue replacement (ADR). Digital cameras are quiet, so we got a lot of great sync sound. Combined with the ability to shoot longer takes, this allowed the crews to capture some really special moments we would not have gotten with the IMAX film camera.

The small size of the Canon cameras allowed the crews to put them in places an IMAX film camera would not have fit. It would have been impossible to get shots of the crew in the cupola using the film camera. The IMAX camera size has always been a burden on the flight crews. Some astronauts even said it was like having a big ol’ dog on a leash following you around. It took both hands to hold and operate the camera. With the digital camera, the crew could carry a camera with each arm.

The great low-light capability of the Canon cameras allowed the astronauts to capture images for the IMAX screen that we had never seen. Now they could shoot night scenes with lightning, auroras, city lights and fishing boats at sea. Capturing these kinds of images allowed us to tell the story of humans’ impact on the planet by revealing population centers not readily visible during the day.

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren prepares the IMAX® camera over and empty space suite for an upcoming shoot onboard the International Space Station

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren prepares the IMAX camera over an empty space suite on the ISS

Receiving the Footage

Getting dailies back from the space station isn’t as difficult as it sounds. NASA maintains an almost constant Ku band link with the orbiting lab through a series of data relay satellites and ground stations. The speed is about 300mbps down and 25mbps up. Any digital data collected on orbit can be downlinked via this system to the scientists on the ground. The link is also the standard method for sending digital images back to earth, so fortunately for us that system was already in place and well-tested.

For data on a CF card, the crew simply had to put the card in a reader, and the data was automatically transferred to the networked computer. The ground controllers then went on the network and downloaded the files.

We had three different image file types to deal with: the still images from the 1DC which averaged 25MB per frame, the C500 MFX proxy files and the 4K uncompressed raw data from the Codex recorder. The crew would downlink the still images as well as the 1080 proxy files, while the Codex SSD drives would be returned to earth on the Dragon to be processed and re-flown on the next launch. (It would have been possible to fly Codex’s transfer docks and downlink the 4K that way, but that would have taken a lot of crew time and required flight certification for more hardware and software.)

Transferring the images worked just fine until June 28, 2015, when SpaceX CRS-7 failed 139 seconds after liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Apart from loosing our replacement 1DC still camera, the accident halted all SpaceX flights until the cause of the failure could be determined and fixed. Our 4K data was stuck in space.

We were then faced with the challenge of getting our high-resolution material to the ground via the downlink. Fortunately for us, we had two very good resources: our space operations guru, former astronaut Marsha Ivins, and the good folks at Codex Digital. Together, they came up with a procedure to connect the Onboard S+ recorder to a space station laptop with an Ethernet cable. After an IP address change that allowed the computer to think the recorder was an external hard drive, we were set to start downloading 1.4TB of data on a 300mbps link. Six weeks later, we had every shot on the ground without missing a single bit.

The crew wrapped up shooting on December 11, 2015, when Kjell Lindgren got a long-awaited shot of Moscow at night, which was the last target on the list. After 403 days of principal photography in space, A Beautiful Planet was wrapped. The Canon cameras had performed flawlessly. There wasn’t a single technical issue over the course of 15 months and more than 190 million miles flown in space. Butch, Terry and Kjell did an outstanding job capturing some of the most beautiful images we have ever gotten from space in the past 35 years. I couldn’t have done better myself—but I’d still like to try! MM

A Beautiful Planet was released on IMAX and IMAX 3D screens nationwide on April 29, 2016, by IMAX Entertainment and Disney Studios. Images courtesy of IMAX Corporation and NASA.

1 Comment

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