Toni Myers returns to the director's chair this week to take audiences back into space with her latest film A Beautiful Planet.
Working with NASA and using the International Space Station and the astronauts on it, Myers brings us a view of the planet that we rarely get to see.
I caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the new film, where this project started for her and getting Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence on board.
- A Beautiful Planet is set to hit the big screen at the end of the week so can you tell me a bit about the film?
A Beautiful Planet is an IMAX 3D film that will take audiences of all ages off the planet into orbit on the International Space Station alongside the astronauts that are living and working there for a special view of our home planet Earth.
- The movie sees you back in the director's chair, so where did this project start for you?
It actually started back in 1990 when we made... this is our seventh film made in space... but we made our second film called Blue Planet, which was an Earth looking film. I thought after finishing the last film in 2010, that it was time to go back and take a look at Earth all of this time later to see what the state of everything was. It has taken since 2010 to make that a reality.
- The movie is an exploration of Earth as seen from the International Space Station, so why did you decide to film our planet from this perspective?
You have heard the phrase 'you can't see the wood for the trees' and being on the ground is exactly like that. You see the Earth on a scale that you just cannot see - even from an aeroplane - when you are 250 miles up. The space station has had a wonderful observation platform installed in it called the Cupola, which is designed for viewing the Earth. It is a marvellous place to see it. What you see from that perspective, is a world of incredible contrasts, colours, and climates.
Because you are orbiting the planet every ninety minutes, you are getting lots of sunset and sunrises, but you are seeing different events on the surface of the earth much more frequently that you would normally experience. Also, because we were flying with digital cameras at this time, we could see the Earth at night; which we have never been able to do before because our film was too slow to capture the night scenes.
So we could see the aurora, lightning and the lights of human beings on earth at night; which showed you the population distribution and how crowded some parts are and other not. It was very interesting to see if from that perspective and it was quite unique.
- The film was shot by astronauts or by cameras that mounted on the International Space Station. How tricky was that for you as a filmmaker as you were not in control? How did you find the whole process?
It is a wonderful process because we train each astronaut crew - over all of the years that we have been doing this, we have trained over 150 astronauts - how to be moviemakers. We get to train the crew for about twenty to thirty hours in the simulators at the Johnson Space Centre.
Our training manager, James Neihouse, who is also our director of photography, trains them. He trains them all about pushing the buttons, the settings on the camera, the exposure and focus and I train them about making a movie and what the content and guideline might be. I also talk to them about how to frame things, how long to shoot scenes, how to record sound and the lighting that they need to use. Basically, in their training, they learn everything that they need to know to make a little film.
The best part is, at the end of that training we set them loose in the simulators and they have to use the cameras, light their own scenes, director their crewmates within the scene to make a little home movie; which we then throw up on an IMAX screen that's 60ft by 80ft. Believe me, that is the best learning tool in the world.
- Of course, you gave them direction on the things you wanted them to capture but was there anything in the footage that you weren't expecting that perhaps changed the direction of the film?
There's always a surprise. Astronauts have ha great sense of humour and they also love to play tricks on you. You do start off with a laundry list of scenes that are planned but we deliberately don't get too specific with lots of them.
For example, I asked only for a scene that depicted the celebration of a holiday in space - I didn't say Christmas or Easter - and, of course, what came back was a wonderful scene of... I shouldn't tell you because it is a surprise in the movie. Needless to say, it is something that everybody from 3 to 103 will relate to.
We encouraged them to be creative and surprise us. We have always said if an alien comes up and plants his face in the window, don't not shoot because it is not on the list.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process and trying to piece together all of the footage that was collected?
It was a pleasure in that it was an embarrassment of riches. They said that they would bring us to our knees with the data that they would send down and they did as they shot 11.5 terabytes of data. But, compared to our film films, we didn't have to wait for weeks to see it as they would downlink it directly from the Space Station to the Johnson Space Centre and it would then take a right turn and come to us.
We mostly saw what they had shot within just a day or so or two days. It was just wonderful to be able to do that. It was quite a job to go through 11.5 terabytes of data and to make the choices we had to make to make a forty-six minute film; that was the hard part.
- This is another film collaboration between yourself and NASA and you latest film exploring an aspect of space. What is it about space that seems to fascinate you so much?
Well, once you start it is a never ending kind of quest. For me, every single film that we have made - and they have all been focused on different aspects of space exploration - has been an entire education in a different discipline, which has been fun. Every crew member that you meet is always fun and they are just a joy to work with.
As space exploration develops, you have new things to film. When we started, there was no collaboration - there had been one joint space flight with the Russians - and there wasn't a multi-national group of people working together in space. That has evolved over time and that has been very exciting to see that happen. To have the opportunity to capture the on-orbit building of the Space Station was really special. To this day, so few people have any idea of what an incredible feat that was to be able to build that very very complex structure up there.
- The movie also sees you working with IMAX, a format that you have used many times over the years. What drawing you back to the IMAX format?
I love it because it is a very immersive process for the audience; because of the clarity of the picture - and if it is a 3D presentation even more so - you are really part of the action. Because of the giant screen and the way the seats are designed, you just feel that you are right there in space along with the astronauts and floating in zero gravity. That is an experience that you don't get from an iPhone, and iPad or a normal movie theatre.
- You mentioned earlier about how you have been able to film nighttime like never before. I was wondering what other technological advancements have been made since Hubble 3D that you have been able to use on the film?
It is the digital technology. The actual digital cameras have a far wider range and higher speeds, so we are able to use the high ISO settings to capture the night scenes. It just wasn't possible before because film was just too slow and so we never saw any stars and we never saw any lights at night. This has opened up that whole new world and it is the digital technology of the cameras that has made that possible.
- Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence narrates the film, so how did you get her on board? How did you find working with her?
It was just a thrill and a pleasure to work with Jennifer. That happened because my boss in Hollywood, who is the chairman of IMAX Entertainment, is very much a creature of Hollywood and is a very good friend of Jennifer's agent. I always knew that I wanted a female narrator for the film. I met her agent through my boss, showed him the film and he loved the film and suggested that I showed it to her; which I did later in New York.
Jennifer loved the film, she loved Samantha Cristoforetti, and she's a passionate environmentalist and the theme is very much in keeping with what she believes and how she lives. She came on board right away - luckily for me.
It was wonderful to work with her as she is a very talented and focused individual and she really brings a lot to the film. Also, because of her The Hunger Games involvement, she will help us to reach a wider demographic.
- What do you hope audiences will take away from the film when they see it? How have you been finding the response to the film so far?
The response to the film in North America has been absolutely beyond my wildest expectations; we got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which I couldn't believe. We have had a really wonderful and positive response.
What I am hoping - to answer that part of your question - is to reach younger people to impress them with what an exquisitely beautiful planet that we live on, how complex it is, how fragile it is, and why it is important to try to look for solutions to some of the challenges that are facing the planet right now.
I am certainly not seeking to berate people for being bad citizens of the earth as I don't think that there is anything to gain by taking that attitude. If they are inspired to look after it in a positive way, I would be thrilled. If one child is inspired to go out and crack the fusion problem and build a fusion reactor successfully, then we all benefit.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I don't know; that is a very good question. Having just finished with this one, I am going to take a break, take a deep breath and be a grandmother.
Experience A Beautiful Planet exclusively in IMAX cinemas from today.