How the Wide-Gauge Veteran Trained Space Station Astronauts to Turn Canon Cameras into Large-Format Eyes in the Sky

Cinematographer James Neihouse, ASC, may be to Imax documentaries what Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC, and Janusz Kaminski are to feature films, with a slight twist. With more than 30 Imax productions to his credit, including the format's first underwater film and every Imax collaboration with NASA, Neihouse has sent some of his very best work into space. In his 40-year career Neihouse has cumulatively trained more than 25 shuttle and space-station crews on capturing some truly magnificent images of space travel in the 70mm format. His latest film, A Beautiful Planet, which is directed and edited by Toni Myers (Hubble 3D, L5: First City in Space) and is Imax's first all-digital production, points a 4K lens back at earth in all of its breathtaking orbital variety. We asked him how he came to choose the film's primary cameras (the Canon C500 and 1DC), how he prepared the astronauts and crew members before they left on their mission, and just how the digital images made their way to the enormous screen.

A Career in Imax

StudioDaily: You've been an Imax cinematographer for your entire career, which is unusual. How did that happen?

James Neihouse: I went to film school at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and quickly developed an interest in underwater photography. Being from landlocked Arkansas, it was, to me, a natural step to head for the water. I became a dive instructor to support myself through college, then got hired upon graduation by the company that taught the underwater photography classes at my school. About two months later, these Canadians show up with these really big cameras, and wanted to shoot an underwater movie with it. One of them was Graeme Ferguson, the co-founder of Imax. I taught Graeme how to dive and went along as a safety diver and grip for the 300-pound camera in its housing. The resulting Imax film, Ocean, was the first underwater film of its kind. Graeme and I became friends and we still work together.

Astronaut Scott Kelly and Neihouse with the modified Imax / Canon camera

Neihouse, left, with former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and an Imax-modified Canon C500 during training in Houston.

SD: A Beautiful Planet is Imax's first all-digital production. Why now, and how difficult was it to come up with a digital workflow?

Well, because there are no shuttles any more, we could no longer fly film. There's no longer any way of getting it up and then getting it back. And getting it back was the hard part. We starting testing several cameras against Imax film side by side, and did that a couple of times and figured out that the Canon C500 was a pretty good piece of hardware to fly. It's very user friendly and small and has a really nice film-looking image. We also picked the Canon 1DC still camera so we could shoot still images, at four frames per second, in sequence of the earth. Through the miracles of modern computers and some secret sauce, we took those still images and converted them from four frames per second into 24 fps. This let us shoot, at 1.5:1 in the 1DC, what was closer to an aspect ratio that fit the traditional Imax screen, which is 1.43:1. For the 16:9 aspect ratio of the C500 4K footage, we ended up just letterboxing all those images on the screen.

Was that jarring to your Imax-trained eye?

You really don't notice it. I thought for sure I would see the difference right away. But in reality, the story just carries you so well and you're so engrossed in the images that I have not even noticed the jump between the two aspect ratios. Two years ago if you had told me that I'd be saying that this was an amazing-looking film shot on digital, I would have said, 'You're full of it.' But I am truly amazed by what we got from these cameras. I'm not just impressed by the filmic look coming out of the Canon cameras, especially the color and texture, but the low-light sensitivity of these cameras is incredible. And because of that, we've been able to shoot things in space that we've never been able to shoot before on film, like the cities at night, the aurora borealis or a star field in the deep sky. We have a beautiful shot going over the Bahamas lit by a full moon. You see all the lights of the nearby cities in South Florida and Cuba and the islands but you also see the turquoise of the shallows around them. It's phenomenal, and it's all just moonlight. 

Italy aglow in the Imax film A Beautiful Planet

What about the glass? Did you modify any off-the-shelf 4K lenses?

We flew the Canon 15.5–47 mm (CN-E) Cine Zoom, which was a nice lens for the interior of the Space Station, but also a 12 mm ARRI Master Prime that was a T1.3. We'd originally intended to use that lens to shoot exterior nighttime scenes but ended up shooting most of those scenes with the 1DC. On that camera we used a 24 mm Canon Cine Prime. Really the only modification we did to all the lenses is we manufactured a Teflon bumper ring that went on the end of the lens. If the crew got a little too close to the glass windows in the Space Station observatory with the camera, it wouldn't be metal-to-glass contact. It was a safety thing. The lenses functioned wonderfully and delivered great images. I'm a big fan of the contrast you get with the Cine Primes. The first time I shot with one I thought, "Wow, this will work great in space."

What else was up there with the astronauts supporting the workflow?

We wanted to record uncompressed raw footage out of the C500. Well, it really wasn't a choice. Compression of any kind is a killer when you're putting an image up on the screen that is 60 by 80 feet. You have to have every bit of data you can get, and we knew we were stretching these cameras well beyond what they were ever intended to do. Codex came through with their Onboard S Recorder and did some user interface modifications for me to take away a lot of the options the astronauts didn't need and make it astronaut-proof. We didn't want them to have the ability to erase shots or a data pack or change settings. If they rendered the recorder inoperable because they got lost in a menu or hit a wrong button, it just wastes valuable time.

And would take them away from their primary jobs up there …

That's just it: we can't take them away from their other jobs in space. We're bottom feeders on the Space Station. We get whatever scraps fall from the table. By keeping everything as simple and straightforward as we possibly could, it just helps our own case.

Butch Wilmore with the Imax / Canon C500

Barry "Butch" Wilmore moves through the Space Station with the Canon C500.

Training Up

How much previous camera training did the astronauts have before you started working with them?

What NASA does as part of Astronaut 101 is they give those first-year folks photography classes. So they already know what an f-stop and an ISO and a shutter speed is. They have all those basic concepts pretty well ingrained. We then come along and train them in the subtleties of Imax and 3D and all the things we know about to give them a decent image.

Such as?

We like to have much longer shots. With a big Imax screen, you like to look around the screen and be in that space for a while. Shooting shots that are 30–40 seconds to a minute long is one thing that defines our films. In terms of framing, I encourage them to frame everything just a little bit lower, giving your subjects just a little more headroom than you normally would. Because the screen is so large, if you put somebody's head right up at the top, you are basically looking at their belly button in your normal viewing angle. So, as a rule, you want to keep the heads in the lower third or two-thirds. For 3D, we tell them to keep your main subjects away from the edges and have some kind of depth intrinsic to the shot: something in the foreground, something in the mid-ground and something in the background to look at. And last, but not least, move the camera. Any time you can move the camera it always heightens the sense of reality on the screen.

So how did they do?

They did an amazing job. When we first met with the astronauts, they all loved the idea of the film and got behind it 100 percent. They said, "We're going to feature so many images from space that it's going to bring you to your knees." They actually knocked us flat on our backs. The first cut of this 46-minute film was over an hour and a half long, so we had to take a lot out, and it was painful.

Were you in contact with them in space?

The official line is you go through the NASA payloads people and they send your message to the crew. But the crew also has the option to put you on their email list. They all opted to put us on their email list, so we would email back and forth. We didn't use it for hard operational things but sometimes the crew would email down with an image and say, "How's this look?" or "I'm thinking about doing this shot: what do you think?" We really didn't email them out of the blue and tell them to shoot specific things. That, during a space mission, would be stepping over the line. But the other thing they have, which is really cool, is they can call you. It's pretty surreal when you're sitting there and the caller ID comes up as "International Space Station." On those calls we'd talk about exposures or framing as they were setting up the shots. They actually called me up and wished me happy birthday last year from space; I won't forget that.

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren behind the fully rigged Canon / Imax camera.

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren behind the fully rigged Canon/Imax camera.

Getting the Best Shot

Tell me more about how they used the cupola (seen at top), the many-windowed viewing hutch that first went into space a few years back, to get all of those exterior shots.

It's not the first time they've taken photographs through it but it is the first Imax/NASA film to use it to take footage through. It's basically a circular arrangement of six windows around the sides and then a big, rounded overhead window at the top that is oriented 90 percent of the time toward earth. It's like sticking your head up out of the module with expansive views around you and above you. It's a beautiful photographic platform because all the windows are really nice optical glass; they designed it for viewing. But, NASA being NASA, they also put scratch panes on the windows to protect them during flight. The scratch panes, unfortunately, are really cheap plastic with heaters and sensors. With the scratch panes on there, the astronauts at first didn't pay to much attention to the cupola. And over the last several years, it's gotten a lot of nose and finger prints and, well, scratches. They became really ugly. We worked around it at first. In post we were able to remove a lot of the offending marks. But what we ended up doing—and this was a four-month process working with NASA—was creating a method to build a piece of hardware, called a bump shield, to replace the scratch pane.  It's basically a piece of flight-certified plastic that has a door in it that slides open. So on some windows, we replaced the scratch pane with the bump shield so the crew could move the camera into place in front of the clear plastic and when they were ready to shoot, slide the little window open and shoot the images through the beautiful optical glass, then close the door back up. NASA loved it so much we flew two and the crews loved them and wanted to keep them on board. That's our contribution to future NASA earth photography: two bump shields that give you access to the clear window views.

It sounds like you had to cut a good deal [of material]. What happens to that footage?

After several years, all of it goes into public domain. The director, Toni, has said she is retiring and is ready to be a grandma for a while, but she's also saying there may be another film in there. So I'm thinking after six to eight months, after she's grandma'd for some time, we may be looking at another movie. I really hope so, because it would be a shame to not try. Not that we're the only ones to make them, but this team has made the most successful space movies ever, and I'd hate to have somebody else jump in and take our stuff and screw it up.

Hanging with the gear

Wilmore hanging with the gear.

You've only recently become a member of the ASC. Are they slow to accept large-format filmmaking?

I'm really their token all-Imax guy, but seriously, Reed Smoot, Rodney Taylor, Sean MacLeod Phillips and Peter Anderson have all shot some Imax films. But yes, I've become the ASC's Imax guru, I guess.

As someone who also had a hand in developing the Imax 30-perf single-strip 65mm 3D camera who is now a proponent of digital acquistion, what are your thoughts about the industry's shift away from film?

I really, really love the way these digital cameras look and I think these Canon cameras are some of the best out there. But in an environment where you still can shoot film, I believe it is still the best capture medium for the large screen. I've become a very strong advocate for the 4K laser system that Imax has just rolled out. I think it is definitely the future of projection. But I still think film as a capture medium for this format is the gold standard. Everybody always talks about resolution but there's always so much more to it than just resolution. You can scan an Imax frame at 11K and, last time I checked, we can't capture anything at 11K or even 8K reliably. When you can't do it on film, as we couldn't for this film, the digital Canon cameras made it work. I'm definitely 100 percent up for using them again.

JLAW and Dir:ed Toni Myers

Actress Jennifer Lawrence, who narrates the Imax film, with director and editor Toni Myers.