Stephen van Vuuren
When Will It Be Done? Part 4
Updated: Apr 6, 2018
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.
Read Part 5 here!