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Technical

Out of this world: Shooting 3D in space with Cinema EOS

Out of this world: Shooting 3D in space with Cinema EOS

© A Beautiful Planet/IMAX Corporation

July 2016

When planning their next IMAX 3D film ‘A Beautiful Planet’ about the International Space Station, Director Toni Myers and Cinematographer James Neihouse soon realised they would have to make the move from film to digital. Since their last Space Station film together in 2002, the Space Shuttle had been withdrawn from service, removing the option to shift weighty film canisters in and out of orbit. CPN writer James Morris asked Neihouse how the 4K quality of Canon’s EOS C500 and EOS-1D C digital cinema cameras helped reveal space in all its three dimensional glory...

Stellar digital cinema cameras

“Film is great, it looks wonderful on the IMAX screen,” explains cinematographer James Neihouse. “But it wasn’t an option here. We didn’t have a way of bringing it back, and in long-duration missions the film would be ruined by cosmic radiation.” This led to a quest for the perfect digital cinema camera replacement. After looking at the competition, the C500 scored the win. Its lightweight body and high-resolution (8.85MP Super35mm CMOS sensor) and capability of filming in 4K earned its spot in the Space Station.

© A Beautiful Planet/IMAX Corporation

The trailer for the film ‘A Beautiful Planet’ which allows viewers to experience earth like never before. The IMAX 3D film, narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, was shot with the EOS C500 and EOS-1D C.

Neihouse himself wasn’t going to be making the trip into space, so astronauts would be trained to do the filming themselves. This meant the chosen camera needed to be easy to use, giving digital cinema cameras another benefit over film. “It’s a lot easier to train astronauts to use digital,” argues Neihouse. “It lets the crew see their results much more quickly. Exposure and lighting-wise, they get instant feedback, so they’re not worried whether they got it right. Switching to digital took a lot of pressure off them. Also, ten pounds of film would go through the camera in three minutes. You just couldn’t fly a lot of that, so there was pressure to make every shot count. But with digital they were able to do as many takes as they needed.”

Neihouse needed a digital camera that could bring images of planet Earth to the big screen in 3D and match the quality of film. “We ran the same tests with [another leading camera brand] and the C500 shooting 4K uncompressed,” continues Neihouse. “When we looked at the footage on the screen there was no question in my mind or in anybody else’s that saw it that the Canon was the hands-down winner. It looks more film-like, with much better colour-space rendition, and was sharper on the big screen by far. This was helped by the uncompressed recording that was available via the Codex Onboard S Recorder.”

“We also picked the EOS-1D C to shoot sequential stills. All the Earth shots were done this way. There’s a close aspect ratio match to the traditional IMAX 1.43:1, and it’s a 5K basic image sensor when it’s in the full stills mode. We shot RAW images with that and tested it against the competition and it won easily, plus the EF mount Cine Primes are just beautiful. We used the 14mm and the 24mm with the 1D C. On the C500 we had the 15.5 - 47mm compact Canon Cine zoom, and an Arri 12mm Master Prime. We used wide lenses because we were shooting 3D, and you’re in a very confined space. You need to be closer with a wide lens rather than far away with a telephoto.”

Multi-dimensional abilities

Director Toni Myers wanted the film to portray life aboard the Space Station. A key factor in getting this across was the 3D. However, it would have been too complicated to train the astronauts to use a digital 3D rig. A custom 3D IMAX camera had been used once before in a previous film, but for ‘A Beautiful Planet’, the 3D was going to be added in post-production. Nevertheless, the filming still needed to take the third dimension into account. “We shot as if we were filming in 3D,” explains Neihouse. “We trained the astronauts to ensure they had layers and kept people off the edges towards the centre.”

The design of the C500 ensured that the astronauts (and amateur filmmakers) felt comfortable finding functions in outer space. “One of the things I really liked about the cameras is that you can program the buttons on them,” explains Neihouse. “The astronauts were used to working with [another camera brand]. But the buttons are in different places, and function a little differently, so I could reprogram the 1D C to match [the previous camera], meaning they didn’t have to do a lot of mental gymnastics when they were working with our camera.”

The C500’s ability to record 1080p footage alongside 4K proved invaluable for the production process too. “The 1080 footage was down-linked so we were able to see basic VTR rushes,” explains Neihouse. “We flew the original six Codex packs back in the end. It was our plan to do that the whole time. But they only came back on the SpaceX Dragon. Unfortunately, SpaceX had a launch failure in June of 2015 and they didn’t fly again until March 2016, so we had to come up with another way to get the rushes down. Eventually we dragged them kicking and screaming out of the recorder and down-linked it. They don’t have a super-fast data link on the Space Station, but the worst thing is they only have USB 2 ports on their computers. That’s why in the first place we didn’t fly Codex docks. The computer system on the space station just wouldn’t support the bandwidth we needed for getting a 4K offload. Everything at NASA moves at glacial speed. I think they’re still on Windows 98!”

Avoiding cosmic radiation

The lack of modern computers on the International Space Station was far from the only issue to contend with. There was also a significant problem from the cosmic radiation that is prevalent in space, without the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere. “High energy cosmic particles are not your friend,” argues Neihouse. “We found with film early on that after about a week and a half of orbit at three miles (4.8 kilometres) up you lose your footage to radiation damage. On a digital sensor that shows itself as dead pixels. So over time more pixels get hit and they turn bright, or green, or red and you start seeing all these little specks all over everything.”

© A Beautiful Planet/IMAX Corporation

Have a look behind the scenes of the IMAX 3D film ‘A Beautiful Planet’. Director Toni Meyers says, the EOS C500 and EOS-1D C allowed the astronauts to “film things that no IMAX audience had ever seen before – lightning at night, stars in the sky – both cameras were absolutely sensational.”

“Eventually we would switch out camera bodies. We flew three C500s and two 1D Cs. When we weren’t using the cameras we would stick them in between bags of water, which was really the best way to protect the camera when you’re not using it. We did test some years back on the Russian MIR space station with lead bags but it made things worse because these high energy particles would hit the lead and then spread out sub-particles of the lead making the damage area bigger.”

As a result, the cameras had a finite useful life in space. “We went through the three C500s in about four and half months,” explains Neihouse. “We would have had a third 1D C up, too, but it was lost on the Space X launch. We brought one C500 back to Earth, so we’re hoping that Canon can look at the sensor and see if there’s anything that can be done, because moving forward in space travel, going to Mars, this is going to be a serious issue.”

Sensitivity of interstellar proportions

The C500’s sensitivity was a major boon compared to film when shooting space itself. “Film was so slow, we never saw anything, just blackness,” explains Neihouse. “The Canon cameras allowed us to capture all the night footage that really tells the story of where the population centres are on the Earth. It shows us how the magnetic poles protect us from solar radiation, as well as the aurora of the stars.”

“We tried to shoot mainly at 850 ISO, but sometimes the astronauts would bump it up to 10,000, with the highest ISO they used being 12,000. I thought the camera did well even at these ISO levels, it was noisy but it this could still be fixed. Everything was shot in Canon Log, with RAW out the back on the C500, and RAW in camera on the 1D C.”

“In post-production, we had to fix the pixel damage, and we had very dirty windows on the cupola to compensate for. Apart from that, post was really great. When I did final colour timing with Autodesk Lustre I spent about three hours in the suite. Canon RAW is just amazing to work with. It’s gorgeous. The shadow and highlight detail is particularly amazing, because you can’t always light everything the way you want to light it in space.”

“The editing was done on Adobe Premiere Pro CC. We set out to keep the footage as pristine and close to the original file as possible. When you’re going up to a 60 by 80 foot screen, with these 4K digital images it’s not what they’re intended to be, so we’ve got to scrap for every piece of detail. From start to finish it took about two years, with principal photography over 15 months - 403 days was the exact number count.”

The beautiful 8K universe

It looks like future Canon cameras will be reaching for the stars too. “I’m really excited about the possibilities of a Canon 8K model,” enthuses Neihouse. “I’m going to try to get my hands on that setup this summer, to do some testing. I think Canon’s got a great product. Four or five years ago if you’d told me that I would say digital is here, I’d say you were a liar. But Canon’s got some of the best-looking cameras out there now. The top three things are the colour space, and something about the way they handle noise coming off the sensor, it doesn’t look like a digital sensor, it’s more film like. And thirdly, of course, the glass. The Cine Primes, the first time I shot with one those, I thought, wow, this is what I’m going to fly in space.”

Technical Kitbag

Camera:

3x Canon EOS C500
2x Canon EOS-1D C

Lenses:

Canon CN-E 14mm T3.1 L F EF
Canon CN-E 24mm T1.5 L F EF
Canon CN-E 15.5-47mm T2.8 L S PL
ARRI K2.47718.0 Master Prime 12mm T1.3 F PL

Accessories:

Codex Onboard S Recorder

Biography: James Neihouse

James Neihouse

James Neihouse has been shooting space-focused films for over 30 years. He worked on The Dream is Alive in 1984, and has been training astronauts to shoot film for IMAX since 1988, in particular crews of the Space Shuttle. He has trained more than 130 NASA astronauts and 20 Russian cosmonauts on 20 Space Shuttle flights and six Space Station expeditions. His filmography includes IMAX films Blue Planet, Mission to MIR, Space Station 3D in 2002, and Hubble 3D in 2010. Hubble 3D won the Lumiere Award for Best 3D Feature in 2011, and Neihouse won Best Cinematography from the Giant Screen Cinema Association for Hubble 3D and Space Station.



Showcase

Cinematographer James Neihouse and Director Toni Meyers take a closer look at the EOS C500 with astronaut Barry Wilmore in preparation for filming ‘A Beautiful Planet.’