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Film work adds to Hubble trip

Astronauts trained to use the massive Imax 3-D camera to document their repair mission.

March 19, 2010|By Susan King

In space, no one can hear you scream -- and you can't reload film into a large-format camera. Given that limitation, when the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off 10 months ago to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope for repairs, they had to be conscientious about using the 700-pound Imax 3-D strapped into the cargo bay to film their mission.

Even though housing a mile's length of film, the camera could shoot only about 8 1/2 minutes of footage before running out, so every moment captured on film had to be planned out and timed to the second. The result of that mission to the space-based observatory 350 miles above Earth is the new Imax film, "Hubble 3D," which opens Friday.

The 43-minute film narrated by Leonard DiCaprio captures the rigorous training of the spacewalking astronauts -- they train in a pool that mimics the conditions in outer space -- the flight, the spacewalk made by the crew for the repairs on the telescope -- as well as 3-D excursions through the vibrant images the Hubble has captured over the years from various solar systems and galaxies.

"Imax made its first space-related film in 1981 about the maiden voyage of the shuttle," says producer/director Toni Myers ("Blue Planet," "Space Station 3D").

"The treasure-trove of pictures that Hubble has sent back . . . kind of made me crazy," Myers says. "If you recall, they were going to torpedo Hubble out of the sky after the Columbia accident in 2003. Once the final service of the Hubble was reinstated, I went straight to NASA. I said we need to show people what an amazing instrument it really is. The website is fantastic, but we can also portray it in a mind-blowing way in Imax."

Eight months before the flight, Myers and her crew began instruction on the large-format camera with the astronauts. For this mission, pilot Gregory Johnson became the Imax director of photography on the flight. "The camera is operated by a laptop, a regular PC that has software in it. You can see what the camera is shooting," she adds.

To pinpoint the moments Myers wanted Johnson to capture on the Imax camera, they spent a lot of time at the Johnson Space Center training pool. "We would be in on those training sessions themselves," Myers says. "We had little video cameras on during the pool runs so we could pick out moments that were desirable to have and collaborate on that list with the crew."

Besides the spacewalks, crucial shots included the berthing and unberthing of the shuttle from Hubble.

Mission specialist Michael J. Massimino, who was a veteran of the STS-109 flight to Hubble in 2002 and performed two spacewalks on this mission, says all of the crew had to learn to use the Imax camera. "Everyone kind of helps," he says, explaining that they would give Johnson an estimate of how long certain tasks would take. "He was turning the camera on and off when I was out in the payload bay. But we would help him through the flight. A minute of that film is pretty precious."

Particularly given the unique challenges they faced in space. Because Atlantis would experience a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes, the lighting could go awry. And then there were problems when the astronauts tried to loosen screws and open a stuck panel on the telescope.

"We were also told not to kick it while we were out spacewalking when we got near it," recalls Massimino.

The astronauts are also trained how to work high-definition cameras and digital still cameras. "You want to document certain things," Massimino says. "We wanted to take video and pictures of the external tank on the shuttle to see if anything had come off of it," he says. "That is what caused the problem with Columbia."

"It was really important for the mission to take lots of pictures of the Hubble to see how it was. Then the fun part of filming is for our own home movies, memories and presentations. I wanted to try and capture the personalities of my crew mates. That is why we did all of these interviews with each other. We also took thousands of photos -- we do that for every mission."

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