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J. Neihouse: Training Astronauts to Film in Space


Neihouse (left) trains an astronaut for Mission to Mir.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: December 2001

Legendary Big Movie Director of Photography James Neihouse talks in depth about teaching astronauts to film in space with IMAX cameras.


Category: Interviews

BMZ: You’re recognized as one of the premier Directors of Photography in the industry. Tell us a little about how you got your start in Giant Screen Films.

James Neihouse: After I graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography I went to work for a small production company in Santa Barbara, CA that specialized in underwater cinematography. We were hired by IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson to shoot the underwater portions “Ocean”, a film for the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. I had taught scuba diving to help pay my way through school and ended up teaching Graeme how to dive so he could jump in the water with us while we were shooting. I didn’t do much more than grip and pull cable on that film, but I did develop a relationship with Graeme that has lasted to this day.

BMZ: Although you’ve filmed for productions on a variety of subjects over your career, one consistent has been space films – you’ve been involved with the production of all five of them produced by IMAX Corporation over the last 20 years or so. How did you get started with space films, and what makes them so special?

JN: My first introduction into the IMAX space team was as an assistant on “Hail Columbia”, again it was Graeme Ferguson that brought me along on that one. Then in the summer of 1984 they called me again to A/C for a couple of weeks, that lasted till around the end March 1985. Not only did I get to work closely with Graeme on the project and learn a lot from him, I got to do some shooting as well. Plus working with the camera crews at the Kennedy Space Center I learned a lot about shooting launches.

I think the IMAX space films are special because they do what the format does best, they take you some place you can’t or won’t go yourself, in this case into space right along with the astronauts. That huge screen, razor sharp images and crystal clear sound puts you right there on the shuttle, even some of the astronauts have said that watching an IMAX space film is the next best thing to being there. Some have said it is even better than being there because the music is better!

BMZ: You’ve now completed work on the 6th IMAX Space film, Space Station 3D. The most obvious difference from past space films is the fact this one was filmed in 3-D. What does this add to the audience’s experience?

JN: The space, or rather micro-gravity environment is probably the best location for a 3D film. Apart from the obvious advantage of working in zero gravity with these large cameras, the weightlessness gives us a third dimension of freedom which allows us to expand the 3D environment in a way that we can’t on Earth. Things fly around without being thrown or shoved at the camera, it’s a natural 3D environment. The audience will have the feeling of floating along with the crewmembers as they go about their daily tasks.

BMZ: A less obvious difference about this film from past space films is the subject matter. By the time the International Space Station is completed in 2006, over 100,000 individuals from 16 countries will have contributed their talents. What did the international nature of the project add to the production?

JN: The international aspect of the project, both the Space Station and the film is tremendous. It’s really great to see astronauts from four or five different countries working together building the space station, especially given the current world situation. We have several scenes in the film where we have Russians, Italians, Japanese, Canadians and Americans all working toward a common goal and they’re having fun, too!

We have gotten some outstanding responses from the international theater community for the film. Most all of the contributing countries have or will have 15/70 theaters capable of showing the film. It will be a matter of great national pride for the people of these different countries to be able to see what’s being done in space by their countrymen and to experience it in a way no other medium can match.

BMZ: For several of the space films, you’ve trained the astronauts on how to use the camera in space. Can you describe what this entails? Did all the astronauts film, or just designated trainees? Were there language barriers in training, this time around?

JN: We trained nine crews for the Space Station film and they had to learn to do everything a ground crew does; load magazines, load the camera, take exposure readings, focus (we even teach them how to change focus during a shot), frame for 3D as well as Dome and Flat Screen, record sound, light, the whole nine yards, and we only get about 25 to 30 hours to teach all that. The nuts and bolts – hands on working of the camera comes really easy to them. The toughest thing to teach them is the creative part – proper framing, directing the action and the like.

We start out the training with the entire crew and give them an overview of the project, it’s called a “Fam” for Familiarization Class. We tell them a little about how the system works and show them some 3D films. After that the Commander usually chooses two or three crew to be the camera operators for the flight and those crew members get the entire training routine. We start out with the basics, loading the magazine/camera, mounting the lenses, setting up the viewfinder, etc., then we move into lighting, framing, focusing, and exposure. Next we take them into the mock-ups and have them shoot film, this is always interesting because it’s kind of like a test for them – they have to put all they’ve learned so far to work. This gives us an idea as to who will really be doing what during the flight. Sometimes a crewmember you least suspect of being the director ends up running the show. After they shoot their “test roll” it’s processed and we take them into the theater to see their work, as well as footage shot by previous crews. A few interesting things usually happen in this screening, first off their mistakes really get their attention. These guys don’t like to mess up and when you mess up in IMAX it’s really big, so they start to pay a lot closer attention in the subsequent classes. The next thing that happens is they realize that if they don’t do a good job THEY won’t be up there on the screen in the finished film! Lastly, they see what the other crews have done and they decide they can do better than those guys! So at the end of the screening we really have their attention and they get really serious about doing a good job.

Having crewmembers from different countries added a level of difficulty to the training process we had not really experienced before.. I had trained a couple of Russians for the MIR film, but they both spoke English fairly well and they weren’t the primary operators. On this film we had more Russians on the crews and they were more involved with the filming as well. Most of them spoke some English and we always had a translator in the classes. This wasn’t a big problem; it just slowed things down a bit. The biggest language “problem” came from U.S. astronaut Joe Tanner and Canadian astronaut Mark Garneau giving me a hard time about my southern accent, in particular the way I pronounce the word “on”, I tend to say “own” in true southern fashion. Of course I in turn had to bust Mark’s chops for his Canadian, eh?

(*Editor's Note: View clip of James Neihouse training astronauts to film in 2D for an earlier IMAX Space Film, Mission to Mir.)

BMZ: Why did a special 3D IMAX Camera need to be made for shooting in space? How did filming in 3D present special challenges?

JN: We had to build a special 3D IMAX camera for use on the space station, mainly to make it a bit more “user friendly”, also to make it smaller and lighter do the space and weight limitations of space flight. The two-strip camera, which is the standard production camera on the ground was just too big and heavy for launch and use on the shuttle or the station, getting it into containers for launch and then through the various hatches presented a big problem. Also, the difficulty of loading the camera came into play. On the ground it takes someone with years of experience in loading that camera 20 to 30 minutes to change film and that was a time hit we weren’t willing to accept. It also meant we would have to fly two rolls of film for every load, another space and weight issue.

In the end we developed the “30 perf. camera”, it shoots the stereo pairs side-by-side on a single strip of film. This made the camera body smaller, requiring only one movement instead of two and only a single magazine, instead of the four separate chambers the two strip uses. The biggest obstacle with the 30 perf. system was moving twice the about of film through the camera. We were still shooting at 24 frames per second, but they were pairs of frames, so the film was moving at over 11 feet per second, twice the speed of 2D cameras. Marty Muller and the team at MSM designs did a great job building the cameras. They met our design criteria of fitting the camera into a single shuttle locker and being easy to load and operate.

The main challenge of filming 3D in space is getting enough depth-of-field to hold focus though the scene. Working inside either the shuttle or the station there is limited room to shoot. This means that the subjects are close to the camera, which means the depth-of-field is quiet shallow. On the ground we would just bring in more lights and bring the light level up to a point that would work, in space you don’t really have that option. We flew four Arri Pocket Par lights, converted for space use, which gave us a grand total of 600 watts of light, not a lot to work with. We would have loved to have more light, but space and weight constraints didn’t allow us to fly more lights. So we trained the crews to work with what they had, turn on all the module lights, open covers on windows to make use of sun or Earth shine and keep our lights as close to the subjects as possible. All things said and done they did a great job!

Another challenge was keeping the film from being ruined by radiation. Our tests from the MIR space station had shown that high speed film would be ruined within about 20 days on orbit, so we decided not to fly high speed film and to only fly film up then back down on shuttle flights. This meant the crews of the space station couldn’t shoot during the intervals between shuttle flights when they had a little more time. On our second flight we sent up an extra roll of Eastman 5245 (ISO 50) exterior film for the crew to shoot out the window with, things like Earth shots and shuttle dockings, etc. It was really a test roll to see if the film would survive the time between flights. The crew stowed the film between bags of water in one of the modules that had fuel tanks around the hull, the theory being the water and the fuel would help protect the film and it worked! We got some great shots of the exterior of space station, which was something we didn’t expect to get, at least not from this camera. On subsequent flights we left rolls our interior stock Eastman 5246 (ISO 250) and the water bag storage trick worked for that stock as well, so the station crews were able to shoot things during shuttle interval that we wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

BMZ: After you’ve trained the camera people, how do you remain involved once they’re in space? Do you ever get frustrated that you can’t be up there shooting the footage yourself?

JN: After we’ve trained the crews they’re pretty much on their own, they have to be, they’re the ones on location. We give them a “shopping list” of things to shoot and they follow it very well, but they have the option to shoot almost anything they wish and some of the best things we’ve gotten back from space weren’t on any of our lists. During the flights we are on console in a room adjacent to Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR). We monitor the communication loops 24 hours a day, I’m always on the crew-awake shift so I can answer any questions they may have. We keep the training camera and associated equipment with us on console so we can work through any problems that come up.

In the 13+ years I’ve been working flights only once have I ever gotten to talk directly to space. That was during a flight in the spring of 2001, the shuttle had just undocked and Jim Voss our operator on the station was going through the camera before stowing it till the next shuttle flight. They had been having trouble getting the magazines to seat on the camera and during his inspection Jim had noticed that the magazine drive coupler was not aligning properly. This could be an indication of other more serious problems, so he wanted to talk to me directly. The only way for me to speak directly to the space station was to go to MOCR and plug in next to the capcom. It’s sort of like getting called to the principals’ office when you were in grade school (of course that never happened to me). Someone had to come to escort me into the room, the astronaut serving as capcom showed me where to plug in and said, “OK, you’re now direct to space, have fun”. Well, after I got over the initial intimidation of the situation Jim and I managed to figure out what was wrong with the camera and he was able to fix the problem.

This is film making by remote control and we never know what we have until it’s all back on the ground and too late to change anything. We’ve been really lucky, though, most everything the astronauts shoot is usable. There are a few things where they might miss focus or frame something wrong, but they are few and far between.

All this would be much easier if they would just let me fly, like that’s going to happen. Of course I’d do it in a minute if the opportunity presented itself.

BMZ: A few of the most remarkable "shots"/views/scenes from the film?

JN: Some of the most remarkable shots from the film have to be those from the camera we fly in the shuttle’s cargo bay, known as the ICBC-3D (IMAX Cargo Bay Camera –3D). With the ICBC the crews filmed rendezvous and docking with the station, assembly and some really beautiful fly-arounds with the Earth as the background for the station. Almost every shot from the ICBC is remarkable, but there are two that really standout.

From our very first flight with the ICBC one of the space walk teams did a test of a special “jet backpack” known as “SAFER” (simplified aid for EVA rescue) which would be used in the event a space walker got loose from the station/shuttle. They simply deploy a hand-controller and fly themselves back to the station. During our shot we see two astronauts, one on the end of the shuttle’s robot arm and the other test flying the SAFER as the space station looms in the background against the vastness of deep space, the shot gives you a real sense of the size of the station.

On our last flight the crews installed “Quest” the Joint Air Lock, the airlock provides station-based Extravehicular Activity, or space walking, capability for both U.S. and Russian spacesuits. In the our ICBC shot we see the station arm as it maneuvers the airlock into position for mating with the stations node, there are two astronauts on a space walk guiding the arm operator as she positions the airlock. The Earth is in the background of this shot and adds an extra layer of 3D depth to the scene.

As for the interior scenes, there is one that always gets a reaction; it is a simple scene of two of the Russian crewmembers getting ready for day’s work. One is shaving and we see him spreading shaving cream on his face, then he grabs his razor, which has been floating un-noticed right in front of us, and begins shaving while the other crewmember is washing up by squirting water on himself from a high-tech looking squirt gun, balls of water bounce off him and out into the theater. I think it’s seeing the cosmonauts doing this everyday sort of ritual, that we all can relate to, in the zero-g environment of the space station that makes this shot work so well.

BMZ: The North American crew, led by you, did some filming from the ground in Russia. Were there any obstacles to filming in Russia?

JN: Our first challenge in Russia came from the Russian Customs Agents, they held up our equipment in Moscow for about a week and we almost missed the launch. We tried everything to get the gear out, from begging and pleading to getting the US Embassy and NASA involved to out right bribes, nothing seemed to be working. They wanted to see serial numbers on everything, not just the standard things like cameras and lenses, but spare bolts, camera tape, even camera oil! So the assistants and our production manager spent hours and hours making up serial numbers and putting them on the bits and pieces. We finally got the gear out and made just in time to set up for the launch.

Once we got to the launch site we had great cooperation from the local official in charge of the pad. He basically let us do what ever we wanted to do. We drilled holes in his pad to bolt down our camera housing so it wouldn’t get blown away when the Proton rocket lifted off, it was only 56 meters from the base of the rocket. We were even given a few of the local army conscripts to carry gear and fill the sandbags that we put around the camera housing. Our only concern was with starting the camera, the Russians said we should just us a timer to start the camera and they would launch on time. We’ve had experiences where rockets don’t launch on time and since we only had about 110 seconds of film in the camera (we were shooting at 42 frames per second to slow down the lift-off a bit) we didn’t want to depend on the rocket going on schedule. We had brought with us a kilometer of cable, basically phone wire, to run a start signal to the camera from the launch bunker. The plan was to have one of our crew in the bunker 800 meters away with the run switch and he would start the camera when the Russians were ready to launch. First problem was getting a westerner into a Russian launch bunker. This was easy our local guy just told them to let him in, the second problem was a bit tougher, and that was making sure no one made off with our cable during the night. This was solved by promising the wire to the army major that was put in charge of watching over our stuff. In the end we got the shot and the major got his cable.

In between setting up at the pad and the launch we managed to film some “free-range” camels around the launch complex. I’ve chased alligators around the Kennedy Space Center launch pads with a 2D camera, but that’s nothing like chasing camels around the plains of Kazakhstan with a 3D IMAX camera. It’s amazing how far those silly camels can spit!

BMZ: What was the most memorable experience in Russia?

JN: One of the most memorable experiences during the ground shooting was coming back to the Proton launch pad after Zarya, the first piece of the space station, was safely in orbit and finding a disaster area around our camera. Most all the sandbags we had piled up against and on top of the camera housing were scattered “down-blast” from the housing and there were bits and pieces of the quartz-glass plate in front of our camera housing scattered about. We opened the housing window cover to find several rocks had been hurled through the glass and into the front of the camera. I had a neutral density filter in place in front of the lenses; it was cracked, but not shattered and the lens pair was intact. Now the big question was, when did the rocks hit the glass? We quickly opened the housing and removed the recorder that recorded the image from the eyepiece video camera. We all gathered around the tiny little LCD screen watching the playback with our fingers crossed. It seemed like that rocket sat on the pad for ever before the engines ignited, when they did the vehicle leapt off the pad in a shower of debris the rocket motors kicked up, then just after Proton and Zarya cleared the frame this huge chunk hits the glass, shattering it, then several others chucks fly into the lens as well, but we had gotten the shot. Actually all that stuff flying at you adds to the 3D experience of the launch, couldn’t have scripted it any better!

All things said and done, shooting in Russia was a lot of fun. The Russian people are great to work with and they love have a good time!

BMZ: The International Space Station is not scheduled for completion until 2006, so presumably this film will be relevant for many, many years to come. What do you think is its most valuable enduring message?

I would like to think that the most enduring message this film will have is that countries of the world can find a common goal to work toward together, peacefully and as partners. That was sort of the message of “Mission To Mir”, two former rivals coming together in the name of science and discovery. The space station film takes that story one step further in that we have all these different countries cooperating in the construction of a research facility that can potentially benefit the planet as a whole.

BMZ: IMAX films are known for pushing the limits, and space is certainly on the outer edge of human exploration. Is there any other subject you’d really like to tackle for the giant screen that you haven’t before?

Space wise I would like to see us go back to the moon, and take an IMAX camera of course, and Mars would be right up there at the top of the list of places to shoot in IMAX. We’ve already had IMAX cameras to the bottom of the oceans filming things like the black smokers and the Titanic, and it’s been to the top of the world for Everest. The audience has come to expect a certain level of excitement from this medium and if we want to keep putting butts in seats we can’t rest on our past accomplishments. I think there are a lot of good films about interesting people/places/creatures to be made out there. The bar is being set higher all the time and we just have to keep working harder at making better and better films.

I think the next breakthrough for the format might be in the dramatic film arena. This might be the toughest arena of them all since the format is very unforgiving, actors will have to be even more convincing, make-up and wardrobe flawless and the story will have to be strong enough not to get lost in the size of the image. The directors will have to learn a new way of blocking scenes so they work on the big screen. It’s not going to be easy, but if it were easy everyone would be doing it.

*View clip of James Neihouse training astronauts to film Mission to Mir.

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