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'A Beautiful Planet' offers a bold new look at Earth in IMAX 3D

Engadget Engadget 29/04/2016 Devindra Hardawar

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IMAX films shot in space aren't anything new, but with A Beautiful Planet, longtime IMAX director Toni Myers still manages to show us entirely new perspectives of Earth. Shot on the International Space Station by several crews (including internet sensation Scott Kelly) and narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, it's a groundbreaking film in many respects: It's the first IMAX space feature to use digital cameras as well as off-the shelf shooters (the Canon EOS C500 and 1D-C). And it's also the first film from IMAX to use SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft to ship equipment to the ISS.

While A Beautiful Planet uses converted 3D footage (it wasn't shot with actual 3D cameras), there's still an immense sense of depth to the imagery. The film also evokes the Spaceship Earth concept, which centers on the idea that we're all traveling together on an organic craft with limited resources. It's hard not to be taken aback when you see how dry the Colorado River Basin appears from space, which has led to droughts in California and surrounding states, or when you see how much of Brazil's rainforests have been destroyed. In many ways, the film is a call to arms for the next generation of would-be environmentalists.

Back when the NASA's space shuttle was running, IMAX was able to get its large 2D and 3D cameras sent up fairly easily. But these days it's more difficult to get material into orbit, because there's no space shuttle for sending up large cargo. Luckily, modern digital filmmaking equipment is also far less cumbersome to deal with than it was during the days of the shuttle program. Not only are the cameras significantly smaller, but there's no need to handle large reels of IMAX film, which weighed around 10 pounds and could record only three minutes at a time. IMAX says the data packs used today are around the size of an iPhone and can record 30 minutes of 4K video. Astronauts were trained to use the cameras by cinematographer James Neihouse, and they were tasked with getting footage from more than 100 targets (though they were also told to "shoot what they saw").

Though much more convenient, there was a bit of a tradeoff with the new hardware. IMAX's older film cameras delivered stunning footage with a resolution comparable to 12K. But while the digital cameras might not pack in the same level of quality, their footage still looked astounding when projected in 3D on a full-size IMAX screen at Manhattan's AMC Loews Lincoln Square theater. And despite the lower resolution, the digital cameras still managed to outdo their predecessors with their ability to handle low-light shots.

"We would not have the nighttime scenes without the digital dynamic range," Myers said in a statement. "What the digital capture did was totally open up that night world to us, with stars, cities at night, lightning and other phenomena that you see at night, like aurora."

Those night scenes are indeed stunning. Viewing Earth in daylight conveys the immensity of the natural world, but at night you also see the impact of human civilization in cities ablaze with electricity. It's also a reminder of how different even neighboring societies can be: South Korea is one of the brightest spots on Earth at night, but it's almost complete darkness over the border in North Korea. On the natural side of things, the brief glimpses we get of aurora dancing across Earth's atmosphere look more like computer-generated effects than something organic.

Another first for the film: It took advantage of the International Space Station's "Cupola," a dome-like arrangement of seven large windows, giving astronauts an incredibly wide view outside the craft. That was helpful for their own work taking care of the ISS, but it also allowed for a wide variety of angles for recording footage of Earth. IMAX also developed a special shield that protected the windows when they weren't being used, which the astronauts were able to control.

A Beautiful Planet gives us a clear sense of what it's like to be on the ISS working alongside some of Earth's most talented astronauts. We see them exercise, shower and try to maintain a sense of normalcy in a zero-gravity environment. Sure, they're in space, but their jobs aren't exactly glamorous. Much of their time is spent running and maintaining experiments. The astronauts also didn't get any time off to shoot the film -- they worked with what little personal time they had.

At only 45 minutes, the film is more of a showcase for its incredible footage instead of a deep think piece. (At times it feels like it was written mainly for children.) Still, it makes a big impact: You'll see things you've never seen before, and it gives you a broader sense of our impact on the environment. I'm sure we'll get an even more immersive space experience with 360-degree video or virtual reality eventually (Adr1ft comes close), but at this point, it's the closest thing to being in orbit.

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