Apr 5, 2010
This interview took place with James Neihouse, director of photography and astronaut trainer for Hubble 3D, on April 3, 2010.
How did you get involved with IMAX?
I was lucky enough to work on my first IMAX film right out of film school. It was the IMAX Dome filmOCEAN that was being made for the Ruben Fleet Space Theater in San Diego, Calif. I was working for a small production company in Santa Barbara that specialized in underwater film making. About two months after I graduated from Brooks Institute, a guy showed up on our door step with a honkin’ big camera and wanted to shoot an underwater film. As it turned out, it was Graeme Ferguson, one of the co-founders of IMAX. Well he wanted to dive occasionally to see what was being shot, this was before we had video assist capability on underwater cameras. He didn’t have much experience diving, so they brought me along on the shoots to keep an eye on him when he went in the water, and to be a grip, goofer and shark bait. I’ve been working on projects with Graeme ever since.
What is the most difficult thing (concept) to teach astronauts?
The astronauts pick up the technical aspects of the cameras really quickly – it’s what they do best. I think the most challenging part of our training process is getting them comfortable with the ascetics of filmmaking. Getting them used to the longer shot lengths that we like to have for IMAX is one of the toughest; I think that the thought of all the film going though the camera sort of intimidates them. We also have to get them to pay attention to how much they move the camera around; in space even IMAX cameras are weightless!
Describe the IMAX 3D cameras.
Well, the two strip camera is BIG and weighs about 260 pounds. It basically has two camera movements in one body and is about the size of a mini-bar refrigerator. Two rolls of film run through the camera at once. The camera uses two lenses to record the left and right “eye” images that are required to create the 3D effect.
The space cameras use a single strip of film, and record the left and right eye images side by side. These cameras were custom built for space flight, but we do use them on the ground, at least the ones designed for in cabin use. The 3D IMAX Cargo Bay Camera (ICBC-3D) is the real heavy weight of the group. In its shooting configuration it weighs up around 700 pounds. The film runs through these cameras at about 12’ per second, so the 5400’ of film we load into the ICBC-3D lasts only eight minutes, and it cannot be reloaded in space.
How does the cargo bay camera differ from the ones on the ground?
The ICBC-3D is enclosed in a special container that maintains a slight atmosphere. This atmosphere is required for the vacuum system that keeps the film flat during exposure. The IMAX frame is so large that it tends to buckle in the gate during exposure. While other cameras use a pressure plate to keep the film flat, with an IMAX frame we use the vacuum to suck the film flat against the pressure plate during exposure. The container has special two-way valves, called breather valves. These valves are calibrated to a specific pressure, about four psi for the ICBC-3D, and they allow the container to bleed down to that pressure during the ascent phase of the flight. During entry, they allow the increasing atmospheric pressure into the container so it doesn’t be come “vacuum sealed”. This is one reason why the camera cannot be reloaded in flight.
The camera “looks out” though a window in the container, that is a specially made pure quartz glass plate that is optically flat and about 18” by 20” in size – that’s 360 square inches of glass. All that glass is protected by a motorized door that is opened by the camera control computer operated by the astronauts on the flight deck. The door is sort of like a garage door, it runs up and down on little tracks.
The ICBC-3D control software is installed on a laptop and connected to the camera via an RS-422 connection. The software allows the astronauts to control focus, f/stop settings, lens changes, frame rate settings, run and stop the camera, as well as controlling the door. The computer also tracks the camera’s health, with temperature and voltage readings, motor counts on the stepper motors, container pressure, and film usage. All of this information is recorded to a file which can be down-linked through the shuttle’s computers.
Describe the set up day for the shuttle launch.
Setting up for a shuttle launch is not a single day process; it’s done in stages, beginning as much as six months prior to launch. We first have to determine where we want to put the cameras, then get permission from the engineers at NASA. Then some of those same engineers look over our hardware to make sure we’re not going to do any damage to the shuttle during launch. It’s a long process involving many meetings. Once we have all the approvals in place, we’re good to go. The specially built “launch boxes” are shipped to the space center first. Anything that is put on the launch pad, the best place for 3D, has to be installed at least a month in advance. Closer in to launch, the cameras and related support equipment is shipped in about a week to 10 days prior the launch. My crew and I assemble and check everything out ahead of going to the space center with the gear. We want to find any problems well ahead of time and before we’re out on a launch pad. About three days prior to launch we install all the cameras in their housings to do an end-to-end test. Our camera start signals originate from the launch control center and we like to have every thing hooked up, dress rehearsal style, at that time. About 30 hours prior to launch, we go out and load the cameras with film, install fresh batteries, and double and triple check everything. This is the last time we will see the cameras until after launch. I don’t like to load the film any sooner because of the heat in Florida. In the summer time, the inside of the camera housing can literally bake the film. Over the years I’ve developed a check list for each type of camera we shoot with. Some of the lists have more than 100 items on them and we follow the check lists religiously. It makes sleeping the night before launch much easier. Remember we don’t get second takes in this business! On launch day all we have to do is hope the weather cooperates, the shuttle launches and we can find our cameras after launch, and that they are in one piece.
What is your best astronaut training memory?
Apart from just having the honor to work with these incredible men and women, I guess I would say that my most memorable moments come when the crew and their families see the finished film for the first time. I have had more than one astronaut/cosmonaut tell me thank you for the movie because it takes me right back into space, it’s the next best thing to being there. After seeing Space Station 3D one cosmonaut gave me a big hug (I’d never been hugged by a Russian general before) and said “Thank you for taking me back to space, now I can go anytime! All I have to do is watch the movie!”