January 31, 2006

Cornell, IMAX Go to Mars

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Last Friday’s premiere of “Roving Mars,” a high-tech IMAX documentary chronicling the grueling creation, nail-biting launch and deep-planet probes of the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, sent audiences out of this world.

The 40-minute documentary, directed by George Butler, features commentary by Prof. Steve Squyres ’78, astronomy and digital animation by Dan Maas ’01.

Butler, who made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name with “Pumping Iron,” was introduced to the rover mission through film editor Tim Squyres ’81, Steve’s brother. Tim told Butler about his brother’s role in the Mars Exploration Rover mission after the two worked together on a number of projects.

Butler said he became interested in the project after learning that the cameras on the rovers produced IMAX-quality images. Although the images are high-quality, they are very small – it took nearly 250 images to create a single panoramic picture big enough for an IMAX screen.

Backed by Disney and Lockheed Martin, Butler began filming in spring 2003, two months before the rovers launched. After some initial resistance from NASA engineers who thought the film production would be distracting, Butler received their full support once he screened a five-minute clip at the launch.

“Everyone liked it so much, they let me film whatever I wanted after that,” Butler said.

Butler filmed inside the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., and held interviews with top scientists and engineers in their research laboratories. The most visually stimulating footage, however, came from the rovers themselves during summer 2003 until April 2005.

The film is introduced by actor Paul Newman and is narrated by Steve.

“The filmmakers didn’t really have a script written,” Steve said.

He explained that Butler conducted hours of interviews, edited the clips he liked and then had Squyres re-record those sections in a studio to create a steady narration.

Once images were pulled from the rover cameras, Maas and his Ithaca-based company, Maas Digital LLC, created digital animation to complement the real footage. Details of the rovers’ landings, down to the parachute and airbag deployment and size of their bounces upon impact, were replicated exactly with the help of information from the rovers themselves.

“One thing that’s really remarkable about the digital animation is how accurate it is,” Steve said.

Maas has worked with Squyres on other NASA videos since his sophomore year at Cornell. That experience, along with his work on two PBS documentaries about Mars, gave him a large archive of models of the Martian surface and the rovers.

Despite the pre-existing software and images, Maas’s team worked on the digital animation for seven months, from April through November 2005, to create a grand total of 12 minutes of film.

“Creating the Martian terrain was the hardest part,” Maas said. He took 3-D data from the rovers to construct a “seamless environment.”

The attention to detail paid off, according to reports from those involved in the project and reviewers. Butler said last Friday’s Washington, D.C. screening was “terrific” and he received very positive feedback.

A Jan. 27 Washington Post review called it “visually stunning,” “dazzling” and “deeply engrossing.”

Maas said the “full Hollywood soundtrack,” with effects that detail the noise made when flying through the atmosphere, landing and movement around Mars, helped the movie seem so realistic.

The Washington Post review stated that the sound effects accompanying Spirit’s launch were “magnificent.”

The movie is currently playing in 25 theaters across the country. The closest theater to Ithaca is in the New York metropolitan area.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor