THE HISTORY OF IN SATURN'S RINGS PART TWO
But after talking with James, I went to the IMAX theater at the Luxor casino in Las Vegas, which happened to be playing Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D (2005). I had not seen a giant-screen film since I was a kid. I was blown away by the size of the screen, the clarity of the image, the sense of being there, your field of view filled with moving images. This was literally the feeling I had from the beginning. James Hyder was dead right — my film had to be on the giant screen.
I returned home, gripped by a fever. I researched giant-screen films, watching every space related title available. I wrote not one, not two, but ten drafts (over the next couple of years) of a fairly traditional giant-screen film — narrated, with an attempt at a story. But the story problems were clear — I was writing in shots even though I had no idea whether they could ever be created with only real photographs.
And I tried to get color photo-animation rendered at giant-screen resolutions: at that point 4000 x 3000 pixels, roughly four times the resolution of HDTV, which itself had already been a struggle. Weeks, months, and years passed.
Then in 2007, I made a concept video, mostly for friends and people in my local community to get support for the film. It’s mildly embarrassing at this point but I never dreamed what would happen next. A local filmmaker friend got a long shot chance to be a YouTube (still the early days) “programmer” for the day and pick the videos for the front page. He picked this one and that night YouTube was covering a presidential debate. So instead of the few hundred plays, it went to nearly half a million in a few days, which was a huge number back then.
All sorts of people came out of the woodwork including a mysterious man representing mysterious people. Months of phone calls, emails, contracts ensued resulting in an offer of $500,000 budget to make the film by questionable parties, self-proclaimed Canadian-Italian real estate developers (you can’t make this stuff up). They wanted me to sell them my concept, techniques, script, everything. I would lose all control and get 15% of “net profits” and a salary of some sort.
This is a red-flag for filmmakers as “net-profits” mean zero and the loss of control and copyright means they were seeking simply to access my resources, techniques and content, perhaps never even finishing the film. It would be unlikely I would make it to the end of the production still on the film if it did get made.
But despite how terrible an offer it was, it was agonizing to say no. I had completely run out of money, both business and personal. The script felt cumbersome, artificial, and forced. I was completely unsuccessful at rendering full-color shots at anything beyond HD resolution.
I felt I needed to reinvent the project. Wiser, more skilled filmmakers than I had never gone down the road of a film created entirely from animated photographs. Or I just needed to give up and move on with my life and return to “normal” filmmaking.
THE TURNING POINT
The week after turning down the “offer I could refuse,” I found myself near Washington, DC, in a hotel not too far from the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. I had come up because the long-running cable-access show Around Space wanted to interview me. Sure it was local cable access and a six-hour drive from home, but it offered a bit of recognition that I was starved for. They put me up in the hotel, which was unexpected largess for a cable-access show.
It turned out to be a fun experience. They were very nice, loved my concept, and bought me a pancake supper after taping. I ended up killing a couple of days in my hotel room and, of course, at Udvar-Hazy and its IMAX theater during the trip. Looking at the incredible aircraft and spacecraft on display and watching a couple of different giant-screen films, I realized then that this project was unlike anything else. This film was like a museum tour through the space photographs from space missions. It was not a “story” about xyz, or any other standard film structure. This film was a guided tour through the greatest photographic collection humanity has assembled. I just needed to find the support of the right people to bring it to life.
I spent hours in my hotel room researching ways to finance films. I had various investor-based business plans, but I started to feel that private equity was not right for a film built from massive sources of public domain images.
Back in February 2007, I had set up “fiscally-sponsored” non-profit status for the project that would allow me to take donations from friends and family to help stem my financial losses. It allowed the film to take tax-deductible donations without the complexity of a 501c3. This was accomplished through the outstanding organization Fractured Atlas.
But it hit me — why not go all the way with this? This was truly a film by the people, for the people. Space belongs to no one and to everyone. When I laid this vision out to my friends and family, I was surprised how excited and positive their response was. Donations that had been a trickle started coming as a stream with my Dad and his wife putting in the seed money to get the non-profit phase of the film going in early 2008.
IMAX IN A BASEMENT
In May 2007, the Greensboro (NC) News and Record ran a nice story on the film, written by Joe Scott, called “IMAX in a Basement” (to the later chagrin of IMAX Corporation which is why the title is changed now). The name has stuck, as my studio has been our townhouse’s daylight basement since 2002.
Until those few days in my hotel room in Virginia, I always thought I would need a budget over a million dollars for all the computing resources, labor, and so forth I needed. But I had spent from 1990 to 2000 as full-time computer infrastructure guy with high-end gear. And for the last few years, tight funds had forced me to build my own computer for video editing, using low-costs parts.
In that hotel room, I spend hours slashing the film’s budget and coming up with a “build it as I go” low cost infrastructure plan to complete the film, in a basement, on DIY computers using cheap off-the-shelf parts bought as needed over the life of the film.
It’s worth noting that Facebook and other tech giants have adopted similar computing infrastructure strategies formalized through the Open Compute Project.
That ended up being the secret sauce to make the film. It has not been easy — just ask my wife how she feels about the 19 computers, spider-webs of computer cable, and nearly two-thirds of petabyte of storage now in our basement. But that plan of non-profit, DIY, IT filmmaking is still in place today and will bring the film to completion as envisioned. I estimate that a minimum of six months of my labor of the last ten years has been nothing but IT computer work to build and maintain the film’s infrastructure.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE THE STORY
The next turning point changed everything on the film creatively. First, watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, I realized that dialogue and narration were an obstacle to dealing with the endless majesty of the universe. Kubrick never underestimated his audiences, and 2001 is testament to the power of music and visuals to immerse an audience in a life-changing experience.
Additionally, I realized I was not making a “written” film. The closest model was a “found footage” or collage film like The Atomic Cafe. Only my footage was still photographs. I had spent years and would spent more years finding photographic image sources from space, determining their suitability for giant-screen, multi-plane photo-animation, and then building the animation.
This footage would determine the story, not the other way around. Since I lacked the power to launch and send spaceships to get the footage I wanted, I was utterly dependent on what could be found.
At that point I wrote a script based on the footage I felt I could get. That script has been rewritten more than 20 times since, based on “found footage” I have discovered. It’s scary to make a film this way; in fact, it’s downright terrifying. But faith in the power of the photographs to move an audience is what sustains the film’s creative process, and ultimately, me.
The next turning point was deciding to make the film an all-volunteer undertaking, including me and my wife. The labor alone was going to be years of work by many people on something never attempted before, with zero chance of a profit. It was as natural fit for a non-profit film supported by individual donations. Sure I applied for grants: quite a few, spending several months over the years, to receive a total of $750. I wish I had that time back.
Fun fact: using very conservative freelance-work-at-home numbers, the labor cost of the film to date is almost $2.1 million dollars. Using standard small post houses/offshore rates, it’s nearing $10 million, just for labor alone.
The vision and plan for the film from 2007 is essentially intact and has guided every decision from that time on: to create a non-profit, all-volunteer film, created entirely from real photographs of space in full motion via multi-plane photo-animation on DIY computers in a basement studio.
BACK TO MUTIPLANE ON THE GIANT SCREEN
Thanks to James Hyder, in 2008 I officially entered the world of giant-screen cinema. I soon realized it was nothing like the indie film world in which I had spent the last nine years. James connected me with three industry leaders: Rick Gordon of RPG Productions, Andrew Oran of Fotokem, and Mike Lutz, then with MacGillivray Freeman Films. All of them generously spent hours on the phone giving me the Giant-Screen 101 lessons I needed.
Coincidentally, Andrew Oran said Fotokem was looking to output some digital space footage on 15/70 film as a test for the upcoming Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) conference in Jersey City in September 2008. He very graciously offered to process a couple of minutes of whatever footage I had at no cost. GSCA is the global trade association for giant-screen theaters and producers. They hold annual conferences so that film buyers can see newly completed films and films in production. Most GSCA theater members are located in museums and science centers and book films months or years in advance.
I had to attend as many of these meetings as I could over the course of the film’s production. I told Andrew of my problem with high-resolution shots, but I had some limited test shots with no advanced multi-plane that I could render at 3000 x 4000. They were in 8-bit color, which only gives 256 values for each of the RGB channels, but requires much less computing resources.
It was quite a learning experience for me to output the film and soundtrack for the 15/70 screening, but Andrew and Rick Gordon were invaluable resources, walking me through wedge tests and gamma curves. We got two minutes of test footage printed to film and I traveled to Jersey City to see it.
And so I attended my first GSCA. It was an overwhelming experience. Phil Streather, a talented and knowledgeable giant-screen filmmaker, producer of the film Bugs!, was appointed my GSCA mentor and did a great job of asking me the hard questions — the questions I would now ask anyone else wanting to make a giant-screen film. My footage played on the largest screen in the U.S. It was exhilarating… and horrifying.
The stills of Saturn looked tremendous at that scale. All doubts about “should this be giant-screen” vanished in an instant. But that screen size and resolution exposed glaring weaknesses. Resolution of 3000 x 4000 pixels was not enough. As I had expected, 8-bit color was not nearly enough. But I also had to rethink camera movement, editing, and image quality for such a massive screen image.
Mike Lutz came up right after my clip, encouraging but adding, “Some of those shots are not the gold standard.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I returned home to pursue “nothing but gold standard” shots for the film.
ADOBE TO THE RESCUE
Word of our efforts and frustrations attracted the sympathy of Adobe Software. In the early fall of 2009 they invited me to help test their next-generation, 64-bit software that might provide the technical breakthrough I needed.
Interestingly enough, I learned that Christopher Nolan’s VFX team on The Dark Knight had run into the same technical problems I had — they were doing street pavement replacements using high-resolution photographs shot on set and at giant-screen resolutions. (The Dark Knight featured sequences shot on 15/70 film.) They suffered the same kind of crashes I ran into when rendering out VFX at very high resolutions. No commercial software at any price could render it. Of course, they spent a couple of million dollars writing software in-house to overcome the issue — not an option for me.
Using Adobe’s new software and spending many long hours delving into the Cassini image files, I started to make progress. Plus I had met online a few of the dedicated amateur image processors in the Unmanned Spaceflight Forum — people who had spent years and thousands of hours processing spacecraft and telescopic imagery.
They had huge, high-resolution stills that they donated to the film. This gave us the ability to create massive (100,000 x 100,000-pixel) photographic layers, and allowed the rings to be used in multi-plane photo-animation without use of CGI, Photoshop cloning, or painting.
FINALLY, THE GOLD STANDARD
Six months later, we passed the first true milestone in the film. I released of the first minute of footage online, flying by Saturn, its moons and rings, rendered at 5600 x 4200 pixels in 32-bit color. That is the maximum resolution of 15/70 film recorders such as those at Fotokem, and 32-bit color exceeds the abilities of the best film or even the human eye.
I was ecstatic. The clip was set to “Adagio for Strings” and even in a single unedited take, I felt it was utterly compelling, unique footage, the most beautiful thing I had ever made. The golden surface and rings of Saturn were surely the gold standard of space footage for the giant screen.
But nothing happened. From April 2010 until March 2011, the footage sat online with a couple of hundred views and a couple of comments. I continued to work on the film as I could, but money was tight, only a few individual donors kept the project on life support, and I started to doubt public interest in the effort.
In 2010, at the GSCA fall conference, they projected clips of films in production digitally for the first time. (Previously you had to submit the clip on 15/70 film to get into that session.) But the session was in a small multiplex theater in 2K (HD) resolution. My 5.6K Saturn clip was well received, but the digital presentation was underwhelming and nothing concrete came out of that conference.
I started to think maybe myself and our few supporters at the time were the only ones that considered this a special film.
FIRST TO MARKET, FIRST TO FORGOTTEN
Again I wondered if this project was simply not meant to be. By this time, I had been at three GSCA conferences. I had seen completed projects, including a few space-related titles, rushed out to market. That proved to be profound experience. Watching a rushed, modestly-budgeted, average-to-poor giant-screen presentation was difficult. “Rushed” still meant two to four years, and “modestly-budgeted” meant at least a million or two dollars.
Here are the two movies friends, family and colleagues panicked about when they were released that they would “beat” ISR to market and “win”. To my knowledge, neither film played in a single giant screen theater or had any real theatrical release and have vanished with barely a blip.
A few of these films were basically never screened, booked, sold, or released even on DVD. Others played just a handful of places and vanished into thin air. The premiere of a film is singular moment — and once it’s gone it can’t come back. It became very clear that if you are going to devote years of your life and all your resources, why not go all in?
I knew I would rather take eight years to make a good film than four years to make something I did not feel good about showing people. That seemed a far bigger waste of time. But I did want to feel that the effort was worthwhile, and so far I was unsure. My families and friends loved it and said great things. But the real test is people who have no idea (and don’t care) who you are. They were silent.
But a strange thing happened beginning on Saturday, March 4, 2011. My birthday. I was asked, along with the film’s main backer at the time, Mike Malaska, to present at a local astronomy event. That presentation went very well as I showed the Saturn clip to a live audience of a couple of hundred people and was blown away at their response. Sure I was local, but most of these people did not know me and they really knew astronomy.
That night, I got an email that from io9.com, a Web site (like many others) that was using one of my images without accreditation. They were nice about it and said they loved my clip and might mention it on their site. I had no idea who io9.com was at that point.
They “mentioned” it on Monday, March 6, in a very complementary story on their front page. My inbox exploded, hits and plays in the tens of thousands rolled in. Then NASA picked it up the following week as an “Astronomy Picture of the Day.” Media coverage, including television, began building from around the world. It moved to over a 1.5 million plays and over 5 millions hits on the Web site over the next couple of years.
Donations started rolling in and nothing has been the same since. All the work and struggle was suddenly and completely validated. The overwhelmingly positive response (other than the Uranus jokes and CGI doubters), the many messages about how powerfully the clip affected people — some even claiming it had changed their lives (leaving a job, or pursuing a lifelong dream) — turned my dream into a living breathing entity, no longer a solitary journey.
And people wanted to be part of the process — my dream of “a film by the people, for the people.” From a handful of volunteers the film grew today having nearly 100 volunteers doing everything from scientific analysis to image processing to social media outreach.
The viral success of the film’s first footage caught the eyes of distributors inside the giant-screen community as well. It was the first giant-screen footage to do so until Jerusalem’s moving aerials. I was approached by various parties, including some major ones with NDAs (your secrets are still safe).
But the large established distributors were both confused by and wary of a film so far outside the standard conventions for giant-screen films, except for the subject matter. And it was from a unknown, unproven filmmaker.
Like the others, Tina Ratterman, founder of a new independent distribution company, BIG & Digital, did not understand exactly what In Saturn’s Rings was and was wary, but she presciently realized it was project worth learning more about.
At the 2011 fall conference, an extended three-minute version of the 5.6K Saturn flythough was shown on 15/70 film for the first time.
By December 2012, I had signed a distribution agreement with BIG & Digital. But Tina and film buyers very understandably wanted to know one thing. Yes, that one thing.
When will it be done?
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
A rarely asked but potentially revealing question is why I’ve ended up being the sole filmmaker without any partners, large or small. I could say it’s because I’m a demanding auteur with such a singular, uncompromising vision that I’ve driven all potential partners away in my relentless pursuit of perfection. Or maybe it’s just my rank body odor from too many hours slaving in a hot computer-heated basement.
But the truth is far less melodramatic. From the beginning, I’ve looked for partners; e.g., my trip to Vegas. I’ve signed NDAs, had the meetings, and made the presentations of business plans. I’ve had people on board for short periods — interns, two other filmmakers, a household name in media distribution.
But they all leave and it’s always very clear why. The road less traveled, in this case, never traveled, is “tedious.” That’s an exact quote from the four interns that each lasted a day after finding out what the actual work of the film consists of. And not only is the road tedious, it’s long, lonely with dangers unknown. While losing interns was no big loss, as volunteers have done far more than dozens of interns, the filmmaking partners left to pursue another giant-screen films that would take much less time and effort, and probably have a better chance in the market. The household name decided to acquire a finished film from somewhere else rather than wait on an admittedly high-risk, long-to-complete project.
THE QUESTION REDUX
Which brings us back to the Question. Making any film is hard. Even a short film on a short schedule is hard. (I’ve run a team in the “48 Hour Film Project” nine times over the past 16 years), so I’ve delivered a total of 42 minutes of content made in 18 days from conception to theaterical screening, most of it award-winning.
I’ve produced a narrative feature, dozens of other short narrative and commercial projects from the most dry, standard industrial video to experimental non-narrative films.
And they all followed a basic pre-production, production, post-production, distribution model. Except for In Saturn’s Rings. I realize it’s a broken record, but I’ve found myself doing something never before attempted. There were no models, no case studies, no projects to research, no colleagues to consult, no one who had been there before to offer sage advice.
In fact, there were, and are, naysayers galore. Over the years, leading CGI artists have written me, sent examples, some of them spending weeks on them, explaining why it was foolish to use only photos and not CGI. Accomplished musicians wrote to tell me that since “Adagio for Strings” had been used in Platoon or Elephant Man, it was huge mistake for this film. Others were convinced I was lying about using only photographs. Many, many foundations, companies, and individuals passed on the project, either believing it could not be done or would not be interesting, or simply not understanding what I was doing or why the hell it was taking so damn long.
But this story is not about the negatives, it’s about the big picture, the really, really, really big picture.
BUILDING AND DESIGNING A PLANE IN MIDAIR
I’ve had to figure out how to make the film while making it, with only one chance to get it right. It’s like building and designing a plane while flying it. If you don’t get it right the first time, you crash. That’s the heart of the adventure: there’s only one “take” for every major section of the film, because each takes years to conceive and create. To get a “take two,” we’d have to redo all that effort, which is beyond my, and likely anyone’s, human capacity.
Here’s the concrete version of that statement:
Create the methods, techniques, workflow, and technologies to make the film, while making the film, as none of them already exist.
For each multi-plane animation section of the film, I create a process that allows me to figure out if the photographs can be animated to giant-screen resolution. This process is different for each set of data and each section of the film. Each is only done once and is not reusable.
Only one “take” for each shot in the film. Once the initial resolution check is cleared, work on the source photographs is roughly 90% of the labor, animation is only 10%.
For each of the film’s five sections, work averages about three years for the volunteer teams working on those. We only get one chance to do it. Minor fixes and adjustments can be made, but the what the shot will be is locked before we start the major work.
Because it’s all photographs — changes to angle or speed or especially content are usually not possible. The shot is the shot. One take that will take months or years of work.
It’s worth pointing out again this is terrifying way to create a film.
THE BIG DELAY
The film is currently more than a couple of years behind where we thought it would be. This is entirely due to the opening section — which includes a three-minute prologue (completed), a fly-through from the Big Bang (not pictured) to the center of the Milky Way (the delayed part), and continuation fly-through from the center of the Milky Way to the surface of the Earth, mostly completed in 2014, except for the background of the universe — the delayed section.
The delayed section is the classic “flying through the universe” shot we have seen in nearly every deep-space movie and TV show, from Star Trek to Cosmos. These are always created from CGI or other visual effects. By 2012, I had an idea for a solution for doing it using only real photographs.
Here’s a typical CGI example:
Astronomers on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have imaged over one third of the 360-degree sky that surrounds Earth in all directions. One third does not sound like much, but in a 360-degree spherical view, it’s actually a massive area.
More importantly, they had performed spectral analyses on most of the galaxies in this area and assigned a position and distance, the critical elements for scientifically accurate multi-plane animation.
A scientist. Miguel Aragon of Johns Hopkins University, did a simulation using images of most common galaxy types, SDSS position data image, 3D CGI – around 400,000 using images from around 40 galaxies types vs. our 5,000,000+, each one unique image. But it proved it was theoretically possible and potentially stunning as this is a very impressive clip. He also kept it to HD instead our 6K and 8K to make renders manageable.
In January 2013, our first volunteer team, having just finished the code to process all of Cassini and Solar Dynamic Observatory’s imagery, was ready to start on SDSS. They estimated three to six months to take photographs from the SDSS and turn them into elements that could be animated. I doubled that to six to 12 months. Knowing what else remained, I announced the July 2014 date.
However, by fall 2013 that team had run into problems unrelated to the film. I was in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign for a symphonic recording of “Adagio for Strings.” The team leader assured me he hoped all would be resolved and everything would be complete by late spring 2014. I pushed the public release date to August 2014.
As soon as the recording was complete in January 2014, I realized that the team leader was going to have to leave the film. And that no usable work really existed. So February and March 2014, we put out a global call for help and got a new volunteer team up and running within weeks. By April 2014 the team had a plan and work was well underway. The new team leader, Bill Eberly, along with the leader of the high-resolution deep-space image team, Jason Harwell, have turned out to be the most important volunteers on the film.
In retrospect, we should have not been surprised this has proved to be so hard. After all, the understatement of all time is “It’s a big universe.” The universe is the very definition of huge, massive, unending, and uncountable — and whatever other terms you can find in a thesaurus.
Very quickly the new teams and I realized that the three- to six-month timeline was a fantasy, and that years of work lay ahead. We had a frank and open discussion with all the key volunteers and backers of the film. The choices were:
Replace the opening section with something else. Given the process of the film, a fly-through of space would have to be CGI. Other types of footage — interviews, stock footage, or anything else — would not fit. This option is easy to reject.
Drop the opening section — the first act — of the film. We would have a 25-minute film that started without a beginning. It would also not be a standard length for release in giant-screen theaters, massively reducing its potential audience.
Finish the film as planned, but taking much longer. How much longer, none of us really could say.
We all voted unanimously and enthusiastically (well, I was probably the least enthusiastic) for #3. And we’ve never looked back. I’m sure from the outside it has not looked like a wise or prudent decision. After all, it gives the appearance that the film is trouble, that we are trouble as filmmakers, and/or that the project is at risk.
Plus the distributor and film buyers want firm dates, predictable schedules for easy-to-understand content they can book and screen. Completely understandable, but at the end of the day, it’s left to filmmakers to give up years of their lives, so the decisions of what’s best for a film are ultimately and rightly ours.