This viewing window on the ISS is where many of the shots of the Earth were taken

Interview: Toni Myers on the difficulties of filming in space

‘A Beautiful Planet’, the new film from veteran documentary maker Toni Myers, shows Earth in a new light, with breathtaking shots of its surface taken from space..

Made specifically for IMAX cinemas, it demonstrates some of the picturesque landscapes that cover the Earth’s surface, while providing a sometimes shocking view of the negative impact of human activity upon these.

Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, the film offers an environmental message, juxtaposing the beauty of the world’s landscapes from afar with the knowledge that mankind is going to have to act fast if it wants to preserve these.

Made in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the footage was captured by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). But filming in space presents a series of challenges for earthbound filmmakers.

Despite their advanced scientific and engineering capabilities, the astronauts are amateurs when it comes to operating cameras. Coupled with cosmic radiation and the extreme temperatures of space, it’s impressive that ‘A Beautiful Planet’ turned out as well it did.

Toni Myers talks to E&T Magazine about the difficulties she faced and what she did to overcome them.

E&T: Did you work with the astronauts themselves to make the film?

Toni Myers: Yes, the cameras were there for 15 months, that's over three [astronaut] crews overlapping for six months. We trained them all first on the ground in advance. The first crew included [American astronaut] Butch, he was really the pioneer with those cameras.

He was the person who got to 'break them in', because we didn't know how they would behave in space, and was the one who got to test them in a real situation.

He discovered a lot, he tried a lot of different things that we thought we might not do in terms of lenses for different scenarios and certain frame rates worked better than we thought they would, that kind of thing.

 

E&T: Was he holding the cameras or were they attached to the spacecraft itself?

TM: Both ways, for exterior shots the camera was usually attached to a bogen arm but you could do it in a number of ways.

They could set up the shot, get the focus and the f-stop all set and then just press the button when going over the target if busy with something else.

For interior scenes sometimes it was handheld, sometimes it was on the arm. We tended to get cellphone calls when they wanted to discuss something; it was never a malfunction, but when they wanted advice on how to shoot. We can't call them, they can call us. 

E&T: Did you have a limited time to speak to them before the signal dropped?

TM: No, it was like that in the Space Station days [2002 Toni Myers film] but technology has improved. I remember one call where he was pretty much overhead. He said: ‘I’ve just passed over your house more or less, in Toronto’, but the next time I asked him where he was it was Guam. 

After the call we'd say 'go try it' and then we'd get the shot in a couple of days, they would transmit the data down to Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and it would get posted in high resolution to a website site.

Then I could take screen grabs and make a PowerPoint with nasty arrows pointing to things I didn’t like if that were the case. It was seldom that way, but you could give really good feedback to them if necessary.

The footage was arriving in a piecemeal fashion as they shot it for more than a year. But some scenes, like when the Soyuz rocket was undocking, was a one-time thing so you had to make sure they got it right first time.

In order to prepare for such scenes, I used the virtual reality facility at Johnson Space Centre, where they have a very high resolution model of the entire station including the views out of all its windows.

So I could say: ‘Show me what Soyuz looks like. What are our options, windows wise, using such and such a lens?’ And they would send me still pictures of what that would look like. That was a very useful tool as it allowed you to make a reasonable decision on what lens to use and where to shoot it from ahead of time.

E&T: How many hours of footage did you acquire overall?

TM: I don't know the exact figure but it was 11.5tb of data in the end. I never counted up how many hours, I never had time to measure it all end-to-end.

 

E&T: Did the space environment present any challenges to the digital cameras that were used? Were there malfunctions?

TM: You have to flight test everything before it's launched. NASA ‘shaked and baked’ and tortured the equipment to make sure nothing horrible was going to happen in space but you still don't know for sure.

We knew that there would be pixel damage on the chips; we'd seen that before on HD cameras on my previous film Hubble [2010]. We had the astronauts shoot dark frames ahead of most scenes which they mostly remembered to do by just leaving the lens cap on, remembering to take it off for the real scene. 

The pixel damage was caused by the cosmic radiation, there's no way to predict or mitigate the effect. Back on Hubble, we saw two Canon G1s flown up on the same flight to the station and the first day camera A was fine and went on for three or four months before anything happened to it.

But the first day with camera B was just riddled with hits. It's really unpredictable. The radiation guru, a doctor with 10 PHDs at NASA said as much. We baked the storage discs on the ground with enough radiation to kill anything in a minute which was the basis on which we chose the manufacturer of the storage chip and the SanDisk held up best.

E&T: What changed between the filming of Hubble in 2010 and A Beautiful Planet?

TM: We used different cameras; Hubble was filmed using an old IMAX film camera out in the cargo bay that was operated remotely from inside the shuttle which covered the repair of the telescope.

That had a single load of 3D film in it that was a mile long which you could get eight minutes of footage out of. We had to really budget that, it has to be extremely well scripted in advance. That flight was the first ever where they were compelled to fly a rescue scenario, which meant they had a second shuttle that could come and rescue them all if something went wrong.

That involved shimmying down the arm from one shuttle to the other so everybody on the crew had to have a space walking suit in order to do that. You can imagine that the suits took up so much space you couldn’t even cram a sock in it, so we weren’t allowed to fly an interior camera on that flight so we had to use the existing HD camera for the interiors.

But we blew that up and enhanced it and it looked really good. But for this one we knew in advance that it had to be a digital solution because there's no Space Shuttle anymore, we couldn’t get physical film back for it in a timely fashion so we test drove and tortured half a dozen high-res cameras side-by-side and compared them for several years before the shooting of the film and chose two off the shelf Canon cameras. 

The earth camera was a Canon 1DC 5K and its chip is exactly the same format as native IMAX in that it's taller and then we had a motion based camera for inside that was a Canon C500.

E&T: Was it an actual 3D camera?

TM: No, we did the 3D conversion on the ground after and of course 3D wouldn't work on the Earth shots anyway. But in more shots than not there's some station hardware hanging in the view like the solar array or an arm or something and that's really nice because it gives you the 3D effect, but If you mess with the Earth at all it starts appearing miniaturized very soon. After about 50 yards, there is no 3D; if you want to have 3D you have to be within that. 

E&T: Was 3D a priority for you from the beginning?

TM: My last project used genuine 3D cameras but this was the first time we did out and out conversion after the fact. It was a delivery requirement because the film is getting 3D distribution. I would have been happy to do it in 2D. It's nice inside and really enhances the feeling of being in that volume but you don’t really need it for the exterior shots. 

 

E&T: The documentary has quite a short running time, was there anything that you were really sorry to have to cut from the movie?

TM: Yeah, there were lots of different things that I wish I could have put in. We had to limit the film to under an hour because the theatres like to turn over the audience on the hour. There are other aurora shots, there are all kinds of shots that are equally compelling and places that maybe aren't totally known to the world but photographically are amazing.

Northern Ontario for example, is amazing to look at but we just couldn't include everything. In terms of the interiors, there are some marvellous shots flying end to end through the shuttle, but they're very very time consuming and you didn't learn a whole lot more from it.

E&T: What was your favourite shot?

TM: For the day time, there's a straight down looking shot of the Himalayas, the different colours and textures in there are just magical, that's one of my favourites photographically. Of the night shots, I love the moonlit coral reefs that you see in the Bahamas just because it’s so amazing to see that with just moonlight, but I like so many of the night scenes and that was stuff that we could never see before, our film was too slow, we never saw a single star, it was just black space above the horizon. 

We could never get a shot of the UK for previous features because the Space Shuttle always orbited at lower latitudes, it was really lucky that the UK shots in this film were taken when there was almost no cloud cover across the whole of the British Isles. 

E&T: Are you intending to continue making documentaries about space?

I've been telling people: "I think I'm going to go and be a grandmother now". I don't have a specific next project.

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