It’s World Day of Human Space Flight and so many of our favourite movies take place up in the final frontier. Hollywood has been taking film-goers into the sky for decades to give us a taste of what life in zero gravity is really like. Whether you’re excited by the infinite expanse or afraid of what could be out there, Space captivates all of us. But how do filmmakers do it? How do they create Space down on Earth? There are a variety of ways to film in Space, from the practical to the digital, to just going up there yourself.
Film’s fascination with space travel was alive even before human’s first flight. The 1902 film A Trip to the Moon is a perfect example of this. Often regarded as the first science fiction film ever made, A Trip to the Moon tells the story of a group of scientists who use a cannon-propelled oversized bullet to shoot themselves to the moon (as I said, we hadn’t even nailed down planes yet. Give them a break). Clearly, director George Méliès had never been nor seen the surface of the moon but he was able to recreate it using stunning and intricate visuals. Back in the early 20th century, Méliès relied on painted set design and staged backgrounds that were common in the theatres of the time. While not being the most accurate, it’s still one of the oldest and most successful attempts at filming Space.
In the 21st century, we know what Space looks like, and we know that the moon isn’t inhabitable by strange creatures (at least until they decide to make themselves known). Filmmakers now have a more accurate perception of Space. They also have the technology to recreate as best as they can practically. For 2018’s Lunar Landing film First Man, director Damien Chazelle decided to film in a grey Atlanta quarry. He and his team were able to sculpt and terraform it into a landscape that most resembles the surface of the moon. They then filmed at night using a single light source (perfectly mimicking the Moon’s only light source: the Sun). Chazelle was even quoted as saying “It’s just like the real shoot on the moon.” First Man’s decision to use practical set design for the Moon shows that we have not strayed too far from sci-fi’s first man George Méliès.
While practical effects are still in use today for recreating Space, digital technology and CGI have allowed filmmakers to recreate Space without lifting a paintbrush or going outside. All that is needed practically is the actors suspended in front of a green screen pretending to interact with objects that aren’t even there. From there, a dedicated team of VFX artists is tasked with constructing the world for the audience. The most famous example is Cuaron’s Gravity. Most of the film takes place outside of a space station in the vastness of outer space. The film features stunning visuals and action sequences that just could not be created practically (I mean, how many takes could you actually do of a one-shot space station destruction?).
Digital effects often allow for more creative freedom when it comes to showcasing Space. However, a drawback is that actors and directors often have less to work with in return due to all the green screen work. Take this clip above, for example, in which Sandra Bullock has to mime turning a nozzle. Of all the CGI in this film, you would never expect the nozzles to be on that list. Regardless, digital effects are still an amazingly complicated feat that often makes us feel as close as we can to Space. It adds a feeling of realism when we can’t actually film up in Space.
Or can we?
That’s right. You heard me. Just go to Space, bring your camera, and get to filming!
Ok so maybe it’s not as simple as that. Yes, it takes millions of dollars just to get a ticket to the ISS, yes, you’d have to times that by the number of people in your crew, and yes, you’d have to pay an exorbitant amount per pound to send your equipment up with you. But it can be done! And it has! In 2008, English-American entrepreneur Richard Garriott spend $30 million dollars (told you it wasn’t cheap) and underwent nearly a year of extensive training to prepare himself for space travel. The result of all this time and money was the short film Apogee of Fear, the world’s first, and currently only, science fiction film actually shot on location (that location being Space). You can watch the film above.
It’s no Interstellar, but that’s not the point. The point is that Space travel is becoming more accessible every day. And, if there’s one thing filmmakers love, it’s to push the boundaries are far as they can to make the art of film the best it can be. So don’t be surprised when you see people like Alfonso Cuarón or Damien Chazelle boarding a commercial flight to Mars. They’re just on their way to work.