James Neihouse Trains Astronauts to Film 4K in Space for A Beautiful Planet IMAX

A Beautiful Planet is the seventh IMAX film to be shot in space by the astronauts, and was produced by the same IMAX space team that most recently did HUBBLE 3D and Space Station 3D.  The film is a look at the human impact on planet earth as seen from the vantage point of the International Space Station. The film also gives the viewer a glimpse into the day-to-day life aboard the orbiting outpost that has been continually occupied since 2000.

Four ISS expedition crews shot the film over a period of 403 days beginning in October of 2014 and wrapping in December of 2015.  In that time they accumulated over 11.5TBs of data.

Cinematographer James Neihouse, ASC trained the astronauts on how to capture 4K images using the Canon cameras and helped them plan their shots, planning which resulted in footage of lightning storms, the continents, volcanoes, coral reefs, bright city lights, and imagery of the Northern Lights from 200 miles above. 

He talked to us about the film, shooting 4K in space, techniques he showed the astronauts and more. 

Director of Photography/Astronaut Training Manager, James Neihouse, Writer/Director Toni Myers and Commander Barry (Butch) Wilmore during an IMAX® camera training session

ProductionHUB: How did you get involved with this project?

James Neihouse: The director of the film, Toni Myers, and I had been talking about making this film for several years. Toni and I have always been awed by images of the earth from space. We both worked on Blue Planet that released in 1990, we thought it would be good to have another look at the planet 25 years later. Also, when Toni was recording the narration for Hubble 3D with Leonardo Dicaprio, he mentioned how much he loved Blue Planet and encouraged her to move forward with what would become A Beautiful Planet.

PH: And how long was it before you were completely on board?

James Neihouse: I was completely on board from the very beginning.  This was a film that I thought needed to be made.

PH: How is shooting in 4K in space different than shooting in 4K here on Earth?

James Neihouse: There really is no difference between shooting 4K in space or on the ground.  The difference lies mainly in the fact that you are shooting in a zero-G environment, regardless of the format. The crews’ biggest challenge is getting the time allocated to shoot.  They have a very busy schedule and making a movie is not at the top of the list. This entire film was pretty much shot during their days off and times when they could squeeze in a few extra minutes before or after their scheduled work.

Cupola Observation Module

PH: What techniques did you teach to the astronauts about shooting in space?

James Neihouse: We were lucky to get several very dedicated crewmembers for the film.  Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Terry Virts, and Kjell Lindgren were our main cinematographers. Butch and Terry had flown before, so they knew what they were up against in the zero-G environment.  The training mostly focused on shooting for the IMAX screen, both flat and dome, and for 3D. The film was post converted to stereo by Legend 3D in Toronto. We talked a lot about subject placement to best take advantage of the format. Part of that training included watching some of our previous IMAX films in the theaters. That really gave them an idea of the power of that big image.

All the crewmembers put a 110% into the project, Kjell was very keen to shoot IMAX and he put in a super heroic effort for us. He and Kimiya Yui came into their training shoot with a storyboard and props; they basically shot a 5-minute short film.  Kjell had the unenviable position of being the “clean up batter”, he was the last shooter on board and all the easy stuff had been done. He was determined to get us everything we asked for and even went so far as to pull the camera out of storage in order to get a shot of Moscow at night, I think that was the last thing shot on orbit.

One of the things we did on this flight that had not been done before was to shoot sequential still images at 4fps with the Canon EOS 1DC and then post convert those sequences, using some secret sauce, into full 24fps motion.  This gave us the higher resolution available with the full frame imager of the 1DC, around 5.2K, as well as an aspect ratio of 1.5:1 that was closer to the IMAX 1.43:1. That meant we did not have to letter box the earth images on the classic IMAX screen.  The results really blew my mind.

Onboard the International Space Station (ISS) 

PH: What are some key things you must know before attempting to shoot in space?

James Neihouse: Shooting is space is not that different than shooting on the ground, but in space you don’t have to worry about dropping anything, stuff floats.  Because it floats it’s really easy to move the camera around, which is good and bad. The bad part is that it is very easy to shoot very unsteady shots; I call it the “home movie look”. Even gripping the camera too tightly can impart movement caused by the camera operators pulse.  

Even though it’s very easy to move around, everything takes much more time to do in space. Crewmembers in the past have called the IMAX film camera a “time sink”. To help with the time sink issue we always try to make working with the camera as simple as possible.  We use custom menus on the cameras for functions the crew needs to access often, and program hot buttons for things like auto black balance, and monitor brightness so they don’t have to go into a menu at all.  Codex was kind enough to rewrite the user interface for the recorder for me, we called it astronaut proofing, we removed options the crew didn’t need to access, simplified the menu selections and added presets.

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren prepares the IMAX® camera

PH: Describe how you helped the astronauts plan shots.  

James Neihouse: One of our main training techniques is to have the astronauts shoot several scenes in the space station mockups that are at the Johnson Space Center.  We then take them to an IMAX theater and show them their film on the big screen.  That really gets their attention; they see right away what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t work.  It helps them understand how to frame for the big screen, how long shots need to be in order to be useful.

Toni and I develop a shot list, really more of a shopping list, for the crew.  We knew there were certain subjects we wanted the astronauts to film.  Inside the station we wanted scenes of everyday life, a haircut for example, exercising was on the list, anything that would tell the story of what it’s like to be in space for six months or more.  Since the film’s main theme was planet earth we had a long list of ground targets, about 150 of them I think.  

During training we would work with the astronauts on refining the shot list, often they would come up things we never considered.  We always tried to make sure they knew that they could shoot what ever they thought would fit the movie or anything they wanted.  When it came down to it they were the ones on orbit, they were the directors.  With digital capture we were able to give the crews that kind of freedom, something that wasn’t possible when we were shooting film.

One of the big challenges of shooting specific earth locations from the space station is you simply cannot go to the window and shoot.  First you have to be passing fairly close to the location, and that doesn’t happen every day.  It might weeks before a site is available to shoot.  The next thing is the weather, is it clear enough to see the subject?  It only took us 30 years to get a clear shot of New Zealand because it was always clouded over.  If all the variables line up, you have to be ready to shoot when the subject is passing by, since the earth goes by at five miles per second you can’t be looking for the right lens at the last moment.  

The NASA earth observations team at the Johnson Space Center was a big help. They included our earth targets in their daily summary to the astronauts that served to give them a “heads up” for the possible opportunities.

NASA Commander Terry Virts shoots through the window of the ISS Cupola Observation Module

PH: What were some of your favorite shots captured?  

James Neihouse: I think the night images impressed me the most of all.  Being able to see what it’s like to fly through aurora is amazing. Seeing images of city lights really drives home just how many people live on this planet, it’s something that just isn’t obvious in daylight images.  Another thing that can’t be seen from space in the day time is just how many fishing boats there are in places like the Sea of Japan, the Gulf of Thailand or the Andaman Sea, there are literally tens of thousands of boats all harvesting tons of sea life. It’s hard to believe the oceans can support that amount of fishing.

As for simply stunning images, for me the most striking were those of the great mountain ranges, the Andes, the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, they were often very abstract looking.

Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the Gulf of Mexico are seen in this spectacular view over Texas

PH: Why were the Canon Cinema EOS C500 and Canon EOS-ID C good choices for this project?  

James Neihouse: We were looking for a cinema camera that would output uncompressed, raw in 4K. It had to be fairly small, robust and very user friendly.  We really liked the look of the Canon C500 camera, I think it comes very close to the film look we’ve been used to, I think that is in part due to the color gamut Canon uses.  

We also liked the fact that we could record 1080 proxies on CF cards in camera while recording 4K out the back. These proxies became our “dailies” and were downlinked to us through NASA.  The really cool thing was the proxies didn’t require any extra crew time to generate.  

We used the Codex Onboard S+ as our recorder.  Codex really went the extra mile, rewriting their user interface for us, and building a custom battery plate that would power the recorder from two Canon BP-955 batteries. NASA uses the BP-955s to power a whole range of hardware on station, so the power for camera and recorder was already on board station.

The 1DC was the real workhorse of the production.  As mentioned before we used it primarily in still mode to shoot the earth shots. The color sensitivity is such that we were able to record colors that gave other cameras issues, especially when shooting the aurora.

By shooting sequential stills we were able to increase the exposure times when shooting night scenes like the aurora, star fields, cities, earth views by moon light. Combined with the great high ISO performance and the T1.5 24mm Canon Cine Prime the crew got some amazing images. In all they would shoot more than 250,000 still images.

We flew Canon Cine Prime lens for the 1DC, they were the 14mm and 24mm. I feel in love with the way those lenses look the first time I tested them. For the C500 we flew a Canon Cine Zoom, the 15.5-47mm and a 12mm Arri Master Prime.

Canon Cinema EOS C500

PH: How did it feel to have the first 4K cameras sent to space?  

James Neihouse: We were actually not the first 4K camera, we were the first 4K production to shoot in space. The Japanese (JAXA) space agency flew a C500 about 9 months before us. It was used for scientific imaging. Even so, it’s still really pretty cool to be involved with the first 4K film shot in space.

An awe-inspiring view of a sunrise from the International Space Station 

PH: What does this say for the future of 4K technology?  

James Neihouse: I was very impressed with how well the Canon EOS cameras held up to the challenge of the IMAX screen. Combined with the new IMAX 4K Laser projection system the results are truly amazing. That’s not to say 4K digital is a replacement for IMAX film capture in every situation, but it is a very useful alternative when the photochemical process is not an option.

Catch a glimpse of the trailer: 

Check out our exclusive interview with James Neihouse at the 2015 Band Pro Open House, discussing A Beautiful Planet: 

Photos courtesy of IMAX/Disney