WASHINGTON — Call her Katniss the Astronaut.
Jennifer Lawrence is narrating the stunning new documentary “A Beautiful Planet,” providing a portrait of Earth from space to help us understand our planet and galaxy like never before.
“‘A Beautiful Planet’ is a film about the Earth and also about the International Space Station, and what you see of the Earth from an astronaut’s point of view,” director/producer Toni Myers told WTOP.
“It’s a unique trip to space. It’s a 3D film, so you feel that you’re right up there in the Space Station looking out the window. That’s what all the astronauts say: it’s the next best thing to being there.”
The 46-minute movie is now playing in 3D IMAX at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum at both locations on the National Mall and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
“This is the first time we’ve not flown [physical] film in space, because no space shuttle. … We can’t get it back, so we had to go digital,” said director of photography James Neihouse.
“We picked some Canon cameras that we shot with, trained the astronauts to use them, then flew the cameras up.”
Unlike most earthbound D.P.s, Neihouse also doubles as the film’s Astronaut Training Manager.
“The button-ology is kind of the easy part for them, the technical part. The aesthetics, composition, directing … that’s kind of the tough part,” Neihouse said. “I kind of feel like my brain gets sucked out my ears teaching them sometimes, because they want to know so much so fast. But they’re quick learners and they’ll really get into it because they know this is a document of their time in orbit.”
While Neihouse trained the crew, Myers was busy visualizing her desired shot list.
“We start with a shopping list … but we encourage the crew to contribute their own ideas,” she said. “If an alien floats up and puts his face in the window, don’t not shoot it because it’s not on the list!”
After all the prep, the cameras were sent into space on September 21, 2014. They remained in orbit for 15 months, which allowed the filmmakers the time to wait for optimal weather.
“When they shot, they’d put it on the downlink and you’d get it down, pull it off the server, and Toni could put it on her computer and edit away,” Neihouse said.
Myers admits she was over the moon by the footage they sent down to Earth.
“Absolutely fantastic, beyond my wildest expectations,” Myers said. “Some that we had never gotten before in 25 years of making films in space because of the nature of the digital capture. We could shoot at night and get stars and city lights and aurora that we could never ever see before.”
These auroras are among Neihouse’s personal favorite images.
“The aurora images evoke a lot of thought and mystery because they’re so ethereal,” he said. “And I like the city night lights because you can see where all the population centers are at night, and you see what kind of impact we have on the ocean at night in that you see all the fishing boats out at sea.”
What’s Myers’ favorite part?
“The biggest surprise to me was that, by moonlight, you could actually see the colors of the Bahama reefs in the ocean with no lighting other than the moon,” she said. “That was really a revelation.”
If anyone appreciates the magnitude of what they’re witnessing, it’s these two prolific filmmakers. The duo has collaborated on seven films, starting with their initial IMAX proof-of-concept piece “Hail Columbia!” (1982), followed by “The Dream is Alive” (1985), “Blue Planet” (1990), “Destiny in Space” (1994), “Mission to Mir” (1997), “Space Station 3D” (2002) and “Hubble 3D” (2010).
“I started as a film editor,” Myers said. “I was working for the co-founder and co-inventor of IMAX, Graeme Ferguson … and he asked if I’d edit the first all-IMAX film. And I did.”
Soon, Myers and Ferguson hooked up with Neihouse, who graduated from film school at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Southern California, where he minored in underwater photography.
“Along came Toni and Graeme with this big camera and said, ‘We wanna make this movie,'” Neihouse said. “I taught Graeme how to dive and not kill himself, so they took me along for comic relief and to keep him alive when he went into the water, so that’s how I got into IMAX.”
Now, decades after staring down at Earth in “Blue Planet,” it was time for an update.
“It was time to go back 20 years later and see the state of the Earth,” Myers said.
Not only do we see the magnificent aerial shots, there are some important themes at play. For instance, Myers draws an analogy between the Earth and the International Space Station.
“With the space station, you have to truck everything up — water, recycled things, air and food — but it gets periodic resupply ships. Earth doesn’t get any resupply ships,” Myers said. “Both are closed-loop systems that require life support. I wanted particularly young people to get that analogy.”
Helping to bring in the younger crowd is J-Law, a fan favorite from “The Hunger Games” (2012-2015), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and “American Hustle” (2013). She’s the latest celebrity narrator for Myers after Tom Cruise, Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“They’re not huge stars for nothing. They’re very, very focused and hardworking,” Myers said. “It was wonderful to work with (Lawrence). I knew that I wanted a female voice for the movie. … She has a wonderful, spontaneous sense of humor. She’s very, very down-to-earth. Pun intended.”
According to Lawrence, the feeling was mutual.
“Toni’s wonderful. She can tell stories about science and discovery in a way that no one else can. She’s also very clear and it’s been really great working with her,” Lawrence said in a behind-the-scenes interview.
“I’ve never narrated a film before. I’ve done voice-over work, but always as a character. So I thought it was very freeing and the setting is very intimate. It was just me and the director.”
You could say the relationship between IMAX and Hollywood has come full circle.
“Initially it was a film medium that very quickly had an application for theme parks and had a kind of thrill component to it because you’re right in the big, beautiful, crystal-clear picture,” Myers said.
“It was mainly museums, planetariums and theme parks to start, but the original inventors always wanted and fantasized into expanding into Hollywood films and dramas.”
Eventually, the Canadian company sold IMAX to investment bankers who took the company public. Now, there are over 1,000 movie theaters showing 46 different Hollywood IMAX films per year.
“It’s expanded exponentially,” Myers said. “Most of the growth recently has been in China.”
As the technology expands globally, it’s a reminder that we’re all part of the same “Beautiful Planet.”
“[It] kind of puts you in your place for our place in the cosmos,” Neihouse said. “You realize this is a really unique place and we’re not gonna go anywhere too quickly, so you gotta take care of it.”
As for the filmmakers themselves, the work has forever affected them personally.
“I dream in zero gravity,” Myers admitted. “I’ve had multiple dreams of flying through places.”
“Mine always involve launch failures,” Neihouse joked.
Click here for more information. Listen to the full interview with Toni Myers & James Neihouse below: