How to Be an Amateur VR Cinematographer—250 Miles Above the Earth
Of all the ways for someone to describe their job, when that job entails orbiting more Earth than 200 miles above the surface, “I’m just an astronaut” might be the most banal. But that’s exactly how Paolo Nespoli describes his role working with Darren Aronofsky on the documentary series One Strange Rock.
Nespoli is being humble, of course. His expertise as an engineer with the European Space Agency puts his occupational comfort zone well beyond most people’s potential. However, he would have to step out of it in order to help Aronofsky capture scenes aboard the International Space Station—some of which are included in this 360-degree video.
Indeed, after receiving a crash course in cinematography from the famed director, Nespoli—a man accustomed to rocketing from Earth at speeds of 17,000 mph—claims he was “a little mortified.” He had always maintained an interest in photography and had even worked on a few professional shoots, but filming for National Geographic felt like a tall order for a hobbyist. “It’s like the guy who goes out and runs on Sundays compared to Usain Bolt doing the hundred meter,” he says.
Even so, there were few candidates for such a job, and Nespoli had the benefit of experience, having already performed some camera work on the ISS for the 2011 YouTube film First Orbit, which recreates Yuri Gagarin’s views of the Earth during humanity’s first-ever spaceflight.
This job was different though. The stakes were higher, the cameras more complex. For instance, the operation of the RED camera Nespoli was using is the subject of intense hands-on training sessions for film students. For Italy’s oldest astronaut, though, there was only time for a mere half-day’s worth of training, and a packed space agency schedule ensured that even this was difficult. “I think I broke every single speed limit on the freeway to get to the airport on time,” he says.
The challenges of learning Hollywood-level cinematography on the fly would follow Nespoli into space, where they were compounded by equipment problems. “The camera doesn’t work. Don’t even waste your time,” he remembers a fellow astronaut telling him as he tried to do his first shoot. At first, Nespoli was puzzled, but eventually discovered the cosmic culprit behind the malfunction. “The sensor seemed to be badly damaged, and this is normal when cameras go into space,” he says. “We are outside the atmosphere, yet all of us, including the cameras, get an abnormal dose of space radiation, which is particularly bad with respect to the sensor.”
However, thanks to some troubleshooting from Houston (and a firmware upgrade), Nespoli was finally able to clean the sensor enough to render the camera workable. And, using storyboard ideas he had developed with Aronofsky, he began shooting scenes for the documentary series. These also included supplementary sequences from the 3D Vuze camera he had brought on board, allowing viewers to share in a first-person perspective of what it’s like to glide through the corridors of the ISS.
The end result is probably the closest audiences can come to experiencing the perspective of an astronaut like Nespoli while in orbit—even if the sensation of being an Aronofsky-trained space cinematographer doesn’t quite translate.