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Getting the Big Picture on Space Exploration

Imax enlists the aid of astronauts to make the 3-D movie 'Space Station.'


The International Space Station orbits 220 miles above the Earth at a speed of 17,500 mph. So when Imax decided to make a film about the construction of the space station, it needed to enlist the help of some very special filmmakers: astronauts.

In fact, 25 astronauts worked on the 3-D film "Space Station," which opens Friday at several Imax theaters around Southern California. The filming took place during seven flights of the space shuttle Discovery and documents the second phase of space station construction, from the rocket launch of the first component from Kazakhstan in November 1998 to the July 2001 installation of the crew airlock, which made the station ready for human habitation.

"You have to do everything well to shoot a good scene," says Air Force Col. Brian Duffy, one of the astronaut filmmakers. "So the pressure was on to make sure we got it right." Duffy was commander of the six-man crew that flew on the first shuttle flight equipped with the Imax 3-D camera in October 2000. With Mission Specialist Koichi Wakata and Lt. Col. Pam Melroy, Duffy photographed three different space walks and installation of the Z1 truss, the "backbone" of the station. The film is narrated by Tom Cruise.

For the large-format filming of the space station, the astronauts used two groundbreaking 65-millimeter cameras built especially for the project by Martin Mueller of MSM Design.

"The in-cabin 3-D camera was created for interior use to be hand-held by the astronauts to document life in orbit," Mueller says. Though weightless at zero gravity, the hand-held camera uses matched pairs of lenses and a video viewfinder and weighs 95 pounds fully loaded with 1,250 feet of film, which yields a running time of 2 minutes at standard speed. "There was early concern about the effect of zero gravity on the operation of the camera," Mueller says, "but since the film mechanism accelerates and decelerates so quickly, we felt gravity would not be missed."

"At zero gravity," says Duffy, "you wanted to shoot all your scenes with a good foothold so that you could stay in one steady position."

The 25 astronaut-filmmakers were trained for 3-D filming in space by James Neihouse, director of photography on the space station. Neihouse is a veteran of 26 large-format films who has worked on four previous Imax space projects produced in conjunction with NASA. "We trained the crews about all aspects of composition for large-format 3-D cinematography," Neihouse says. "While we trained the astronauts on camera matters, they trained us on what was happening on their flight."

The astronauts practiced loading and filming with the camera in a space station mock-up at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The training we received on the ground was so good that we had very few surprises in orbit," Duffy says. "For the scenes that I shot, I tried to induce motion to help enhance the 3-D effect."

"We tried to get the astronauts to take advantage of 3-D space while filming," Neihouse says. "We have to make sure they let things float out into the audience every once in a while."

Many scenes in "Space Station" make dramatic use of zero gravity with visual elements floating about. Popcorn floats out as an astronaut opens a bag. Another astronaut sends oranges slowly flying out into the audience as he distributes them to fellow crew members.

"Imax camera movements in 3-D have to be slow," Neihouse says. "In zero gravity, it's really easy to whip the camera around. But fortunately, astronauts tend to move slowly in orbit just for self-protection."

For interior lighting the crews had four small, portable, 150-watt lights on board. The second Imax 3-D camera used for "Space Station" was bolted to a side rail inside an insulated housing with a quartz window in the cargo bay of the Discovery shuttle. This camera captured bird's-eye views of space walks and station assembly. "We were controlling the cargo-bay camera by using a laptop computer on the flight deck of the space shuttle," Duffy says. "We could see through the lenses of that camera and change them to see what the camera was looking at."

Toni Myers, who produced "Space Station," said new technology allowed the astronauts more flexibility. "It just wasn't possible to launch bulky cameras on the space shuttle. Our big revolution is compressing a lot of cinematic engineering into a very tiny space," Myers explained. "For that we use a single strip of film exposing the right-eye and left-eye views simultaneously traveling twice as fast through the camera."


"Space Station" opens Friday at California Science Center, 700 State Drive, Exposition Park, (213) 744-7400; the Bridge, 6081 Center Drive, West L.A., (310) 568-3375; Universal City Cinemas, Universal CityWalk, Universal City, (818) 760-8100.

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