Jan 10, 2003

Weekend Movie Guide, NASA-style


Weekend Movie Guide ... NASA Style!


Science@NASA presents a review of the IMAX movie "Space Station 3D"





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January 10, 2003: Right in front of me, a Russian Proton rocket blasted off the launching pad. I knew it was only a movie ... but when bits of debris started flying past my head, I couldn't stop myself. I ducked.


I didn't stay down long, though, because I didn't want to miss an instant of Space Station 3D, an IMAX documentary--the first-ever IMAX space film in 3D--about the construction of the International Space Station.

With 12,000 watts of pure digital surround sound and an 8-story high screen, filmed by astronauts and narrated by movie star Tom Cruise, this film comes awfully close to lowering the cost of space travel to the price of a movie ticket. "Very few people can actually say they've been in space," says writer-producer Toni Meyers. "But those who have been there--astronauts and cosmonauts--say that IMAX is the next best thing."




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Above: Sitting in an IMAX theater, the giant screen nearly fills your field of vision, enhancing the sense of immersion. Image copyright © 2002 IMAX Corp.

Thundering rocket launches and tranquil vistas of Earth from orbit have a tangible quality in this 3D movie that can't be reproduced on small, flat, television or computer screens--or even in normal movies. In one scene, which takes place at the base of the launch pad, the shuttle seems to be right there towering high overhead. Your whole body vibrates with the rumble of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.

Once in orbit, every shot is a feast for the eyes. Looking down past the shuttle's tail at the Earth passing by below, those little white clouds really do seem to be far, far below you. Even in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these shots alone would be thrilling and probably worth the price of admission for most space buffs.

But Meyers and director of photography James Neilhouse managed to weave these high-adrenaline scenes into a balanced documentary that also highlights the less-visible aspects of the space station: the real people and places and technologies "behind the scenes."


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Left: This Soyuz rocket carried the first crew of the International Space Station to their home in the sky. Image credit: NASA.

This "backstage-pass" feel is particularly striking in scenes shot at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, part of the former Soviet Union. Under a blanket of cold, gray fog that nearly hides the sun, we stand alongside the tracks as the Soyuz rocket that will carry the space station's first crew into orbit slowly wheels out to the launch pad laid on its side atop a locomotive--an event once hidden from Western eyes by the Iron Curtain.


Space travel is very technological, yet this film doesn't forget the people. We see the shuttle and station crews, for example, sharing a meal together in orbit, playfully floating tortillas and M&M's to each other. (See if you can catch the stray M&M that flies out to the audience!) Snapshots of astronaut Jim Voss's wife, daughter, and dog Cody are visible plastered all around his workspace on the station. A little blow-up "Martian" toy floats around in one module--astronaut humor.

The cinematic quality of these shots inside the space station is particularly good considering that they were all shot by amateurs: the astronauts and cosmonauts themselves! Professional directors and photographers couldn't go along for the ride, so Neilhouse had to give some of the crewmembers a crash-course in cinematography prior to their flights. Twenty-five astronauts and cosmonauts used specially designed IMAX 3D space cameras to shoot more than 66,000 feet, (or 12 miles) of 65mm-film between 1998 and 2001.

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Right: How do you show a 3D movie without those red-and-blue glasses? Some IMAX 3D theaters use glasses with "electronic liquid-crystal shutter" lenses. A radio link with the projector lets these lenses switch between opaque and transparent in sync with the projector's shutter, thus showing each eye only the frames meant for it. Presto! ... 3D in full color. Image copyright © 2002 IMAX Corp. [learn more]


The filmmakers add some tasteful and charming touches to this raw footage, such as the use of Patsy Cline's "Walking after midnight" during a spacewalking sequence and The Drifters's "Up on the roof" during the final montage.

If I had an objection to this movie, it would only be that it was too short. With a 40-minute runtime, Space Station 3D brings you back down to Earth perhaps before you're ready to go. Fortunately, this virtual journey into space has at least one advantage over the real thing: you can turn right around and go again!



Editor's note: How can you see this movie? Click here to find an IMAX theatre near you. Space Station 3D is presented by Lockheed Martin Corporation in co-operation with NASA; the film is distributed by IMAX Corporation and is available for giant-screen IMAX theatres worldwide. The author saw the movie, twice, in Spain.

Web Links

"Space Station 3D" -- the movie's official home page

IMAX -- home page with information about the special IMAX large film format, current and past IMAX movies, and theater locations.


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Right: In the "Destiny" US Lab onboard the International Space Station, Expedition One crew members Commander Bill Shepherd (left) and Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev (right) look into the video viewfinder of the IMAX® 3D cabin camera. The two lenses--one for the right eye, one for the left--are visible at the front of the camera. Photo courtesy NASA.

NASA Helps Take Tom Cruise into Orbit -- NASA press release. See also NASA's main IMAX page.

International Space Station -- NASA Web site for the space station and other human space flight

Baikonur Cosmodrome -- information from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

A day in the life of a spacewalker -- (Science@NASA) Astronaut and explorer Jim Reilly tells what it's like to do construction work in the far-out environment of space.

How astronauts get along -- (Science@NASA) Astronauts have a cool demeanor and good people-skills, but six months in a tiny spaceship with the same crewmates can drive anyone to distraction.


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