Filmmaking: IMAX & NASA collaborate on 'A Beautiful Planet'
Issue: April 1, 2016

Filmmaking: IMAX & NASA collaborate on 'A Beautiful Planet'

TORONTO — Once again, IMAX has teamed up with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create a large-format feature that looks at our planet and the future of humanity — all from outer space. A Beautiful Planet was produced, directed and edited by Toni Myers, and was shot by the crew of the International Space Station. The film is narrated by Jennifer Lawrence and was released in IMAX and IMAX 3D theaters on April 29th.

Myers, who also directed the IMAX films Blue Planet (1990), Space Station 3D (2002) and Hubble 3D (2010), has a long history with the company and its connection to NASA. She recently took time out from post production on A Beautiful Planet to talk to Post about the new feature, the challenges of shooting in space, and the evolution of the format.

Post: You served as producer, director, writer and editor?

Toni Myers: “I can be hung out to dry for sure! [laughing]”

Post: How did you get involved in all of these space-themed productions?

Myers: “The origins of it lie with one of the co-inventors and founders of IMAX, Graeme Ferguson, who is a filmmaker himself, and he’s still involved. He’s my emeritus and mentor. When he and his partners invented the medium, it was rapidly known as a medium that could take people — because of its immersive-ness — to places they couldn’t normally go. It allowed them to experience those unique environments first hand in a way that they would never get to do. Of course, space was one of them. 

“When they put the theater in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, the first director of that museum was Michael Collins, the Apollo astronaut. When he saw the IMAX format, he said, ‘This is the only thing that even comes close to being able to reproduce the experience I had going to the moon and looking back at Earth.’

“It took use 10 years from when he made that utterance to make it a reality. This was Graeme’s initiative. I was writer and editor, he was the director and founder of the space unit. We made a film in 1981 about the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle called Hail Columbia, and we didn’t have cameras on-board to fly to space of course in that first flight, but what we did do was filmed the launch like they had never been filmed before. And that was our proof of concept to get NASA’s attention that this was a great medium for conveying the activities of the space program to the general public, which is actually a law that is written into NASA’s constitution. You have a duty, NASA, to share your activities with the general public. And what better medium than this?”

Post: So it really started there?

Myers: “NASA agreed. It took us a few more years and eventually we formed a partnership — NASA, The Smithsonian and Lockheed Martin Corporation, who were the film’s sponsors, and IMAX. We provided the filmmaking expertise, the cameras and the crew training, etc. That was in 1984 — we flew three Shuttle flights.

"Bill Shaw, the engineer then, and one of the original partners, built a modified camera to go into space, and that was the first film, which was called The Dream is Alive. That came out in 1985, and this is now our seventh. They take quite a long time to do.”

Post: How are you capturing footage today? Is it film or digital?

Myers: “That’s a good question. We are capturing digitally. When I went to [NASA] with this project, the Shuttle was by then retired. They said, ‘We can’t fly film cameras anymore… You’ve got to figure out another way.’ Film gets radiated if it sits in orbit for very long. So we tested every digital camera then known — that was James Neihouse, our director of photography — and we chose a pair of Canon high-resolution cameras. That’s what we are shooting with. We trained [the crews] with those.”

Post: Did that transition affect anything?

Myers: “I would have thought I was a die-hard film fan. Most people who grew up with it are, and it does have its beauties, but I have to say how wonderful [digital] was. As soon as they shot anything — boom — it came right down from orbit to Building A at Johnson Space Center and took a right turn into my cutting room.”

Post: How does that work?

Myers: “Via the downlink Ku band straight from the station. The files come down to the photo lab at the Johnson Space Center and they redirect them to us here in Toronto.”

Post: What did the crews shoot with on this project?

Myers: “We had two different cameras. What we got of the high-res Earth were individual files that were 5K each, and then from the video camera, which was a 4K camera, it would record proxies that were HD proxies, and we would get the hard drive with the high-res data later, whenever there was a Space X coming down.

“It’s a Canon 1D C. It’s a standard high-end camera that is commercially available. We have an arrangement with Canon, but not beyond this project. That’s capturing the Earth scenes in 5K.”

Post: Are they using those inside or outside the Space Station?

Myers: “They were all interior cameras. We have an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) sequence — a space walk — which was all from little GoPros that the crews took outside with them, and we’ve enhanced that further.”

Post: Is all of A Beautiful Planet’s footage new, or did you use archival elements?

Myers: “With the exception of maybe three shots in the film, it’s all based on material that we shot. The cameras were active for a year. We started shooting in October 2014 and we finished pretty much November 2015, last fall.”

Post: As the writer and editor, you must have the story already in mind. Do you come up with a wish list of shots?

Myers: “How we do it is how we have always done our films. The crew is busy doing other things. They are not there at my beckon call. You develop a shopping list of scenes. This was an Earth-looking film, but it was also about life on the completed Station, so we had an interior list and an exterior list. The exterior list was very specific sights, and we trained them how to look for the optimum conditions. Over the course of the training, we give them everything they need to know about being film directors. There were certain things we were looking for, like deforestation, and saltation in oceans, but also night-time shooting, which we had never been able to do on film because the IMAX 70mm was way too slow. You could never see stars or anything. It was just black. With this it’s just astonishing what you see, so we were filming all kinds of locations at night — cities, whole continents, aurora and stars. That’s the thing when you ask me digital versus film, the digital palette is just so broad compared to what film was able to capture.”

Post: What did you do in the past for those types of scenes?

Myers: “When we did Blue Planet, we had a tiny, little, high-range video camera that belonged to NASA, and that was the only thing we could get lightning on. And it was a tiny postage stamp image on the screen. Now you have a whole, beautiful, full-screen of lightning all over the world. It’s fantastic.”

Post: What did your shot list include?

Myers: “On our interior list, it would be beyond the normal sleeping, eating, life on the Station stuff. There were specific science pursuits that I asked for, like growing crops in space and medical things. You have to have that just to get support for the film. Obviously, you need to be able to tell the crews what your intention is and get them on board. We had the three best crews you could ever imagine having. They were so wonderful, and supportive, and committed.”

Post: Tell us about the crew?

Myers: “(1st Commander) Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore was the IMAX digital camera pioneer. He tested it and was the first to use it, and found out all kinds of interesting things that we couldn’t have known until it was brought into orbit. 

“Each crew seemed to have their favorite parts of the world that they loved shooting. Butch loved the Himalayas and that area of the world. (NASA Commander) Terry Virts did a fantastic sequence on California. Kjell Lindgren, who was the last principle of our three crews, got the most difficult ones — the ones that the first two had tried to get and had been on the list forever. They tended to be shots where the weather was always awful. But he persisted and got us wonderful coverage for those scenes. They are the heroes.”

Post: You have a history as the editor on these projects?

Myers: “I always have. It’s just easier. I’m not trying to be a hog or anything, it’s just easier than having to explain it all to somebody else I guess. I have two wonderful assistants on this film who are both of ‘the digital age,’ and I’d be lost without them. They are doing the high-end image management, where I would be lost. I couldn’t do that stuff. They are wonderful at all the edit lists, post production and the way the workflow is managed. It’s very complicated.”

Post: Where does post production take place?

Myers: “In Toronto. I was an employee of IMAX until I am finishing this. We moved out of their technology center, where they build the cameras and develop new technologies, just outside of Toronto. The company started here. It’s film distribution and Hollywood wing is in Los Angeles, and has corporate head offices in New York, and centers in London and China. It’s all over the place now. The technology wing has always been in Toronto, just outside, in a suburb.”

Post: Can you tell us about your set up?

Myers: “We have a few offices and edit on Premiere Pro. And my assistants have their facilities and more computers. I work with my co-producer, Judy Carroll, she has an office. And we have a little kitchen and that’s it. Not glamorous.”

Post: You’ve edited many of these IMAX/NASA films?

Myers: “I went from a Steenbeck in the film days. The Dream Is Alive (1985), Blue Planet (1990), Destiny In Space (1994), Mission to Mir (1997) — until we got to Space Station 3D (2002) — I cut everything on 35mm print down. That’s how we used to do it, from IMAX 70mm negatives, they would make a 35mm print down, which was coded to match, so I cut on film.

“I moved over to Final Cut Pro for Space Station. And also did Hubble 3D (2010) on Final Cut Pro. For this, I moved over to Premiere Pro. Premiere was good because it deals with multiple formats very well. We archive everything here at Technicolor, where I am now mixing. That’s just around the corner, and that’s one big reason to be downtown.”

Post: What resolution are you working at for an IMAX film?

Myers: “I’m working principally at HD, but we can look at things in 4K or 5K at the same facility. But to store a whole cutting copy at that resolution is just a little prohibitive.”

Post: You post at Technicolor?

Myers: “Sometimes we do, but normally, because in the course of starting this film, the IMAX laser projectors came online, and that is the acid test. They are absolutely fantastic! Those are full size IMAX. They are the full-height, 1:43 format. They are phenomenal. You see every pixel. There’s one in Toronto at the Scotiabank Theater here, and there’s one at the IMAX facility at the technology center. You have to make a special DCP in order to see it, but you’d be crazy not to check things that way.”

Post: At what stage of post production are you at now?

Myers: “We passed half way mark in mixing. There’s a beautiful score, and this is going to be a 12.0 sound mix, as well as six, depending on the theater. We have both the score and the Jennifer Lawrence narration in, and that’s wonderful. We’re in an advanced stage with the soundtrack, but not the final mix. We’re getting there. 

“We’ve done most of the color balancing. So we are well on the way. The premiere is in New York, and that’s on a film projector because that’s what the theater has at Lincoln Square.”

Post: Are you pleased with the results?

Myers: “As you know, every film project is collaborative. I may have worn a lot of hats here, but… I have a retired astronaut named Marsha Ivins, and Marsha flew five times in space on the Shuttle. She installed the lab in the Space Station. She’s in Space Station. She’s on our team and she’s helped immeasurably with the training, getting the data down, and working from inside out.

“Graeme (Ferguson) is still very much a player, and James Neihouse, who trained all the astronauts on the mechanics of the camera. And the crew gets credit.”