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Shooting for the Moon With 'Magnificent Desolation'

In Magnificent Desolation, Tom Hanks wanted to bring the experience of the Apollo moon missions to the IMAX screen. Christopher Harz looks at the finished effect.

The lunar surface was assembled from NASA photos (right) taken from the astronauts Hasselblad cameras, as seen in this re-creation (left) for the film. All images © 2005 IMAX Corp. and Playtone.

If you always wanted to have the experience of walking on the moon, you can now have your chance to join the 12 men who have done that in real life. Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D really gives you that feeling, both factually and emotionally, much as seeing Lawrence of Arabia may give you the sweats and a parched throat by the end of the movie.

The film, narrated by producer Tom Hanks, with a celebrity voice cast that includes Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Paul Newman and John Travolta, recreates what it was like to be an Apollo astronaut on a moon mission. You can tell this project was a labor of love the attention to detail is meticulous, and the actual surface of the moon was painstakingly replicated, not simply made up. We wanted to get it as exact as humanly possiblethe true IMAX experience, suggests Greg Foster, chairman/president of IMAX Filmed Ent., who served as supervising producer.

Jonathan Banta (right) and Sassoon Film Design has had extensive experience working with large format and stereo 3D films. Principal photography was on 35mm, then scanned at 6K resolution and output to 65mm 15-perf. Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon.

Most of the astronaut shots on the moon were done by Sassoon Film Design, which has extensive experience in working with large-format and stereo 3D films. Principal photography was on 35mm, which was then scanned at 6K resolution, and output to 65mm 15-perf, says Jonathan Banta, digital supervisor at Sassoon.

The filmmakers might have been excused for creating a fake moon surface which of us could really tell the difference? but they took no short cuts. The surface was assembled from thousands of photos. The astronauts had large-format Hasselblad cameras fastened onto their space suits, each with different focal-length lenses we got the negatives directly from NASAs vaults, notes Banta. We also had David Scott, an Apollo 15 astronaut, as a consultant; he was on the set every day. The work that included scenery from up to 26 4K projection maps was daunting. Electric Image was used as the toolset to render the millions of polygons resulting from the lunar landscape. All those frames had to be tiled together, matched and color corrected, adds Banta. Much of the tracking of that footage onto the set was done with Syntheyes, a new tracking software tool from Andersson. In addition to Electric Image, Maya was used extensively, as well as formZ and Zbrush, with integration done in After Effects.

The astronauts highly reflective visors presented a challenge to Banta and his team. The visors were fully replaced with computer-generated digital frames. When two astronauts appear, all the reflections had to match perfectly.

The visors on the helmets warn by the astronauts posed an even more complicated problem. The visors were highly reflective, and showed everything on the set, including the camera and crew members, continues Banta. We had to fully replace them with computer-generated digital frames. That doubled the workload each scene with an astronaut in it became two stereo-3D environments that had to be built. The real challenge came when two astronauts were in a scene, and all the reflections had to match perfectly. Custom shaders had to be created for those surfaces no one had come across quite that situation before.

One of the most dramatic shots the one that brings a feeling of how alien this terrain really is occurs whenever moon dust or dirt is kicked up by a boot, and falls down, well, strangely. The dust had to fall down at 1/6 of normal gravity, with no air resistance, says Hugh Murray, the films exec producer. We had to use really advanced particle effects to get it just right. The astronaut actors had to be careful not to kick up any of the real dust on the set dust we had put there to show footprints as they were walking.

The effect of moon gravity was achieved by having the astronauts suspended from cables with counter-weights for 5/6 of their body weights. It was great that we had an actual astronaut on the set, notes Murray. David rehearsed the stunt men at length. He made sure they didnt lean too far into the cables, or make unrealistic moves David is super bright, and was very keen that we got it right. We repeated each move till it was just as he remembered it.

Whenever the viewer may start taking the super-high resolution in Magnificent Desolation for granted, some archival 16mm two-dimensional film taken during the real missions is shown. The contrast makes you appreciate the in-depth 3D scenario even more its a relief when the film switches back to the immersive IMAX format.

What challenges face a producer of such a film? The biggest challenge as a producer of such a film is knowing the right people to work on it. The first thing I did was call the people I had worked with before, adds Murray. We had to work out a lot of new problems, challenges film makers had not yet come up against. The eye is very, very sensitive to small errors in depth perception. Most effects companies have not worked enough in stereo 3D to be able to avoid such errors.

Sasson Film Design used Electric Image to tile together, match and color correct the frames that composed the lunarscape. Tracking of that footage onto the set was done with Syntheyes.

Production also had its rewarding moments. We recreated the interior of the Lunar Landing Module from photographs, says Murray. We held our breaths when David Scott approached and sat down in it did we get it right? But slowly, very slowly, he started to smile and we could see the memories coming back to him, flooding in, as his hands glided over the controls without his having to look at them, and he recalled all those hours he spent practicing and flying in the real thing some 35 years ago!

NASAs chief, Dr. Michael Griffin, just announced that four more astronauts are slated to go on the next trip, in 15 years. We will return to the Moon no later than 2020 and extend human presence across the Solar System and beyond, he concludes. So when you go to experience Magnificent Desolation, be sure to take your kids. Its never too early for them to start practicing.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.