Exclusive: Exploring Planet Earth: A Roundtable Conversation with Toni Myers
A Beautiful Planet is a breathtaking portrait of Earth from space, providing a unique perspective and increased understanding of our planet and galaxy as never seen before. Made in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the film features stunning footage of our magnificent blue planet — and the effects humanity has had on it over time — captured by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
From space, Earth blazes at night with the electric intensity of human expansion — a direct visualisation of our changing world. But it is within our power to protect the planet. As we continue to explore and gain knowledge of our galaxy, we also develop a deeper connection to the place we all call home. Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence and from IMAX Entertainment and Toni Myers — the acclaimed filmmaker behind celebrated IMAX® documentaries Blue Planet, Hubble 3D, and Space Station 3D — A Beautiful Planet presents an awe-inspiring glimpse of Earth and a hopeful look into the future of humanity.
The Fan Carpet‘s Jay Thomas in association with Acting Hour took part in an exclusive Roundtable with Director Toni Myers about the breathtaking Documentary A Beautiful Planet, she talks about working with the Astronauts from NASA and getting Jennifer Lawrence onboard…
I thought I’d get the ball rolling by asking, How do you see ‘A Beautiful Planet’ in relation to the other films that you’ve made, such as Hubble 3D, in terms of reveal something about the natural world and our relative place within it?
Well, the big stand-out for me is that we flew digital cameras, for the first time, on this film. NASA told us that we could no longer fly IMAX 70mm film. We could have gotten a camera up there, but sending film back and forth in a timely fashion was no longer an option, because there is no longer a shuttle to do that. And the “up and down mass” as they call it, is very limited with resupply ships. So we had to switch to digital, and what that gave us was a whole new range of subject matter, because of its dynamic range.
Film was too slow to capture night-time scenes, but with the digital we are now able to see things like the lights on earth at night, stars, Aurora, lightning, and all kinds of things we could never have seen before. And that opens up an almost whole new subject, because it gives you a socio-economic view, you know? You can see where the industrial centres are. You can see how the population distributes itself and where people gather in cities.
That’s the biggest difference, looking at Earth in terms of what’s happening to it. The increase of pollution clouds and the depletion of the rainforest and so forth. There’s been a bit of a balance since our previous film, ‘Blue Planet’, which was made about the Earth in 1990. Though deforestation has continued, there has also been some replanting initiatives, so it’s not all bad. But you can still see the giant smoke plumes and the areas where they cut down trees, and basically just how much is gone in areas like Madagascar and Brazil.
What you don’t really see from orbit is the effects of climate change in terms of the melting ice-caps. You can see that there is snow there, but you can’t really see how much has actually melted. As we mention in the movie, that is actually affecting the water supply, the fact that so many glaciers and ice-packs are melting.
[Toni indicates to her blue and white scarf]
I tell people that this scarf is the Greenland ice-sheet melting…
…But it’s not actually visible.
One of the things I often write about in my reviews is about the technical aspect, and I was interested in the logistics of a film where you don’t know what the framing is going to be or how your cinematography will look. Given that, how did you work around the logistics of what comes back? Did you get rushes? How do you decide what will be seen?
Good question. We spend about twenty-two or more hours training each crew, spread over a certain amount of time. James Neighouse, who is our crew training manager and director of photography, and I train them with everything they need to know in order to make a movie in space. That includes button pushing and operating cameras, but beyond that it is framing, lighting, how long to shoot scenes, concepts of things.
These are guidelines, of course, but at the end of the training cycle, that was ask them to shoot in the simulators their own movies, which they have to light and shoot and direct their fellow crew-members in scenes for interiors. And then we put it up on an IMAX screen to show them. That really is the best training tool you can imagine. It’s like seeing your home-movies 60ft by 80ft, and if the focus penny hasn’t dropped, it does then, that’s for sure. So that’s a very effective teaching tool.
Hardly ever is there a problem with them; they’re great students. That’s probably why they’re astronauts, they’re the world’s best learners. But what’s wonderful about this film that we never had before is that the communications from orbit-to-ground have relaxed a lot since we started. So, I would frequently get cell-phone calls from the station.
Yeah, that’s really fun the first time it happens.
Was there a time delay?
No… Surprisingly, no, the first time it happened was actually on a movie we made called ‘Space Station’, which was about the building of the space station. Then, I just about fainted. It was 5.30 in the morning, I’m in my nighty, and hello. “Hi,” they said, “it’s Jim Boss from the space station”.
It’s become kind of commonplace now. You can’t call them back, but then, when you realise that it’s only 250 miles in a different direction, it’s not that strange. Except the fact that a call can start over the U.S. and you’re still talking when they’re over Guam or some place like that.
That’s a long way of saying that the communications are much more improved whilst they’re up there. And they’re up there for six months. Frequently, one of them would call down and say, “I’m kinda thinking about shooting a certain scene”, one that we maybe hadn’t discussed. They’d ask what we thought about that, and we’d say sure and tell them to go for it, giving them a few guidelines maybe. Then the shot would come down, which, because it’s downlinked and not going to the lab any more, I would get in a day or so.
Once we’d been able to look at it, and then I could send back a whole powerpoint. I could do screen grabs from various parts of the scene they’d shot. I could put arrows on it, telling them which way to do it and not do it, and make suggestions. And because we have digital and more storage, they were able to do it. We never had the option of a take two in the film days, ever. It was always about conserving the resources. So, the digital was very liberating in that way, for both sides.
We did start with laundry list, for both Earth scenes and interior crew scenes. But I deliberately don’t, especially in the case of the interiors, get very specific about things. For instance, I said, to celebrate a holiday. Just a holiday. I didn’t even say Christmas, I don’t think. I just wanted to give them the latitude so I didn’t know anything about milk and cookies or any of that. I left that all to their creativity, and they are creative, happily.
They do have specific Earth targets that we were looking for, and those didn’t change, but sometimes they also had targets of opportunity. Fires and things that we can’t predict. So, I would say, with digital, it was a lot easier in terms of shooting a long distance movie.
You’ve made seven films about space and space-travel. Has that been a life-long interest of yours and where does it come from?
I don’t know. I found that the first time we were making a film as a proof of concept for NASA, to see that IMAX was a really effective medium to convey to the public what was going on in the space programme. Working on that project, as well as events like the moon landing and hearing the Sputnik beeps, was enormously exciting to me. And to be right there, where things were launching, meeting and working with astronauts, was pretty amazing. So, you can’t stop. You get hooked, and the benefit is that each film is about a different aspect of space exploration.
Each one has been an entire education for me. ‘Blue Planet’ was all about Earth system science and the things that naturally affect the Earth. Not just humans, but vulcanology, geology, hydrology, and all those things. I had a wonderful committee of scientists that helped me out with that, and it was like a complete education in all of that.
‘Hubble 3D’ was obviously about the final repairs of the telescope, and was a wonderful education in astronomy and astrophysics. And, likewise, our first film ever shot in space, in order to even support these kinds of films, you have to learn all about orbital mechanics. You can’t be sitting in Johnson’s Space Centre and not know how the space shuttle orbits and what governs that. Your loss of signal periods and all those sorts of things. So that’s another whole engineering thing.
It’s just non-stop fascination, really, and I’m very lucky.
Are you keen to go out there yourself?
I would go. I was just saying earlier, I would go any time. I’ve had dreams about space and been weightless in my dreams, floating around. I would be happy to go. The one pause I had is when we were shooting ‘Space Station’ and I went to the top of the Suez Launch Tower, which isn’t very high compared to the shuttle, and that was when the vehicle was fuelled, which they wouldn’t let you do at Kennedy Space Centre. It takes about fifteen paces to walk around and carries three people; it’s a tiny, little thing. And the thought, that right underneath, them lighting an uncontrolled explosion, gave me pause. I though, I have a new level of respect for anybody that gets in this thing and launches.
It must be like riding a bomb.
Yeah! So, I sort of thought that maybe not so fast.
I could never go anyway. You have to have three PhDs and be really, really smart, as well as extremely fit.
So, what do you hope the audience takes away from the film? Are you simply trying to share that education and fascination you mentioned, or do you have a more specific hope?
That’s a good question. I started on this one, because we had done the ‘Blue Planet’ film in 1990, which was looking at Earth, and I thought it was time to go back, given that a lot has happened since then. But, I especially wanted to target young people and hopefully inspire them. I didn’t want to make a film that berated the audience. I mean, they don’t pay money to go to a theatre to be called bad people and be told off. But I hoped to reach school-children, both elementary and secondary, and educate the whole audience actually, as to how incredible the Earth is, as an entity, as our one and only home.
Because you only see it in ways that you can’t see the forest from the trees down here, this film allows people to see how complex and what a world of contrast it is. It allows people to see how fragile it is, and a whole bunch of other things at once. But also, just how exquisitely beautiful it is.
What I wanted to do was use the analogy of the space station, which is of course a man-made life-support system that has to continuously keep six people alive and how much that takes. And that is with resupply ships. The Earth is the same thing. It’s a closed system, except it’s for billions of people and it doesn’t have any resupply ships. So, I am hoping to inspire young people about the importance of looking after it, but also to go out and try to find solutions for some of the problems that we are facing.
And I have found, even back in the ‘Blue Planet’ days, that young people are much quicker to embrace these ideas than people in their 20s and 30s who are more worried about their mortgage or their failed relationships or whatever is going on in their lives. That’s not to dismiss anybody or any particular age-group, but my own son, who was at the worst part of his teenage years, was in tears. He and other children were really understanding and that governed their lifestyles even now.
It’s really quite surprising to me.
So, I hope that if we can inspire a young kid to get a better education, and one day crack the fusion problem and address some of the things, that would be wonderful. There is even an old story, about Susan Helms, who was the first woman to live for six months on the space station. Before she left, she went on a morning talk-show in the U.S. Watched by millions of people, they asked her what had inspired her to become an astronaut, and she said, “The IMAX film, The Dream is Alive”. She had seen it as a little girl, and that gave us a clue. I mean, you couldn’t have paid somebody to say that.
It gave us a clue about the kind of reach, and so I hope that we might inspire some future scientists and engineers in this way, to do some problem solving, because we need it.
Did you feel quite lucky, in terms of the astronauts you got to work with, given how interesting and eloquent they were? Especially Samantha, who had such a great scene with the espresso machine?
Samantha is just amazing, a wonderful, wonderful person. They all are. But we did not have a choice. It was just the timing of when we came along and the specific time period that was assigned. It was also governed by when we could certify our cameras. When you want to send equipment to space, you must flight-certify it. And that is quite an exhaustive process, where they shake it and bake it and torture it, to find out if it would have an adverse effect in orbit.
So, by the time you are through all of that, the window is established by when you are ready to fly and they have room to fly everything up. Once we knew that, that governed the three crews we would be primarily working with. We were so lucky. I mean, they were all great, but those three crews were absolutely fantastic. Every single person was terrific.
It always evolves to a point where you get down to one or two principal shooters per crew, people who just naturally want to do it, and each one in our three crews was absolutely fantastic. They were all very different personalities, and you can hear that in the film. All of them have a different accent, a different voice. But I could never have predicted how eloquent Samantha was.
What you hear from them in the film, those aren’t scripted words.
When each crew comes back, I do an interview with them, after they have had a brief recovery period. It’s sound only, a kitchen-table chat essentially, just to get their impressions and recollections of their experiences. And then I just take from that. I don’t take the “Ums” and “Ahs” out or anything. I wanted it to be candid, and Samantha was just amazing. She said things that I could not possibly have written, and just perfectly summed up the things I wanted to say in the film.
When I showed the rough-cut to Jennifer Lawrence, she said, “My Goodness! She’s the star. I want to meet her”. And they did. They got to meet in New York, which was really nice. They had a mutual admiration.
Some of the photography that took place on the space station amounted to a quarter of a million, in stills alone over a few months. How did that translate to the editing process? How did you know what to cut and what to keep?
That’s a tough question. The astronauts ended up shooting eleven and a half terabytes of material, and the Earth scenes were done in quite a unique way, which we experimented with before to prove out, because they shot with a still camera going at a higher frame rate of four frames per second . Then, in my cutting room, interpolated that material up to twenty-four frames per second, so we filled in the missing six frames for every five frames.
Before we started the film, I had another old friend, an astronaut who was on the station, test it out for us with a different still camera. After he did it, I knew that we could do it successfully. But choosing, oh my goodness, it was tough. It was really tough to edit it down, because we had to have it down to under an hour. I could have happily made it a feature-length film, absolutely.
Speaking earlier of Jennifer Lawrence, how did you draw her onboard the project?
That was actually the CEO of IMAX film and entertainment, who is very much a creature of Hollywood. And he is a very good friend of her agent, so I met her agent through him. He liked the film, so arranged for me to go and show it to her in New York. Thankfully, we hit it off and she agreed to come onboard, and that was wonderful.
I always knew that I wanted a female narrator, so I started out with that premise and had a short-list. And she was a great choice. I wasn’t so familiar with ‘The Hunger Games’, but from such films as ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ I knew that she had great range, especially for a person so young, and a wonderful voice.
Also, because of ‘The Hunger Games’, I knew that she would help reach a different demographic, and she did a terrific job. I absolutely loved working with her.
A BEAUTIFUL PLANET IS OUT IN IMAX 3D FROM FRIDAY MAY 27