The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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ASC Close-Up
Time and Space

James Neihouse, ASC trains a crew of astronauts to shoot the Imax feature A Beautiful Planet.

Photos by Marsha Ivins and Bill Ingalls, courtesy of NASA and Imax Corp.

In 1990, Imax released Blue Planet, a pioneering film that offered an astronaut’s view of Earth as seen from space. Directed by Ben Burtt, that film “came about from seeing all the great shots of Earth that came from the first Imax space film, The Dream is Alive, which was Imax’s first movie that was actually shot in space,” recalls director of photography James Neihouse, ASC. Neihouse shared cinematography duties on Blue Planet with David Douglas, and he’s been involved in each of Imax’s space-bound projects since The Dream Is Alive — including the latest, A Beautiful Planet, which reteamed him with filmmaker Toni Myers.

Myers had written Blue Planet, went on to direct Hubble 3D — on which Neihouse again served as cinematographer (AC April ’10) — and directed A Beautiful Planet. Neihouse recalls, “When Leonardo DiCaprio came in to record his voice-over for Hubble 3D, he told Toni Myers that he had loved Blue Planet and that we should make another film like that today. We decided it was time to have another look at the Earth from space. What impact would we see a quarter of a century [after Blue Planet], with seven billion people on the planet?”

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) captured the views presented in A Beautiful Planet. Neihouse enthuses, “In the night shots, you can tell where the human populations are from the city lights. The whole ‘boot’ of Italy is one solid band of lights; you can see a ribbon of light down the Nile, through the darkness of Northern Africa. You can see North and South Korea — Seoul is very heavily lit, one of the brightest [places] in the world, and the north side of the border is just totally black apart from [Pyongyang]. The oppression of North Korea is painfully apparent from space. The same thing with the border between Pakistan and India — you can see where it falls from space.

“We look at the Chesapeake Bay,” he continues, “which was so polluted in the Seventies that no one would eat anything from it, but now it’s one of our success stories; today the bay is thriving. We talk about the California drought. We have great shots of the West Coast and Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and we talk about the water situation there. That’s the kind of film A Beautiful Planet is.”

Although he photographs the requisite terrestrial footage for these Imax films, Neihouse has never been in space, and his primary responsibility as director of photography is to properly train the astronauts to serve as proxy cinematographers capable of shooting the footage themselves. “I have trained all the crews on the Imax space movies since 1988,” he explains — and with a laugh, he adds, “I tell everybody that I’m the only [cinematographer] who has to train his first unit how to shoot.

“We had three different astronaut crews on this film,” he continues. “Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore [ISS Expeditions 41 and 42], Terry Virts [42 and 43], and Kjell Lindgren [44 and 45] were the primary shooters. Additional crew were Samantha Cristoforetti [42 and 43], Kimiya Yui [44 and 45], and Scott Kelly [44 and 45].”

The time Neihouse had to train the astronauts was extremely limited. With Wilmore, Neihouse was given a scant eight hours to teach him the fundamentals of Imax photography and the functions of the camera so that the astronaut could operate reasonably well and make lens, exposure and composition decisions. “Eight hours was crazy,” Neihouse admits. “Butch really put a lot of extra effort into getting up to speed on our cameras.

“[Shooting] with digital really helps,” the cinematographer continues. “[The astronauts] would get feedback right away, and they could download proxies for us to see what they were shooting. When they needed help, they’d reach out about what exposure or focal length I’d suggest for this or that situation. That was often done via email, but I’d sometimes get a phone call. I have to say, it’s fun to get a call when the caller ID comes up as ‘International Space Station.’”

With the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011, transportation to and from the ISS became extremely limited, impacting the choice of shooting format for A Beautiful Planet. “The Space Shuttle was a ‘space truck,’” says Neihouse. “It would ferry things back and forth as needed, but it’s not flying anymore. Now, you can get things up to the Station — you just can’t get stuff back [on a regular schedule]. That was one of the key reasons we went digital.

“Digital gave us other advantages, too,” Neihouse continues. “When we were shooting film, three minutes’ worth of [15-perf 65mm Imax] film weighed 10 pounds — that’s a lot of volume to bring back. When we went digital, we were bringing back Codex data packs the size of a cell phone with 30 minutes of footage. We also increased our low-light capture substantially; we never would have gotten some of the shots [in A Beautiful Planet] with film. We were able to shoot clean audio without hearing the roaring sound of the camera — which sounded like a pissed-off sewing machine on steroids permeating every shot — so we can actually use audio from the astronauts and get real moments. And we were able to shoot a lot more footage, especially inside the Station, and capture some really wonderful, candid, interpersonal moments that we never could have imagined getting with film.”

The cinematographer tested several digital cameras for A Beautiful Planet, beginning with a Red Epic Mysterium-X, Vision Research Phantom 65, Sony F65, Arri Alexa M and Canon Cinema EOS C300. “We shot side-by-side tests against [15-perf 65mm] Imax, then compared each camera,” Neihouse explains. “We went away from the F65 because of the size, power consumption and complex menu selections. Although these astronauts are geniuses, they can get ‘space brain’ and become unable to perform relatively simple tasks because they have so much to focus on every day — they just get overloaded. So we try to keep things as simple in orbit as possible. We also want to keep it simple so that it doesn’t take much time for them to execute the shots.

“The Phantom 65 had the same issue — it was just too complex and menu-intensive,” Neihouse continues. “We rejected the Alexa M because, at the time, it was a two-piece system with a cable from the camera down to the recorder. Power was another issue — the camera is power-hungry. That left us with Red and Canon. When we were looking at the test footage side-by-side in an Imax theater with digital laser projection, people were picking out the C300 as the best-looking of the bunch. An additional factor was that [NASA was] already using Canon cameras on the Space Station, which meant that the batteries were already certified for space. Everything we send up needs to be tested and certified — we can’t have anything outgassing some unknown chemical into the air. Since the Canon battery system was already certified, we saved a lot of money in certification costs.


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