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Space-Time Continuum: ‘In Saturn’s Rings’ Assembles Over One Million Images

For two years Stephen van Vuuren has been on a mission. In Saturn’s Rings is a large-format film destined for IMAX release next year that’s composed entirely of photographs of the gas giant taken by spacecraft. Van Vuuren combines the multitude of photos with numerous film techniques to create the effect of flying through space around Saturn and among its rings. The director’s challenge during the film’s production was to craft this virtual tour for viewers without resorting to CGI or special effects.

In Saturn’s Rings

at Wells Fargo IMAX. Photo by SV2 Studios, LLC

Finally nearly completion, In Saturn’s Rings is painstakingly composed of more than one million photos of the planet and its heavenly neighborhood gathered over 25 space missions by NASA and others. The photographs—astonishing enough on their own that any CGI goosing may seem redundant—are being processed, stitched and “photo-animated” into dramatic, filmic sequences that must be seen to be believed.

What would make van Vuuren take on such a formidable non-profit 4K project in the first place, as he continues raising funds for its release? “As a kid, I read [Carl Sagan’s] Cosmos and fell in love with Saturn, especially its moon Titan. Enshrouded in mystery, I couldn’t wait for humans to reach it and discover what was there. I wanted to be an astronaut—I actually tried to become one, but poor eyesight made it not possible. But I saw [Stanley] Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and realized I wanted to be a filmmaker,” van Vuuren says.

Van Vuuren’s interest in space continued as he followed news of NASA’s Cassini-Huygens spacecraft’s journey to Saturn a few years ago. (Launched in 1997, the probe reached Saturn in 2004.) “I was both elated and deeply discouraged. Watching ‘live’ meant a postage stamp-sized [online] stream from NASA’s web site. Not even C-SPAN could be bothered.”

He continues, “I thought that if motion picture cameras were near Saturn and people could feel like they were there, then there would be much more interest. I set out to figure a way to make that happen. I had a lifelong interest in stills and a recent interest in photo-animation, so I started there.”

Stephen van Vuuren

Despite being influenced by the digital photo-animation techniques in various Ken Burns documentaries and in The Kid Stays in the Picture, the 2002 biography of filmmaker Robert Evans, van Vuuren discovered that capturing Saturn’s rings would pose a major challenge. “I began studying how the illusion of depth, perspective and movement was created on theater flats on stage, in optical illusions, in camera techniques from old Hollywood and new—such as forced perspective rigs attached to cameras in the Lord of the Rings series and that bullet time effect in The Matrix. Over the years I’ve refined, developed or invented a whole toolbox of photo-animation techniques, many based on the ‘math of movement,’ to create the feeling of flying through 2D photographs.”

From the start, van Vuuren was determined to not alter the photographs in any way—no painting or cloning or retouching. “I was going to limit myself to images where there was enough data to fill in any holes with exactly matching data. When moving to IMAX [resolution], this became a nearly impossible task. Stitching the Saturn ring photomosaic alone took me three months of 12-hour days, seven days a week.”

Fortunately, van Vuuren discovered a community of dedicated amateur space-image processors and scientists who create large stitched mosaics from raw data. Several donated their work to the film. And a year ago, Kevin McAbee, a volunteer programmer/image processor, came on board to help. (Van Vuuren says most space imagery is unprocessed—i.e., raw sensor data stored in FITS or other scientific file formats–and lacks both color and calibration.)

Still from

In Saturn’s Rings

Since much of the production tasks consist of image processing, Van Vuuren says the film is being created in Adobe Photoshop. He uses Adobe Bridge to organize images.

The process of photo-animation takes place in Adobe After Effects. “I had to wait a couple of years for 64-bit After Effects, since 32-bit After Effects couldn’t handle IMAX resolutions. There will be some macro photography of the human eye with imagery from the film reflected on it for real—possibly Nikon D800 or RED EPIC Dragon footage,” he explains.

Van Vuuren built his own primary gear, including the computers, servers and RAID storage. He expects to have amassed 250 TB of data by the time film is completed. “An inexpensive 4K Ultra HD monitor has been added to help gauge resolution and it’s been a huge help, since judging shots for five- to eight-story-high giant screens is very hard to do to get the right motion, sharpness and camera movements. What works for the web and broadcast often works poorly in IMAX/large format,” he says.

Frame size for In Saturn’s Rings is 5600 x 4200 pixels, matching the 4:3 aspect ratio of 15/70mm film and the maximum resolution of the cathode ray tube film recorders used to film out 15/70mm frames. Van Vuuren says each frame (a 16- or 32-bit color TIFF) runs between 500 MB and 1 GB, and many source photographs are mosaics ranging from 100- to 700-megapixel resolution to allow for “the sweeping illusion of camera moves, which are [like] multi-layered Ken Burns pan/zooms on steroids!”

A global release is planned for late spring 2014 to select IMAX theaters and planetariums. BIG & Digital is distributing the film, which van Vuuren says is a non-profit production financed entirely through individual donors.