Read Part 4 here.
The photographs are the story
The next turning point changed everything on the film creatively. First, watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, I realized that dialogue and narration were an obstacle to dealing with the endless majesty of the universe. Kubrick never underestimated his audiences, and 2001 is testament to the power of music and visuals to immerse an audience in a life-changing experience.
Additionally, I realized I was not making a “written” film. The closest model was a “found footage” or collage film like The Atomic Cafe. Only my footage was still photographs. I had spent years and would spent more years finding photographic image sources from space, determining their suitability for giant-screen, multi-plane photo-animation, and then building the animation.
This footage would determine the story, not the other way around. Since I lacked the power to launch and send spaceships to get the footage I wanted, I was utterly dependent on what could be found.
At that point I wrote a script based on the footage I felt I could get. That script has been rewritten more than 20 times since, based on “found footage” I have discovered. It’s scary to make a film this way; in fact, it’s downright terrifying. But faith in the power of the photographs to move an audience is what sustains the film’s creative process, and ultimately, me.
The next turning point was deciding to make the film an all-volunteer undertaking, including me and my wife. The labor alone was going to be years of work by many people on something never attempted before, with zero chance of a profit. It was as natural fit for a non-profit film supported by individual donations. Sure I applied for grants: quite a few, spending several months over the years, to receive a total of $750. I wish I had that time back.
Fun fact: using very conservative freelance-work-at-home numbers, the labor cost of the film to date is almost $2.1 million dollars. Using standard small post houses/offshore rates, it’s nearing $10 million, just for labor alone.
The vision and plan for the film from 2007 is essentially intact and has guided every decision from that time on: to create a non-profit, all-volunteer film, created entirely from real photographs of space in full motion via multi-plane photo-animation on DIY computers in a basement studio.
Back to mutiplane on the giant screen
Thanks to James Hyder, in 2008 I officially entered the world of giant-screen cinema. I soon realized it was nothing like the indie film world in which I had spent the last nine years. James connected me with three industry leaders: Rick Gordon of RPG Productions, Andrew Oran of Fotokem, and Mike Lutz, then with MacGillivray Freeman Films. All of them generously spent hours on the phone giving me the Giant-Screen 101 lessons I needed.
Coincidentally, Andrew Oran said Fotokem was looking to output some digital space footage on 15/70 film as a test for the upcoming Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) conference in Jersey City in September 2008. He very graciously offered to process a couple of minutes of whatever footage I had at no cost. GSCA is the global trade association for giant-screen theaters and producers. They hold annual conferences so that film buyers can see newly completed films and films in production. Most GSCA theater members are located in museums and science centers and book films months or years in advance.
I had to attend as many of these meetings as I could over the course of the film’s production. I told Andrew of my problem with high-resolution shots, but I had some limited test shots with no advanced multi-plane that I could render at 3000 x 4000. They were in 8-bit color, which only gives 256 values for each of the RGB channels, but requires much less computing resources.
It was quite a learning experience for me to output the film and soundtrack for the 15/70 screening, but Andrew and Rick Gordon were invaluable resources, walking me through wedge tests and gamma curves. We got two minutes of test footage printed to film and I traveled to Jersey City to see it.
And so I attended my first GSCA. It was an overwhelming experience. Phil Streather, a talented and knowledgeable giant-screen filmmaker, producer of the film Bugs!, was appointed my GSCA mentor and did a great job of asking me the hard questions — the questions I would now ask anyone else wanting to make a giant-screen film. My footage played on the largest screen in the U.S. It was exhilarating… and horrifying.
The stills of Saturn looked tremendous at that scale. All doubts about “should this be giant-screen” vanished in an instant. But that screen size and resolution exposed glaring weaknesses. Resolution of 3000 x 4000 pixels was not enough. As I had expected, 8-bit color was not nearly enough. But I also had to rethink camera movement, editing, and image quality for such a massive screen image.
Mike Lutz came up right after my clip, encouraging but adding, “Some of those shots are not the gold standard.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I returned home to pursue “nothing but gold standard” shots for the film.
Adobe to the rescue
Word of our efforts and frustrations attracted the sympathy of Adobe Software. In the early fall of 2009 they invited me to help test their next-generation, 64-bit software that might provide the technical breakthrough I needed.
Interestingly enough, I learned that Christopher Nolan’s VFX team on The Dark Knight had run into the same technical problems I had — they were doing street pavement replacements using high-resolution photographs shot on set and at giant-screen resolutions. (The Dark Knight featured sequences shot on 15/70 film.) They suffered the same kind of crashes I ran into when rendering out VFX at very high resolutions. No commercial software at any price could render it. Of course, they spent a couple of million dollars writing software in-house to overcome the issue — not an option for me.
Using Adobe’s new software and spending many long hours delving into the Cassini image files, I started to make progress. Plus I had met online a few of the dedicated amateur image processors in the Unmanned Spaceflight Forum — people who had spent years and thousands of hours processing spacecraft and telescopic imagery.
They had huge, high-resolution stills that they donated to the film. This gave us the ability to create massive (100,000 x 100,000-pixel) photographic layers, and allowed the rings to be used in multi-plane photo-animation without use of CGI, Photoshop cloning, or painting.
Finally, the gold standard
Six months later, we passed the first true milestone in the film. I released of the first minute of footage online, flying by Saturn, its moons and rings, rendered at 5600 x 4200 pixels in 32-bit color. That is the maximum resolution of 15/70 film recorders such as those at Fotokem, and 32-bit color exceeds the abilities of the best film or even the human eye.
I was ecstatic. The clip was set to “Adagio for Strings” and even in a single unedited take, I felt it was utterly compelling, unique footage, the most beautiful thing I had ever made. The golden surface and rings of Saturn were surely the gold standard of space footage for the giant screen.
But nothing happened. From April 2010 until March 2011, the footage sat online with a couple of hundred views and a couple of comments. I continued to work on the film as I could, but money was tight, only a few individual donors kept the project on life support, and I started to doubt public interest in the effort.
In 2010, at the GSCA fall conference, they projected clips of films in production digitally for the first time. (Previously you had to submit the clip on 15/70 film to get into that session.) But the session was in a small multiplex theater in 2K (HD) resolution. My 5.6K Saturn clip was well received, but the digital presentation was underwhelming and nothing concrete came out of that conference.
I started to think maybe myself and our few supporters at the time were the only ones that considered this a special film.
Part 6 is here!