(Part 1 of the long-promised multi-part series covering past, present & future of In Saturn’s Rings)
Everything comes gradually and at its appointed hour.
For years now, almost with exception, every time I see, e-mail, or talk on the phone a friend, colleague, or family member, sooner or later the Question is asked. The Question is something that hangs in the air — this Question that good friends feel almost loathe to ask but still can’t help themselves.
“So when will the film be done?” or the other variations “How’s the film going?” “Any news on the film?”
Sometimes it’s incredibly refreshing to talk to strangers — anyone who has never heard about the film, just to talk without the Question existing. But I’m not playing a victim card here. It’s an incredible privilege to work on a first-in-history project that so many people eagerly anticipate.
Of course, the Question is also a self-inflicted wound, since I bowed to the pressure from very interested parties of distributors, backers, fans, etc., and in 2012 (not to mention in years prior) announced a release date of July 2014. That time has obviously come and gone while no new date has been announced.
Here’s the story why — in never-before-revealed insights. This is your chance to learn how In Saturn’s Rings came to be, how it’s currently being created, and when it will be completed.
Once in film history
For a long time, I’ve used the term “ground-breaking” to describe the film. But I’ve learned that it is misleading. “Ground-breaking” applies to blazing a trail that others will follow. It’s actually very unlikely anyone will ever attempt to create anything like In Saturn’s Rings. And near impossible that it will ever be attempted at the scale and resolution of the film.
In Saturn’s Rings is a full-length film created entirely as a multi-plane photo-animation. This, in fact, has never been done in film history. The manual labor required is extraordinary; using CGI and/or scientific visualizations would be much less difficult to execute. Or easier still, simply take a motion picture camera and shoot your subjects.
Easier, that is, unless your subjects are billions of miles or billions of light-years away.
Necessity is the mother of invention
The phrase “multi-plane photo-animation” may not mean a lot even to the technical reader. It meant nothing to me in 2004 when NASA’s Cassini-Huygens spacecraft arrived at Saturn. Upon seeing the first stunning photographs returned to Earth amidst profound lack of front-page media coverage, my first thought was “if only we had a motion picture camera at Saturn, then people would care.”
That single thought, combined with a lost childhood dream to be an astronaut, changed the direction of my life. My passion for Saturn and space exploration in general were fired by childhood readings of Robert Goddard biographies and most pointedly, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Saturn’s mysterious orange-shrouded moon Titan, our solar system’s largest moon with an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s, captured my imagination.
When the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was sent to Saturn with the Huygens lander destined to land on Titan’s surface, I never doubted the mission would attract as much attention as the Apollo moon landings. I mean, it’s an alien moon!!! At least that’s what my inner 12-year-old said. But Cassini-Huygens was ignored entirely by all TV and cable networks save NASA-TV and received lackluster coverage in other news media.
I wanted to do something with those Cassini photographs, something to capture the awe-inspiring majesty of the “it’s so real it’s unreal” that so many of us felt on seeing images from space.
But how? I had no idea. How you could take photographs and without resorting to some kind of computer generated imagery or visual effects, create compelling moving footage? I had been working as filmmaker for a number of years at the point, plus four years of film school before that, but nothing in my general knowledge of filmmaking seemed to offer a solution.
So I began to search. At that point, any fiction or non-fiction project about space relied on one or more of the following methods for creating space footage:
- Lensed footage from cameras. This of course limited you to the Earth orbit and the Moon, where astronauts have carried cameras (e.g., The Dream Is Alive).
- In the years before computers, optical techniques, models, and other special effects were used (Universe).
- Computer generated imagery or CGI (Space Next).
- Scientific visualizations, that is, CGI based on scientific data (Dark Universe)
- CGI-enhanced telescope images (Hidden Universe)
- Still images used as stills in the “Ken Burns” style of panning and zooming into photographs (The Civil War)
But no project had attempted a full film comprised of only still photographs, and for good reason. No one wants to watch a long slide show. But in the case of photographs from space, the photographs meant something far more profound than photographs of anything on earth.
Why it must be photographs
Like so many kids, I dreamed of being an astronaut. Every science and science fiction book and film I read or saw only fired my imagination about flying through space. I just assumed by the time I was grown up, space travel would be here.
Of course, it’s clear that most of us will never travel off earth and the few who do will only go the tiniest of distances. The International Space Station is just on the damp beach sand of the cosmic ocean’s shore. Even Mars is the just the shallows of the shallows in the scale of the cosmos. You would have to leave the Milky Way’s local group of galaxies to get to the first bit of deep water in the cosmic ocean.
The driving passion, this film’s reason for being, is that it the only chance any of us will ever have to gaze on a million galaxies at one time, much less journey through them arranged as they are in the universe. Or to gaze upon the wonders of Saturn’s rings and wonder if those oceans under the moons of Titan and Enceladus are teeming with alien life.
Which brings us to photographs, spacecraft, and telescopes. The power to capture light, particularly light that has traveled across the universe for billions of years since the dawn of time, is perhaps the greatest power humanity holds. Unmanned spacecraft have traveled a billion times farther than any astronaut and that number will only go up.
But how do you turn photographs into a film without resorting to visual effects? That was the Question for me in 2004. That year I can across the excellent documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), that used multi-plane photo-animation for parts of the film to cover for Robert Evans, the camera-shy producer who was the film’s subject. I was very impressed with how multi-plane animation brought the photographs to life. I immediately set off to learn everything I could about how it was done.
I felt if I could make this work for photographs from space it would produce a real feeling of flying through space — not a computer-generated journey or scientific visualization, but feeling that I was the astronaut, for real, in space as I dreamed so often as a child.