Director Toni Myers has great ambition for her latest IMAX film documentary ‘A Beautiful Planet’, currently showing at the Science Museum. She hopes it might inspire the next generation to solve the many problems that face us as a species. In that, I’m sure most people will wish her success, because this film dramatically reminds us of how fragile and precarious our life on earth actually is.
Of course, viewing the earth from the International Space Station (ISS) could hardly be a more spectacular subject for a documentary. In ‘A Beautiful Planet’ we see not only the vivid contrast between the earth and the rest of the cosmos, but also that between the familiar intimacy of (human) life aboard the station and the sheer strangeness of outer space. The resulting images are simply spellbinding. Presented in IMAX 3D, it is the closest most of us will get to a place hardly known even to a few.
The astronauts and cosmonauts on board the ISS have to get on with each other and do everyday tasks, crammed inside a tiny space for months at a time, all in a state of zero gravity. ‘A Beautiful Planet’ includes the American Terry Virts and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti as well as several others. They all seemed to enjoy being filmed and were happy to demonstrate the unusual characteristics of their temporary home for the cameras. I particularly liked it when astronaut Cristoforetti made a space grade expresso- one to try going on my list! Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wondering if their carefully selected even temperaments ever got rattled and if so, how they dealt with it.
Myers and her team managed to create ‘A Beautiful Planet’ using digital cameras that were small enough to hitch a lift aboard a Soyuz or support vessel and remain unobtrusive on the station itself. She admits that it would not have been currently possible to produce something like this documentary using conventional IMAX cameras and film (which are heavy and cumbersome) because “getting film back and forth in a timely fashion (from the ISS) was no longer an option” due to the retirement of the shuttle.
Using digital equipment actually solved a huge number of the logistical and technical problems that producing a film from space would otherwise entail. For example, the art of filmmaking is vastly easier when you are able to instruct the cameraperson, see through the lens and view the rushes, select what you want and decide whether or not to do a retake. Digital recording and telecommunication allowed the director to do things like this from the ground. What was filmed could be transmitted back to earth for viewing, so that instructions could be given and changes made from orbit. Myers even received calls on her mobile about certain aspects of the filming directly from the ISS (these calls were one way, by the way).
The filming of course was done by the busy astronauts between tasks (“the worlds best learners” according to Myers). Trained by cinematographer James Neihouse, they had some 22 hours tuition and proved to be able camera operators, adding a certain amount of their own creative flair. Filming was aided by the circular ‘Cupola’ window on board that provided the astronauts with unprecedented views so as to record the earth below.
But what to film? Myers says that digital recording gave the team new subject matter “because of its dynamic range”. One example of this was recording night views of the earth’s surface. Film was too slow to satisfactorily record such scenes from orbit. But digital cameras were able to capture the subtleties and variety of phenomena visible at night from the ISS in extraordinary clarity and detail. We see incredible pictures of lightening storms from above, auroras at the poles and those intricate, delicate filigrees of light that are given off by cities, roads and ships.
The vivid colours of our world in daylight are dazzling. Exquisite details of vast geographical areas are recorded and revealed in all their glory. Our earth is in a constant state of flux as weather, the seasons and on a deeper timescale, geological processes change and are in turn changed. Water and desert have a particular power.
Digital recording has allowed the filmmakers to present a global ‘socioeconomic view’ of change caused by human activity, highlighting many hitherto unseen aspects of our world as seen from space. It clearly illustrates how the ebb and flow of expanding populations and living standards, over the last few decades, has altered the planet, leading us to a deeper understanding of our conduct as a species. Political and national boundaries have very little meaning from so far above, but one exception is the 38th Parallel between North and South Korea. Lighting on the ground illustrates the gulf between a 21st Century economic superpower bathed in the glow of electricity and a totalitarian state living in literal darkness.
Myers shows us the impact of unsustainable ‘slash and burn’ farming and land clearance on places of inestimable ecological value like Madagascar, the depletion of the rainforests since 1990 as well as the worldwide effects of pollution.
Astronaut Cristoforetti made the perceptive point that the Earth is our spaceship. Each person needs to consider this, because it’s not a completely free ride. Our home Myers says “is a closed system” like the ISS itself and we all need to change our habits, so as to take adequate care and responsibility for it. All the same, the documentary and its director don’t intend to preach, just to enlighten. She’s both passionate and positive about our future.
The director has made several previous films about space and remains enthusiastic about the subject, warming to the theme in conversation. She enthuses about witnessing the Sputnik and Apollo achievements.
Bill Anders took the famous ‘Earthrise’ shot aboard Apollo 8. When for the first time, human eyes glanced back at our small planet from the vantage of the Moon. In ‘A Beautiful Planet’, we come in from much farther afield; the edges of the galaxy, towards an average star, holding our earth. As well as seeing into deep space, we are also looking back towards home and all our experiences, as well as reflecting upon them. The poignancy of this journey is enhanced by Jennifer Lawrence, who provided a quality narration that added gravitas to the production.
“I’ve been a very lucky woman” Myers says. Learning the ‘tricks of the trade’ on the job, she became known as an editor. Meeting IMAX co inventor Graham Ferguson “before he invented it”, she started work as assistant editor on his multi image ‘Expo 67’, a film that helped toward the development of IMAX. This eventually gave her the opportunity to make documentaries.
Myers says that she never personally faced any gender barrier; partly because there were many examples of women in film editing at the time. Today however she appreciates how different things are due to the numbers of people (of both sexes) trying to get into her profession and crying out to direct. “Take whatever (relevant) job you can get if you want to work on feature films…whatever’s going.. and get to know the people on the crew”. Become a part of the team and you’ve more chance to get promoted. “Rather than looking at the bottom drawer where CVs reside…. people will always hire someone they know”.
The final part of the documentary takes us out 500 light years to what could well be an earth like planet. We are currently discovering so called Exoplanets in unprecedented numbers. Some lie in the ‘Goldilocks zone’; that is between the heat of a star and the cold of space, where liquid water exists. Posing the astonishing idea that there may be another ‘Beautiful Planet’ somewhere out there.
There was only one element of the documentary I found problematic. Its soundtrack. Now the ambient music especially composed was very good indeed. But the more conventional ‘rock’ music- for me at least- grated. A small point of criticism of something otherwise excellent.
In conclusion, Toni Myers and her team have produced something that will thrill and educate in equal measure. Seeing the earth and cosmos in IMAX 3D has a strong emotional effect on the viewer. It evokes something almost primordial in one, touching on deeper themes and questions about our place and role in the scheme of things. If this doesn’t inspire scientific and philosophical curiosity, then I’d be very surprised indeed.
(C) Gideon Hall (2016)
(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2016)