Award-winning filmmaker Toni Myers brings audiences to a rare vantage point—249 miles from Earth on the International Space Station, to be exact. Her latest project “A Beautiful Planet” adds another envelope-pushing documentary to her repertoire, joining “Under the Sea” and “Hubble” as IMAX adventures exploring the unknown. Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, A Beautiful Planet brought tears to my eyes with breathtaking images of the Earth from outer space.
“There are so many beautiful shots that our astronaut crews sent back to us that I had never seen before,” said Myers, explaining that the astronauts were able to capture gorgeous night scenes on Earth using digital cameras. “With digital capture we were able to see things like the auroras, stars in the sky, lightning, the cities on Earth—they were revelations to me.”
A Beautiful Planet not only includes panoramic shots of our blue-and-green marble, but also intimate, quirky scenes in the daily life of an astronaut. The crew is seen giving each other haircuts, drinking espresso, and fumbling with fruit in zero gravity. The documentary also captures the first time bagpipes were played on the ISS, continuing a longstanding tradition of music in space.
“On the human scale, Kjell Lindgren playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes was a personal moment. That was so lovely,” recalled Myers. “I had no idea he had even flown bagpipes to space. That was a total surprise, a sort of conspiracy because he did tell other members on the team he was going to do that, but I didn’t know until I actually saw the shot in my edit machine. That really sent me on quite an emotional tailspin.”
Myers worked closely with three principal astronaut crews, training them in the art of documentary and sitting down with them after each mission to recap their experiences. In addition to Flight Engineer Dr. Kjell N. Lindgren, these astronauts included Commander Barry E. “Butch” Wilmore, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, Commander Terry Virts, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and Commander Scott Kelly.
“They are all just utterly amazing people… because of their enthusiasm, their brightness, and of course they’re extremely smart—that’s why they’re astronauts,” said Myers.
According to the filmmaker, the astronauts were very passionate about the project—partly because it was a diversion from their science-heavy, data-filled schedules. The crews were completely onboard with the project and took it very seriously both on the ground, where they completed their training, and in space, when they shot footage on weekends and downtime. Myers described it as “a labor of love.”
“When they come back to earth, their heads are full of emotional, visceral and technical experience. As soon as I can, I do an interview with each of them, sort of a kitchen table talk—no camera, just me and them,” explained Myers. “It’s really just to record very candidly their experiences emotionally and practically in orbit. It’s from that I pick the pieces of voiceovers… I couldn’t possibly write anything as good as that. They tell it like it is and was. It’s marvelous to work with.”
With IMAX, it’s as if the viewers are up in space floating next to the astronauts. For Myers, it was a dream come true to immerse herself in space while being firmly anchored to the Earth. She recalled her fascination with the Apollo program, and how she was glued to the TV and radio when it happened. Never did she imagine that half a century later, audiences could experience zero gravity through advancements in film.
Myers wanted to make a film that would inspire younger audiences in particular. She wanted to share with them how beautiful the Earth is from space, and open their eyes to both the spectacles and scars of our planet.
“Kids really have a much broader and caring view of the earth,” reasoned Myers. “If you can show them a view such as the astronauts’ view, its really unique. That’s what’s great about IMAX. It puts you right along side the astronauts. You’re seeing it as they see it. It gives you a whole different perspective of where you came from and where you’re going.”
This has proven true for Myers’ experience working on several documentaries throughout her career. She attributed much of her skills to working closely with IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson, who was a consultant on A Beautiful Planet. Together their films have explored many aspects of Earth and space.
“’Blue Planet’ was all about Earth system sciences and the forces affecting earth naturally as well as human ones. ‘Destiny in Space’ was an introduction to astronomy and astrophysics. ‘Space Station’ was all about space engineering. Every one of them is absolutely fascinating,” reflected Myers. “I’ve had about seven different university educations in the process of making these films. I love that it opens up a whole new world to me.”
Exploring new worlds is Myers’ passion—although she isn’t quite sure about the direction of future space exploration. She learned that the world at large doesn’t understand how enormous the space frontier is, relative to distances on Earth.
“We’re at a crossroads right now in terms of what human exploration will be. I think our robotic space crafts are doing marvelous things, with the Kepler satellite and all the planets its discovered, and certainly the history of Voyager—going on and leaving the solar system is amazing,” exclaimed Myers.
However, in regards to the current technology, Myers doesn’t think landing a human on Mars will happen anytime soon.
“That’s one thing that’s taken me a long time to learn: what it takes to get a human to Mars alive,” said Myers. “I’m in awe of the robotic exploration of Mars because that’s the way to do it. You’re not trying to create a life support system for a human being—machines can give us the information. I’m conflicted about the future of human space travel, that’s for sure. I know that it’s such a large leap for human beings to go to the next step. The next step of exploration is a huge exponential leap. It’s a conundrum. I don’t think NASA knows the answer either.”
And that’s partly due to just how incomprehensibly big space truly is. Myers called herself “blessed” to have the opportunity to take a tiny glimpse into the universe.
“The scale of things in the cosmos—when you think of where we are in one outside arm of the Milky Way galaxy, that’s just one galaxy out of million galaxies—it just stops you in your tracks. You just can’t wrap your mind around it,” said Myers. “But that’s what Hubble has done. It’s really changed our grasp of the cosmos.”
She hopes A Beautiful Planet will shift audiences’ perspective about their place—and responsibility—in the universe.
“People are innately curious about space and unexplored territory. I wanted to inspire people especially as to how beautiful the planet is, how fragile it is, how complex and diverse and varied it is,” said Myers. “Most of all I wanted to show why we want to find solutions to look after our planet. It’s our only one.”
A Beautiful Planet is now in select IMAX theaters.