How do you make an IMAX camera weightless?
James Neihouse, ASC isn’t an astronaut. He’s the guy astronauts call when things go wrong. Neal Romanek spoke with Neihouse about his long career shooting IMAX films…in space.
Few people can say they make films in space. And almost no one on Earth can say they've done it as a career. But James Neihouse has been the earth-based director of photography for an award-winning partnership between IMAX and NASA that has lasted since 1984.
IMAX’s The Dream Is Alive, about the US space shuttle programme, kicked off NASA’s journey into high-end filmmaking. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has always worked at the cutting edge of image capture, but with The Dream Is Alive, the organisation began to regularly produce content for Earth-bound theatrical consumption.
Blue Planet, Destiny In Space, Mission To Mir, Space Station 3D and Hubble 3D followed, and James Neihouse was at the centre of each, training astronauts - and cosmonauts - to film the endless expanse of space from within the cramped confines of a shuttle or the International Space Station.
“The Dream Is Alive changed my life. Through that job I met my wife, and I moved to Florida,” says Neihouse. “We ended up making one of those films on average about every five years.”
The team has stayed consistent across the films too with IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson staying intimately involved with the space slate and Canadian director Toni Myers at the creative centre of all the films, acting as producer, writer and editor. Their collaboration with NASA is historic.
“The NASA IMAX films began when IMAX opened its theatre at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC in 1976,” explains Neihouse. “Michael Collins, who was the command module pilot on the first manned mission to the Moon, saw the IMAX film To Fly. He said to Graeme Ferguson: ‘We’ve got to fly your camera in space. I think it’s the best way to share my own experience in space with the general public.”
It took seven or eight years to actually get the first IMAX camera into space, all of it depending on the success of a still developing US space shuttle programme.
T-minus 18 minutes
All astronauts learn basic photography as part of their astronaut candidate training. But most of the IMAX space films, astronauts had to be trained in the mechanical complexities of shooting film – 65mm film.
“We had to fly in extra cans of film or extra film cores if they broke them,” says Neihouse. “Shooting on film was a lot tougher. We were limited. A thousand feet of IMAX negative weighs te
n pounds and lasts three minutes. So if we were lucky. we were allowed to get six rolls on a flight, which is 18 minutes. The astronauts had a lot of pressure on them to get it right the first time.
“And the IMAX camera is loud! We couldn’t use any audio recorded while shooting. Later we’d have lip readers come in to try to figure out what they were saying, so we could do ADR. And with the uncertainty of exposure and focus the astronauts never knew if they’d gotten the shot; they weren’t used to judging focus through the eyepiece like a professional camera crew. And remember, filming wasn’t exactly their mission priority, they had to do it between tasks. Quite honestly, I don’t know how they made all of those films.”
And the IMAX camera is loud! We couldn’t use any audio recorded while shooting
The first IMAX space missions flew two cameras, one inside the crew compartment of the shuttle and another camera that went in the cargo bay of the shuttle.
The cargo bay camera was locked down. “You had to pick yourlens and your framing 18 months before flight. They had to build all the brackets and certify and install it, then put the camera in two months before launch. It was in its own container the size of a mini-fridge, with eight minutes of film in it.”
A digital revolution
A Beautiful Planet was IMAX’s first fully digital film production, although on Hubble 3D, the astronauts had a Canon G1 HDV camera for shooting onboard shots. Neihouse started testing cameras in 2012 in preparation for the film. “I got together the Canon C300, a Red Epic, a Phantom 65, a Sony F65 and an Arri Alexa, which is quite a range of resolutions. I set them all up alongside an IMAX film camera. Some of the cameras couldn’t fly because they would just be too difficult to use. What surprised me is, looking at the final test results, some people chose the C300 HD 1080 image over some of those other higher end cameras.”
A couple years later, Neihouse tested a newly released Canon C500 against the other camera finalist, the Red Epic. The C500 came out as the hands down winner and was used to film all the interior sequences.
“I liked the way it looked. It’s more filmlike. I think it’s the way Canon pulls the data off that sensor. There’s some special sauce that they use.”
When your caller ID says ‘Space Station’, that’s pretty cool
The C500 recorded uncompressed 4K onto a Codex Onboard S recorder. The camera also recorded 1080 proxy files onto a compact flash card, which were sent down via the space station’s downlink, so Neihouse and the earthbound team could view footage.
While the C500 was the perfect choice for the space station interiors, how would the crew shoot the real star of the show, planet Earth?
“We were worried about shooting with the C500 for the outside shots of the Earth. That’s where lower resolution imaging falls apart and small details just turninto blobs. It’s a great camera, but it’s still not fifteen perf, 70mm film, which is probably about 18K.”
Neihouse finally selected the Canon EOS-1D C as the mission’s new “IMAX” camera. Shots of the Earth moving below the ISS were recorded at four frames a second. The frames were then in-betweened to 24fps to create the stunning shots of flying 400 kilometres above the ground.
The IMAX 3D films have all been post-converted. Shooting in space is challenging enough, trying to operate a huge, double-rigged 3D camera would be at best impractical, at worst criminally dangerous.
The right stuff
Astronauts don’t have a lot of free time on their hands. What’s it like teaching them how to be cinematographers?
“Once they decide they’re onboard with a project, they get focused on learning everything they need to know about it. Especially when they see a couple of the other space films. They say, ‘Hey, that’s going to be me up on that screen. That’s going to be a record of my flight that’s going to show for years. And when they realise that, they put 120% into it.
Neihouse and the production team remained on call in 16-18 hour shifts, ready to advise or troubleshoot. The astronauts could email Neihouse directly if they had questions or ideas.
“And if push came to shove, they could phone us directly. When your caller ID says ‘Space Station’, that’s pretty cool.”