How In Saturn's Rings came to be....
by Stephen van Vuuren, filmmaker
Here’s the story of "why" — in never-before-revealed insights straight from Stephen van Vuuren, the film's writer, director and creator. This is your chance to learn how In Saturn’s Rings came to be, how it’s currently being created, and the future of the project.
"Everything comes gradually and at its appointed hour." — Ovid
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.
​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.
​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.
​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.
Animation is as old as filmmaking itself. It is the same principle as motion picture photography — a series of stills captured or created, one frame at a time, and projected rapidly to creation motion. If fact, it’s much older. Even some prehistoric cave paintings hint at suggesting movement from stills.
Hand drawn animation thrived by the 1910s in the dawn of motion pictures. But as it grew more sophisticated, pioneers realized a basic problem with single drawings on a single layer. The feeling of depth so clearly discerned in live action was missing — the background (e.g. the moon in the sky) moves slowly compared to foreground objects (e.g. trees close to the camera) when camera is moved.
That led to the invention and development of the multi-plane camera — an animation camera using multiple layers of glass planes to allow animating foreground, midground and background elements individually, usually with three planes but sometimes as many as seven in later films by Walt Disney. Here’s the charming Disney explaining his multiplane animation in a short clip.
But this applied only to drawn animation and other non-photographic elements as creating photographs in layers was not attempted until computer processing of photographs became common.
The first times photo-animation with multi-plane camera techniques were used were in Liz Phair’s music video Down, directed by Rodney Ascher, and A Special Tree, directed by musician Giorgio Moroder, both made in 2001, more than a decade after the last mechanical multi-plane films.
Clearly they inspired the makers of The Kid Stays in the Picture, when Robert Evans provided access to his personal photographs but refused to be filmed. Adding multi-plane photo-animation to them allowed the filmmakers to create visually compelling footage instead of just a slide show.
There is a fundamental difference between drawn multi-plane animation and photography-based multi-plane animation: with the former you can simply draw in the overlapping parts of the image so that animating these layers at varying depths does not leave gaps or holes.
But with a photograph, even if you are careful to separate foreground, background, or even midground, into layers, even the slightest multi-plane depth will create holes where you have cut out the image, along with other problems. In those pioneering videos from the turn of this century, the artists made heavy liberal use of the clone and paint tools in Photoshop to fill out the layers to be able to mimic the beautiful moves in Disney’s glorious multi-plane masterpieces.
But due to the limits of a single photograph’s resolution, they could not create long moving shots like those in the Disney films or in In Saturn’s Rings.
I buried myself in everything on multi-plane animation techniques and quickly became adept at pulling off the best work I’d seen. I was ready to tackle Saturn. But as soon as I started I realized I had a giant problem with this gas giant.
It was simply impossible to use any known multi-plane animation techniques to capture those rings — the jewels of the Solar System. Saturn’s rings exist at right angles to the planet’s body and multiplane in both hand drawn and photographic multiplane has completely avoided photographs with objects like that or chose to leave them in single plane, breaking the illusion completely.
For a physical camera-based multiplane animations (e.g. Disney films), creating intersecting or steeply angles planes of glass introduced unsolvable mechanical and optical problems that would require bending the laws of physics to solve. For computer-based multiplane animations with photographs, the data in a single photograph (e.g. Kid Stays in the Picture) simply lacked the data from angled planes to create animations, inherent in taking a photograph.
For photographic multiplane, only flat planes in the same angle as the camera film or sensor could be animated. Saturn’s Rings could only be done in a limited fashion if completely flat towards the plane of the camera’s film or sensor. In other words, I would have to invent completely new techniques of multiplane to create compelling multiplane animations.
Which led to the existential crisis of the film. Do I make a film entirely from real photographs? And if I don’t use only photographs, why bother at all, given the huge amounts of labor involved in creating something using real photographs?
It was truly a crisis. It was clear now why no filmmakers had ever attempted to make an entire film from only photographs. It was one thing to make a music video with short takes of a few seconds each. But trying to create an entire film this way would be tedious for the audience after five or ten minutes. The Kid Stays in the Picture had lots of other footage — movie clips, interviews with other people, b-roll.
Plus multi-plane photo-animation simply did not work for something like Saturn, or for most complex scenes, or for compelling shots that you wanted to last ten or 20 seconds, or even longer. The only other animation technique that used only real photographs was time-lapse photography. Early on I realized I could use time-lapse for some Earthbound shots, but most space photography was not shot in time-lapse form. I could also use some other Ken Burns-style and collage-image techniques for a bit of variety.
At the end of the day, unless multi-plane animation of photographs could carry a whole film, my concept was a bust from the start. But I was so seized by the passion of photographs as real journeys through space and time that I felt there had to be away to make it work.
​The film ultimately has been made on pure determination, faith in creativity, and passion for sharing the photographs with the world.
I’ve talked about the Question. And about multi-plane animation. But what every filmmaker is supposed to talk about is “story.” It’s the one point about which filmmakers are supposed to have complete clarity with any project…wait for it…except this one.
In July 2004, my first idea was to create a one-act play, with two actors talking and images projected behind them. The story was a debate about space exploration concluding with a surprising reveal connecting space exploration with our fear of the unknown. That soon turned into a nine- to ten-minute film idea.
I shot that film twice in 2004 & 2005. The first time, I felt I failed in what I was trying to capture, both creatively and technically. I rewrote, reshot, re-edited the whole film but never released it as I still felt it missed the mark. I shelved the films. However they might make an appearance on the backer/donor only DVD/Blu-ray of the film 🙂
Then a few months later in early 2006, the Ferry Corsten remix of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” came on my car stereo, and I had complete vision of a film — music plus photo-animation visuals of Saturn, space, and more, combined into a powerful emotional experience. I wrote the script for a 12 to 15 minute version aimed at film festivals, and maybe planetariums, as I was ignorant of the giant-screen and fulldome markets at that time.
My vision of the story was an artful documentary with poetic narration and staged scenes of a man watching space exploration from Earth, interspersed with photo-animations from space — a film festival piece.
This is the original concept trailer:
I set about delving deep into photo-animation determined to find a method that would allow more dynamic footage and work with Saturn’s rings. It was difficult work. But I found some answers in unexpected places. I was at a play and noticed the painted background flats and how when well executed, the human vision builds depth where zero depth exists.
That led to research on moving flats locked to the movement of the camera used in motion pictures, like the forced perspective for the hobbits in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. I realized there were basic mathematical principles of movement, geometry, and perspective acting on the human visual system that could be studied and emulated.
But in order to execute this, I realized that in order to execute this with photographs, I would have to use multiple photographs carefully chosen for the right perspectives and resolutions and going far beyond the 2.5D multiplane from the Kid Stays in the Picture and other similar projects. The complexity increase was exponential but I felt it was solvable.
I began building test animations of simple objects incorporating multiple photographic layers, linked mathematically with accurate, real-world values of scale and distance. But that led quickly to another huge problem. Once I started having multiple photographs arranged into multiple planes with real-world distances, the resolution required of the photographs grew exponentially as well.
The simplest way to explain is when photographs are increasingly set at oblique angles to your camera, both physical camera or virtual computer camera, the required resolution of the plane titled close to the camera becomes many time more than the resolution at the far end of the photographs. Just pick up a photograph and look at it a 45 angle to your face. You will quickly see the problem yourself.
Almost no photograph, even the largest panoramic mosaic from NASA made from 39 Cassini photographs was enough even for a simple HD-resolution shot with a dramatically titled plane. Pouring through the Cassini photographs, I realized the raw data was there for potentially massive resolution shots to solve this issue for giant screen resolutions, but nobody had put it together.
The Cassini spacecraft has taken over 350,000 photographs of Saturn to date, all black-and-white, 1-megapixel (1024 x 1024 pixels) images. When a color photograph is taken, three exposure are required with a red/blue/green (RGB) filter wheel turning in front of the camera. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) programs Cassini deliberately to take some of these photographs as panoramas, exactly the same process you use with a cellphone or digital camera, moving the camera side-to-side in panorama mode. Except JPL does multiple rows as well, for a taller panorama.
But JPL’s image processors have two large challenges. First, Saturn and its moons are moving, the spacecraft is moving, and taking three photographs to get a color one means a 12-image panorama actually requires 36 photographs. The movement of camera and subjects, plus the B&W-to-color process, means automating this process is impossible. It’s 100% manual only because even the most advanced panoramic stitching software available today can’t come close to accounting for the parallax problems with camera and object movement not to mention separate color channels photographed at different time and locations.
Cassini lacks the processing power or stored energy to process images anyway, so all image processing occurs manually by people on Earth. It’s difficult work, because all sorts of corrections have to be made to account for movement and RGB color-channel alignment.
​If you curious to try this yourself, here is an excellent tutorial from The Planetary Society. It should be noted that despite the processing we are doing to create multi-plane images, we never visually alter a photograph in any meaningful way. The most alteration occurs before the image data become a final photograph, including every released photograph from Cassini, Hubble, or any other space mission.
NASA’s staff and other scientists do some image processing. As the raw data comes from the spacecraft, it’s posted online as JPEG files. Months later, better quality TIFF files are posted to NASA’s Planetary Data System, which is not for the faint of heart. But it’s free and public domain. There is a passionate global community of volunteer amateur space image processors, such as those found at the Unmanned Spaceflight Forum, who have processed images for decades, some exceeding the best scientific work.
Other space missions (Hubble, Solar Dynamics Observatory, etc.) have similar image repositories with varying amounts of public access. So I dived in and downloaded everything I could on Saturn’s rings, not just from Cassini, but from the Voyager missions and Hubble as well.
No intentional, complete panorama of Saturn’s rings was there to be found. But Cassini makes accidental panoramas by virtue of taking 350,000+ photographs over a decade plus of orbits. Because they are accidental, they are sloppy, incomplete, and profoundly challenging to work with.
It took me ten-hour days, six to seven days a week, for four months, to create a panoramic mosaic image with high enough resolution for multi-plane animation of Saturn’s rings. Over 400 photographic sources, many of them mosaics themselves, combined into one final image, obsessively built referencing other Cassini images to be sure it was accurate and complete.
​The very first animation was a B&W multi-plane shot using a suitable Saturn 1-megapixel photograph as background plane in a HD animation with my ring panoramic photograph in midground and the Saturn photograph moon layered to the foreground. Using my newly developed, mathematically based, multi-plane techniques, the animation worked! Not perfect, but it felt like a real camera photographing a scene not a Ken Burns-style pan and zoom. But it was hard work, the software frequently crashed at 1080p resolution and getting everything accurate to photographic sources slowed the process down. So in early 2006, a year after my “vision,” I could barely eke out a 30 second B&W HD animation.
At end of January 2006, I went to Las Vegas to meet a senior member of the Cassini team at a conference where he was speaking. I was hoping for his help in getting easier access to Cassini imagery to help solve the many challenges I had run into so far. That meeting went badly, as cooperation was flatly denied. I found out later that this was through no fault of mine or my project, but that was little comfort.
Discouraged, I was sitting at a lunch table when the guy across from me introduced himself and asked me about my project. It was James Hyder, editor of LF Examiner, the trade publication of the giant-screen industry (formerly known as large-format), or what the public calls “IMAX films.” He was genuinely excited about my concept — the reaction I had hoped for at my other meeting — and told me it had to be on the giant screen.
I was humbled and complimented. But I knew the truth. I told him “it’s impossible.” Photo-animation simply could not be done at that size and resolution.
It should also be noted that James Hyder today probably now fully appreciates why ten years ago I told him “It’s impossible.”
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