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As retired NASA astronaut and International Space Station commander, Col. Terry Virts, watched Jeff Bezos’ space flight in Blue Origin’s New Shepard on Tuesday morning — the 52nd anniversary of Apollo 11’s return to Earth — he envisioned how missions such as those from Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk could contribute to new opportunities for scripted and unscripted filmmaking.
“I think the content that could be made is really exciting,” Virts, who during his time aboard the ISS filmed imagery for 2016 Imax documentary A Beautiful Planet, told The Hollywood Reporter in advance of the Blue Origin launch.
“The Bezos and Branson spaceships, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, could allow you to film a three-minute-plus, maybe four-minute-plus, weightless scene,” Virts says. “Right now the only way to do that is in what we call the Vomit Comet, the zero-g airplane. You can do 20-second clips in that. That’s the way Apollo 13 was filmed. The only other option [outside of VFX] would be to go all the way to space. But those seats on SpaceX are $50 million dollars each, so the production budget goes up a little bit.”
Filmmakers are already eyeing the potential to film in space. It’s been reported that Tom Cruise and Doug Liman are planning a movie that will involve shooting in space from a SpaceX capsule. Additionally, Virts related that “the Russians are flying an actress and a director here in a few months with my former crew mate Anton Shkaplerov. I don’t know what story they have, but they are going to film.”
Virts also sees opportunity should companies such as Blue Origin move to a different launch site. “The Southwestern U.S. is a beautiful place. But they could, for example, go to the Middle East, maybe in Saudi Arabia or Dubai or somewhere like that, set up a launchpad that would [offer] a different view [from space], which would be pretty cool. I would love to have them go up north — Northern Norway or Finland or something like that — in the wintertime when it’s 24/7 darkness because you can see the northern lights, and that would be really spectacular. Some of the best stuff that I shot in space was of the northern or southern lights.”
He adds, “You can do these thing in CG, but my brain knows when it’s CG. It prefers real imagery. So I think the possibility of launching from different locations would make that imagery you could get even cooler.”
After his experience lensing A Beautiful Planet for late director Toni Myers and cinematographer James Neihouse (a member of the American Society of Cinematographers who trained the astronauts in filming techniques), Virts developed his interest in filmmaking. He made his directorial debut in 2019, helming One More Orbit, a documentary tied to Virts and his crew as they set a round-the-world speed record for any aircraft flying over the north and south poles. He recently published his first book, How to Astronaut, and is developing several filmed projects, including one for which he aims to involve shooting in zero-g.
“It’s exciting that people are interested in space,” Virts says. “And also there’s a lot of pushback against billionaires flying in space. And I understand their anger. … But at the end of the day, the more people who go into space and look back at our planet, the better off we’ll all be. I think especially if they’re the kind of people that are decision-makers. So I think, in the long run, for all of us, this will be a good thing.”
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