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Hollywood’s fascination with space has resulted in the use of state-of-the-art digital techniques to put actors far above the Earth’s surface in countless films including First Man, Gravity and Apollo 13. But Carlos Fontanot, NASA’s veteran International Space Station imagery manager based in Houston, is responsible for the most challenging cinematography mission — supporting space exploration by shooting and delivering live video from the ISS, which travels roughly 250 miles above Earth at a speed of about five miles per second, allowing it to orbit the planet every 90 minutes. He’s also exploring how to extend these efforts to the upcoming missions to the moon, he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Would you describe your current work?
From time to time to time we upgrade our imagery equipment, cameras, [and] onboard the international space station. For video, we have had the Canon XF 305 cameras for a good six to eight years but they are not 4K, so we just purchased recently plenty of Canon XF 705 camcorders which are 4K UHD cameras. For daily use, those cameras will be set up for 720p 60 [HD] because it is the standard for the news media and for NASA Television. However, anything that we record on the cameras on SD cards will be in 4K UHD.
We have started a project, basically end-to-end from the station all the way to the ground and to our video control center, to be able to do live 4K events from the station. Expected to be ready by year’s end, this could include interviews, demonstrations, educational events, messaging … Then if someone wants to do a live interview with a crew member for the Olympics Games, we would have the capability to do that [in 4K]. For the soccer World Cup, there could be a message in 4K from the ISS.
We will have 10 Canons on board at any one time, and then we have other cameras as well — smaller ones to get around in tight places. And then you also have the Red Helium’s for other certain uses. The Canon XF 705 is a pretty high-end prosumer camera that does an excellent job, but we have also cinematography cameras on board. We have a Red Helium that unfortunately malfunctioned. We don’t know what it is [but] it could very well be [that] it’s been sapped by radiation, which is a very common occurrence of [the] board and very specific type of activities that we do. So the current Red that we had onboard is coming back and we’re flying another Red Helium to replace it.
The workflow from the ISS is well established. Currently, we have six live HD video channels that are streaming continuously 24/7. And, by the end of the calendar year, we will have eight HD channels that will be streaming continuously.
Is this similar to what you would plan to use for the upcoming moon missions?
For the moon, we are still, at this time, determining what cameras we’re going to fly because the moon mission is very different in that it’s not a 24/7 operation like the Space Station. It is missions that are going to fly once or twice a year. A goal is first to the Gateway, which is a space station that’s going to fly around the moon. And then we will have space vehicles that go to Gateway. Then from there, there will be excursions that go down to the moon and back to Gateway and then back to the earth. So for video [and] imagery, we have quite a few challenges and we’re still working. The biggest challenge is communication [and] the bandwidth. We have not yet decided what the format will be — if it will be HD or 4K, [which is four times the amount of data as an HD signal] — and we’re still determining what cameras to fly. It’ll probably be one camera for digital still imagery, as well as for video, just change modes as you go.
Will the astronauts then be trained in cinematography?
Absolutely. When the astronaut is selected, they take basic courses for everything including for TV. They’re taught focusing apertures, sensors, how cameras operate lenses [and] focal lengths. They’re taught a little bit of video recording, downloading of files and live versus recorded audio. Once the astronauts are assigned to a flight, they get a more advanced imagery course that is more tailored to their flights or to the particular equipment that will be on board. [For instance] the astronauts assigned to the mission [during which astronauts lensed footage used in the 2016 IMAX documentary A Beautiful Planet], they did specific training with James Neihouse [a member of the American Society of Cinematographers] and [director]Toni Myers using that particular camera.
Are you involved in imaging on flights such as Jeff Bezos’ upcoming launch?
The short answer is no…. Elon Musk, a little more because of the [NASA] contract with SpaceX. But as far as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, no, they’re doing their own thing. There is currently no relationship with them with NASA, though we support their efforts spiritually, saying “go, go” and whatever they can learn from what we’ve done, fine.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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