By now, film audiences have basically seen it all. It’s difficult to be wowed by anything on-screen anymore, because anything a computer whiz can think up can be done. Dinosaurs? Seen it. Giant fighting robots? Old news. Sandra Bullock floating untethered above planet Earth? What else is new? The rise of incredible visual effects makes it easy to forget just how amazing our actual Earth is — until you stop and take a moment to take it all in. That’s the kernel of the idea behind filmmaker Toni Myers’ gorgeous new 3D IMAX film, A Beautiful Planet.
Myers is an IMAX veteran, having worked on several productions that feature the enormous film format. Several of those projects included footage shot by actual astronauts, including 2002’s Space Station 3D and 2010’s Hubble 3D. But A Beautiful Planet, which is narrated by actress Jennifer Lawrence, posed new challenges that produced filmmaking breakthroughs and images that have never been seen in movies before.
“When you go to an IMAX movie you expect to experience something you haven’t experienced — you expect to be wowed,” NASA Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, who shot some of the footage in the film on the International Space Station, told Inverse. And the images of the planet captured by Wilmore and his fellow astronauts really deliver on that expectation, as they offer an unparalleled look at glimpses of the floating rock we all call home. “There’s no way to match what you’ve seen with your own eyes,” he said of his experience in space, “but this is close.”
To capture images of the planet, as well as the daily lives of the astronaut teams stationed at the ISS, crews rocketed into Earth’s orbit and joined the space station with a digital 4K Canon Cinema EOS C500 video camera and a Canon EOS-1D C DSLR, which they used to take still images and get video footage of specific points on the planet below.
Using a semi-formal shot-list of specific earthly targets to capture, the astronauts kept in constant contact with Myers and cinematographer James Neihouse, who coordinated the shoot on the ground with three different ISS crews. The unorthodox production, which was continually taking place nearly 250 miles above the Earth, wasn�����t as unwieldy as it would seem.
“Our stills got downlinked everyday,” said astronaut Terry Virts, who along with Wilmore was one of the primary crew members operating the cameras on the movie. Among all of their other responsibilities on their mission, Virts and ISS astronauts used satellite downlinks to send Myers and Neilhouse digital files of their footage, so the filmmakers could assemble their film while it was being shot. Myers then sent instructions back to illustrate what footage the film still needed.
“We sent video on a low quality CF card, but the main stuff was on a hard drive,” Virts specified. The low-res footage went to Neihouse first, while the high quality versions were sent back down on a hard drive the size of an iPhone to Earth as different crews left and were replaced by new ones. It’s a schizophrenic way to make a movie, but Neihouse took it in stride.
“I wasn’t seeing footage on a daily basis, but close to it,” said Neihouse, who also worked with Myers on Hubble, Space Station, and Blue Planet. “A couple of days old is a lot quicker than when we flew film. We’d have to wait for the mission to end and then get the film, and take it to the lab and get prints made.” Instead of the prolonged and stressful wait time needed when using the bulky film format, shooting the movie digitally allowed a quicker turnaround time on editing the movie, a more dynamic range in the images captured, and also gave astronauts the unprecedented ability to get multiple shots of one target.
“In the old days of film it was a one-take deal, so they had to rehearse everything ahead of time,” said Myers, “and then if they blew it during the take, well too bad, you missed that one.”
It was a sentiment echoed by former astronaut, and the film’s NASA liason, Marsha Ivins. “Everything you saw in an IMAX movie until this one was the first and only take, and done by non-professionals,” she said. “The crew was trained not only to be the actors but the directors and the lighting people and the sound guy too.”
But the ability to be everything and to fail, which also gave them the freedom to capture the best shots possible on a second or third pass, allowed the three crews that worked on the film to shoot more than 250,000 frames and gather 11 million megabytes of data in total. It was a lot, but that much variety was the product of some serious training, as Ivins pointed out. Besides all their other normal astronaut preparations, each crew member received specific cinematography lessons for the large IMAX format before leaving Earth.
“It was like a mini film school, but taught by the masters,” astronaut Kjell Lindgren explained. It was Tony and Marsha and James: They taught us cinematography and framing and focus.”
It was that training that allowed the amateur cinematographer astronauts to become professionals, and to capture some indelible images of Earth.
“I tried to get New Zealand for months,” Wilmore explained. “It’s always cloud covered, and then one day I looked at the map and the predictor we have and it said, ‘No clouds.’” The result was is one of the most complete looks at the island country ever recorded.
As for Virts, he mentioned the most difficult shot was actually capturing fellow astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in the ISS’s Cupola, a seven-pane bay window that allowed astronauts to get unobstructed camera views of the planet and space beyond it.
“The Earth is really bright and the inside of the ISS is really dark,” Virts explained. “That shot took a lot of coordination trying different exposures and lighting, and I had to wait until we were over Brazil because I needed a dark Earth background, which is basically the Brazilian jungle.”
What the astronauts captured is almost unbelievable, including almost panoramic shots of illuminated cities at night across the globe and the deep, dense terrain of places like central Africa. “This stuff is not CGI,” Wilmore quickly pointed out for those who might doubt the veracity of such breathtaking shots.
One one of the film’s most poignant scenes shows the divide between North and South Korea, with the dulled lights of Pyongyang dwarfed by almost total darkness surrounding it, and the brightly sparkling metropolis of Seoul stretching miles and miles across the border below it.
These views of planet Earth drive home the film’s message. “Part of the whole film was to highlight the space station as this wonderful platform for observing earth, for seeing what’s happening down here,” Neihouse said. But it was only half the story. “We needed to tie the human experience into the planet, otherwise you’re looking at a bunch of pictures of a blue marble.” The god’s eye view shots bring home the idea that we’re one planet, and Earth is a kind of spaceship in and of itself.
It’s somewhat cheesy, but the initially contradictory idea of emphasizing the importance of the planet from a group of people orbiting hundreds of miles above it resonates — because of the total beauty they captured. A Beautiul Planet is truly a sight to see.