"A Beautiful Planet" kicked off in IMAX and IMAX 3D in April 2016 and, as of the last weekend in June, was #25 at the box office. Not too shabby for a documentary that’s up against summer blockbusters like "Finding Dory" and "Independence Day: Resurgence." Directed by Toni Myers and narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, "A Beautiful Planet" gives us earthlings a look at our home planet from the International Space Station, and a look inside the lives of the astronauts orbiting approximately 220 miles above their family and friends.
James Neihouse, ASC, served as the director of photography on the film, and he’s no stranger to working on IMAX films or space-related projects. Neihouse began his career working with large format right out of film school when the president and cofounder of IMAX, Graeme Ferguson, came to the production company Neihouse worked for at the time to make an underwater film—the first underwater IMAX film, to be exact. “That was basically my introduction to IMAX,” Neihouse recalls. “I was a scuba instructor and I taught Graeme how to dive and how to stay alive when he went into the water. They took me along to make sure that happened—and to be shark bait. When you’re a 21-year-old kid fresh out of film school, you’re not worth much else than shark bait.”
Neihouse managed to escape that fate and went on to work with Graeme on numerous other projects. However, those projects left the depths of the ocean to explore the depths of space. “I got started shooting launches, then they brought me in to train astronauts in 1988, and the rest, as they say, is history,” he said. Ferguson founded the IMAX space unit, and he and Neihouse went on to make "Hail Columbia!", a short documentary on the space shuttle Columbia’s maiden voyage, "The Dream is Alive," "Blue Planet," "Destiny in Space," "Mission to Mir," "Space Station 3D" and "Hubble 3D."
For "A Beautiful Planet," though, Neihouse faced some unique challenges. “The first thing that NASA told us when we approached them about making this film was that you can’t fly film into space anymore. We’d always shot Kodak film, and since the shuttle has retired there’s not really an economical way to get things up and down to the space station. There are a total of four cargo vehicles that go up, but there’s only one, the SpaceX Dragon, that’s capable of coming back. So the other three just burn up in the atmosphere when they reenter—they’re like giant trash disposals. So learning that we had to shoot it digitally set us off on a search for digital cameras. We ended up with the Canon C500 and the Canon 1DC for two separate reasons: The C500 is great because it shoots 4K uncompressed RAW images, and we really need all the information we can get—4K’s even really not enough for an IMAX screen, so that’s why we like the uncompressed aspect of it. The 1DC we liked because we shot it in still mode, just like you’re shooting a time lapse, pretty much. We’d shoot earth scenes with that camera at four frames per second. Back on the ground we’d convert the four frames per second into 24 frames-per-second motion. That gave us the 16-bit depth of the still image from the camera and a much larger sensor—a 5.2k sensor because we’re shooting full frame still images. You know, 18 megapixels a frame instead of 8 megapixels a frame. It was closer to the actual aspect ratio that IMAX is. Traditional IMAX is 1.43:1 aspect ratio and the still camera was 1.5:1, so it was pretty close.”
The Canon cameras were also a great choice for their relatively compact size, durability (a must when shooting in space), and their user-friendly functionality, since Neihouse had to train the astronauts to use them. While he usually gets about 25 hours of training with each crew member, the first crew member on the film only got about eight hours of training. “I’d say I’m the only director of photography in the world who has to train his first unit how to shoot a movie,” he said with a laugh. “They’re pretty good students. They’re professional learners—that’s how they got to be astronauts in the first place. So they learn pretty quickly, especially technical things. And then the harder part is teaching them the esthetics of filmmaking—how a scene fits together, what constitutes a good scene, etc. So, we let them shoot their own home movies in the simulators at the Johnson Space Center and then took them to an IMAX Theater and put their footage up on the big screen and let them watch what they did right and what they did wrong.”
After basic training, it’s off to the International Space Station to make a movie. Three different astronaut crews were used over the course of filming, and each was given a list of things to shoot, such as ground targets, cabin footage and crew activities. “We weren’t particularly specific, though,” Neihouse clarified. “We wanted them to be the directors and come up with things to shoot because it’s a documentary of their experience, not our experience, and that seemed like the best way to make that happen.”
New cameras and gear were brought up, and footage on Codex hard drives were brought back down, on various SpaceX Dragon missions. That is, until one unmanned mission exploded shortly after launch, destroying a camera and the opportunity to bring back future footage in a timely manner. Neihouse worked with Codex and former astronaut Marsha Ivins, who served as astronaut consultant on the film, to devise a plan. “We eventually dragged, kicking and screaming, 1.5 terabytes of that 4K data off of the drive in space and then down to us on Earth,” Neihouse said.
Damage to the image sensors of the cameras is a common thing when shooting in space, so the cameras had to be switched out every few months. “You’ll start getting ‘hot’ pixels—bright green pixels, bright red pixels—here and there. It sort of looks like really pretty colored stars in the movie, but you’re inside the space ship, so you shouldn’t be seeing stars. We mitigated that somewhat by keeping the cameras in between big bags of water that they have inside the Space Station. Water is the only thing that really slows those particles down enough. And that was a big deal, keeping the sensor alive to where we didn’t have to do a huge amount of post processing to repair the images.”
Another problem that could have caused a lot of work in post was trying to shoot through the scratch panes used to protect the Cupola Observation Module’s seven glass windows. After years of use, the scratch panes were dinged up and covered with smudges, which doesn’t make for great footage. “We talked NASA into letting us build a replacement for the scratch pane, which we called a ‘bump shield,’ to keep you from bumping into the window. It was a big piece of Plexiglas with a little door in it, so you could set up the shot looking through the Plexiglas and when you were ready to shoot you could just open up the door and shoot through that clean, optical glass. So we built two of those and NASA and the astronauts liked them so much that they said, ‘We’re keeping these on orbit, they’re ours now!’ It’s our contribution to space imaging from the Space Station going forward.”
Overall, Neihouse says they downlinked over 11-and-a-half terabytes of data from the space station and shot 250,000 still images over 403 days to make "A Beautiful Planet." and feedback has been incredibly positive—from the astronauts who filmed it, from IMAX’s Graeme Ferguson and from viewers (or so says the audience score of 84% and critics score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes).
“We live on a pretty special and unique place and we need to take care of it,” Neihouse says. “We should actually be more like crew members taking care of each other and taking care of the space ship that Earth is. That’s what we went out to say with this film, and I think we did.”