The Astronauts Behind IMAX’s ‘A Beautiful Planet’ Talk About Life in Space

Anyone in the mood for an astronautical contact high?

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Apr 22 2016, 2:00pm

Caribbean reefs from the ISS. Image: © 2016 IMAX Corporation/Photo courtesy of NASA

Human spaceflight, from its very inception, has inspired an unparalleled respect and appreciation for our planet's delicate beauty, which is especially pertinent this Saturday as the world celebrates Earth Day.

As far back as Yuri Gagarin's historic spaceflight 55 years ago, astronauts have experienced what is now called the "overview effect," a surreal cognitive shift caused by beholding our planet from space. "When I orbited the Earth in a spaceship, I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is," Gagarin enthused after he returned from his Vostok 1 flight. "Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it!"

Very few people earn the opportunity to experience this revelatory vantagepoint of Earth for themselves, which is why IMAX has teamed up with NASA and director Toni Myers to make A Beautiful Planet, a documentary shot by International Space Station (ISS) crew members.

Set for release on April 29, the film, narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, explores life inside the ISS, and features magnificent footage of Earth from the station's cupola and windows, and even exterior shots filmed during spacewalks.

A Beautiful Planet trailer. Video: IMAX/YouTube

When viewed on a gargantuan IMAX screen in 3D, A Beautiful Planet is about as close to a vicarious version of the overview effect as possible. And according to the crew members who shot and star in the film—including Samantha Cristoforetti, Terry Virts, Butch Wilmore, and Kjell Lindgren—this effort to democratize of the view of Earth from space was their central motivation for making the movie.

"I was in space for 200 days on this mission, and we did science and spacewalks and all kinds of things, but I think this movie is the most important thing I did because it brings space to people," astronaut Terry Virts told me at an A Beautiful Planet press event. "There's millions of people that will hopefully see this movie. Most people can't go to space, unfortunately, so it's a way to share our experience with people on Earth."

"I would say that the astronauts and cosmonauts [of the ISS] are desperate to share that experience," added astronaut Kjell Lindgren. "It is such a unique perspective. The Earth is so beautiful."

Indeed, A Beautiful Planet lives up to its name by splicing together breathtaking images of the Earth's geological diversity and dynamic scenery. From ocean cyclones to lightning storms to brilliant auroras, there are plenty of gorgeous shots to ogle over. "The sad part about this movie is that it's too short," astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, who commanded ISS Expedition 42, told me. "There was so much spectacular stuff that we sent down, and we could only use so much in 46 minutes."

One of the standout benefits of watching the film in IMAX was the rich pallette of colors that were captured by the digital cameras Canon provided to the ISS crews. Earth's broad array of hues has always been one of the main points emphasized by astronauts who describe the overview effect, from Gagarin's description of "an indescribable gamut of colors" to the most recent ISS crews' recollection of their time in space.

Virts filming using IMAX's digital camera. Image: © 2016 IMAX Corporation/Photo courtesy of NASA

"The thing that stuck out to me was the shades of blue that I had never seen before," Virts told me. "It's just an emotionally intense experience to see Earth. To look back at your home planet is not anything normal."

"If you fly over the same point twice," Lindgren said, "it's always different—the colors, the stark contrast between the tans and reds of Australia and the blue ocean, the changing lighting and weather systems, the seasons. It's always completely different, and always beautiful."

The film also includes a lot of material shot within the ISS, which provides a refreshingly intimate portrait of life within the station's walls. Astronauts and cosmonauts celebrate Christmas together, and joke around cordially just like any other workspace. Cristoforetti, charmer that she is, snagged some of the most memorable and endearing moments—for instance, her dedicated efforts to help Wilmore shimmy out of his undersized spacesuit.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are dizzying scenes filmed by Virts and Wilmore on GoPro cameras as the pair conducted a spacewalk, with Earth dipping in and out of shots in the background, as casually as a movie extra. Spacewalks look fun in theory, but the actual footage emphasizes just how alien the orbital environment really is.

Barry Wilmore during a spacewalk. Image: © 2016 IMAX Corporation/Photo courtesy of NASA

This range of tones, environments, and imagery adds up to a vibrant visual experience, demonstrating both the tremendous beauty of our planet, and the human pressures that threaten its biodiversity.

Over the past 55 years, hundreds of astronauts have marveled at this space-down view, and concerned at the fragility of what Carl Sagan famously called the "pale blue dot." Hopefully, documentaries like A Beautiful Planet, along with other attempts to make space more accessible to the public, will shape Earth's future positively over the next half-century, and beyond.