Press Release

A Conversation with the Producer of “Inside the Space Station”, Pierre de Lespinois

By SpaceRef Editor
December 4, 2000
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Pierre de Lespinois is a multiple award-winning producer/director whose filmmaking adventures have taken him from the top of the Himalayas, Andes and Alps down to more than a kilometer below the ocean’s surface, but INSIDE THE SPACE STATION marks the first time a project has taken him outside the stratosphere. Here is his perspective on the challenges and rewards of filming this Watch With the World special.

What was the most interesting thing you learned over the course of filming INSIDE THE SPACE STATION?

What startled me was how many of the improvements in our lives on a daily basis have come out of the development and research that NASA does. Over the years NASA has created or invented an amazing number of things — from medical applications, scientific technology, the internet and computers, to the LEDs in our watches, the medicines we use, and better batteries – the list is staggering.

Personally I’m very excited about the Space Station, and of how our quality of life will improve through biotechnology research that will be done on the Space Station. For example, we will be able to create new medicines that can’t be mixed or created down here because the molecules won’t blend in Earth’s gravity. The International Space Station really is a science lab designed to bring us these new technologies.

Within the text thirty years we are going to colonize the moon and be on our way to Mars. The Space Station will allow us to understand how our bodies can adapt to space. Can we have a baby in space? Will it adapt to Earth’s gravity, or will it be a new organism that may not be able to come back to Earth? We touch upon that in INSIDE THE SPACE STATION

You have quite a bit of experience in creating computer generated images (CGI) for television. What were you trying to show through the CGI in INSIDE THE SPACE STATION?

Our goal for this film is to take the viewer INSIDE THE SPACE STATION and show what the Space Station is, how it’s going to be built and what it’s going to do for us on Earth. The only way to show the end result and how it’s going to work is through CGI. We had about 30 artists working four months to create the CGI for INSIDE THE SPACE STATION. We show the Space Station, astronauts (real and CGI) building it, along with all the amazing technology NASA is creating to undertake such a huge endeavor. CGI was used to enhance the production value and fill in the gaps to the pieces that do not exist yet. We destroyed the Earth in the show, when astrophysicist Neil Tyson talks about the threat of asteroids to the Earth. Those types of scenes become much more dramatic when you can visually create them. A shot like that takes 80 layers, which means that there are 80 different events going on, from real photography to CGI. It’s not just one layer. We work with the artists very closely to build up each of those layers for a realistic final image.

How did you go about creating the finished Space Station for INSIDE THE SPACE STATION?

We worked with NASA and their animation department, who scanned the blueprints of the Space Station into the computer. From this we built a virtual space station, an exact replica from NASA’s blueprints. Then we shot textures from the original space hardware so our artist could use those textures and wrap them on the CGI wire frames.

There are a few shots that show a piece of the actual space station and we built the rest in CGI and wrapped those around the existing pieces in space. I don’t think you can tell which is real and which is not in those shots. The position, the look, and the size of the Space Station are all correct.

What was the most difficult shot to get?

Shooting the footage in the astronauts’ underwater training pool was difficult, because our cameramen had to be certified mixed gas specialists. They had to take written exams and do pretty arduous physicals to get in the pool, which is deep enough that divers can get the bends. All of our equipment had to be certified by NASA. We had to submit drawings, illustrations, and camera housings — everything had to be reviewed before it would be allowed near the astronauts.

The environment we were working in used high degrees of oxygen, and we had to be sure that our equipment didn’t generate sparks. We had to use double ground fault interrupters on all our movie lights, production equipment and anything electrical. It was fairly complex.

We shot underwater for two days. Every astronaut in the pool has six scuba divers assigned to him or her for safety during their underwater excursions. The ideas is for the astronaut to stay down for six hours at a time, but mixed gas divers need to come up for air more frequently. For an astronaut to stay down for six hours, he or she runs through 12 to 18 support divers. We were able to get right in the mix of that and put our film lights in the pool. It was challenging because the lighting in that room is mercury vapor, which to the eye looks all right, but on camera, it makes everything green. We had to counterbalance that with computer programming on the cameras.

Can you tell us about the X-38 Shoot?

Another difficult shoot was showing the X38 dropping from the B52 bomber. The production involved coordination between our crew and cameras and NASA’s crew and cameras. These flight tests are ongoing deadline-driven programs, and it took a lot of work to show NASA that what we were doing could benefit them as well.

The entire team of the X38 was marvelous to work with. They allowed us to swap some of our high def cameras for their cameras. This freed some of their cameras to get other angles. So when we shot the X38 sequence, we had about 12 cameras – two on the vehicle, two in the B52 bomber, a camera in an F14 fighter jet, one in a helicopter, one in a Cessna, and five ground cameras. They only drop the X38 once – from 11,887 meters, so if you miss it, you miss it. The crew of the X38 really allowed us unprecedented access; we were inserted into their team. Edwards Air Force Base is under very tight security; we had to be careful where we pointed our cameras, thereby not breaching national security. If you wanted to go to the bathroom you had to be escorted.

Any last comments?

I think NASA has really been turned on to high definition through our filming, and the fact that they could see details they’d not seen before.

Working in tandem with NASA and NHK, who were supplying cameras that had to be certified to go up in the shuttle, we got unprecedented views of the Earth, which we incorporated into our effect plates. I think you’ll find that NASA’s going to move very quickly in putting high definition technology to their own use. So that part was very exciting.

Since I come more from the entertainment side of the film world more than I do documentaries, I’m used to big movie sets filled with actors. I found my self constantly amazed by what I found inside the NASA buildings; they looked like giant movie sets. I had to constantly remind myself that what I was seeing was real! Reality at NASA is much better than fiction in Hollywood.

Do I feel that the nine U.S. dollars that come out of my tax dollars to build the International Space Station is worth it…you bet. Every bit of it.

SpaceRef staff editor.