Following the exhilarating Sept. 29 launch of Sphere with U2’s residency, on Friday, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky‘s transportive Postcard from Earth became the first movie to premiere at the new Las Vegas entertainment venue. A sort of narrative and doc, it immerses viewers in a range of experiences, for instance allowing them to feel as though they are walking alongside elephants on a safari, swimming with sharks beneath the ocean’s surface, or viewing Earth from a distant planet.
This movie also demonstrates the potential of this new canvas for filmmakers. “I’m still processing it all,” the Oscar-nominated director of Black Swan tells The Hollywood Reporter of Sphere, whose interior is coated with a 160,000 square-foot 16K LED display that extends beyond audience members’ peripheral vision and high above and behind their heads. The visuals – shown at a high resolution that creates a sense of depth and of being there – are accompanied by a powerful new beamsplitting sound system and 4D features such as wind and haptic seats.
“It really is a different medium because of the immersive nature of all the images that you create and how it translates to the viewer,” Aronofsky says, relating that when they started to plan the movie, they were reminded of the Lumiere Brothers’ 1895 short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which is known for having startled audiences as they saw a moving train approaching them through the then-new medium of motion pictures. “That’s kind of influenced the opening of the Sphere. … That moment when the expectations of what you’re watching are suddenly changed.”
Like in the early days of cinema, the visual language and filmmaking tools were developing as the movie was being made. “We started off with nine Red cameras welded together to try to get the resolution we needed to make an image for Sphere,” Aronofsky remembers, adding that they then received the first prototype of the custom 18K Big Sky camera that was invented to create content for Sphere. That camera – used to lense most of Postcard – evolved during production as “we were also trying to figure out what was the language of how to shoot a 270-degree film, how to make audiences feel comfortable with their peripheral vision filled with imagery.”
The one-hour movie is effectively an enveloping tour around the world, bookended with a space-set story in a movie’s familiar aspect ratio, which begins as two humans arrive on Saturn. As they are reminded of life on Earth, the images open up to use the full display. Aronofsky’s longtime collaborator, director of photography Matthew Libatique, lensed the space set story with ARRI’s Alexa 65 camera, while Sphere Studios’s senior vp of capture and innovation Andrew Shulkind served as DP for the Sphere content. In all they traveled to 26 countries, using various cameras, primarily Big Sky.
Aronofsky found that with the large canvas and high resolution that they could display, the goal was to compose frames filled with details all around the viewer. “We tried to shoot in a lot of caves because we knew that people would be able to look up and see little spiders crawling around on top of the cave and all other types of life,” the director says. One such creature got a big response as it jumped toward the audience. “I definitely knew I wanted to shoot macro shots because to present them in 18K to audiences with that level of detail would be something no one’s ever seen before.” To do this, they enlisted a team of natural history photographers.
Another hero shot involved giraffes, including one that seems to lean into the Sphere toward the audience. “What’s interesting there is how the front of the Big Sky camera is a big piece of glass. So there’s a lot of reflections. So the giraffe actually thinks that it is seeing a giraffe and is very confused, and they kept coming over to check out what they were seeing,” relates Aronofsky. “We walked away and just sort of left the camera out there and from a distance operated it so that the animals would be comfortable sort of hanging out around it. And that [shot] was just lucky happenstance, which just comes your way when you have enough time and you work with the best natural history photographers in the world.”
Stunning shots also included an elephant walking in close proximity to the audience, created by natural history photographer Graham Booth (who previously worked on Aronofsky’s One Strange Rock) and Shulkind. “There’s a few tricks in there that I won’t give away, but the elephant came really close to stepping on a million-dollar camera,” Aronofsky admits.
Bringing Postcard to the Sphere (at capacity with standing room, Sphere accommodates up to 20,000, but Postcard screenings won’t use all of the seats) also involved a tight production schedule involving a large amount of invention, including developing a complex production and postproduction workflow, new technology and processes for everything from reviewing work to moving huge amounts of data out of the camera and through postproduction. Aronofsky reports that the movie involved a whopping half-petabyte of data.
Oppenheimer editor Jennifer Lame was recruited to cut the movie, which was done by an Avid Media Composer. A newly developed virtual reality program allowed her to review cuts in what might appear to be Sphere (they also tested cuts in the quarter-size Big Dome at Sphere Studios in Burbank). Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain provided visual effects for the project.
But Aronofsky, Lame and the team ultimately couldn’t watch the movie in the actual Sphere setting until early September, further challenging postproduction.
Picture Shop colorist Tim Stipan (Aronofsky’s The Whale) graded the movie while the director’s longtime collaborator Craig Hennigan served as supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer. “Tim really had to figure out how to time these images. No one had ever timed an 18K image before,” says Aronofsky. “Same thing with the sound. The image being 270 degrees, you want the sounds to be in the right place. But you can’t really mix it on a normal movie screen because you don’t know exactly where that thing is happening. So we had a sort of guess and do our best and then we got into the Sphere itself and the MSG team there figured out how we could actually use that big screen to actually mix the movie.”
For Stipan, the team installed a Baselight color grading system in a room at Sphere, so that he could work in the actual environment. (Baselight maker Filmlight wrote new software to support the Sphere content. Hennigan meanwhile started by creating a Dolby Atmos mix and worked from there.
Shulkind – who has been working with Sphere for nearly four years and was instrumental in developing the Big Sky camera and workflow for filmmakers – remembers working in the Las Vegas venue during September. They had a few hours each morning to check the editing, color timing and sound, and then worked until midnight each day while U2 rehearsed and the crew was putting the finishing touches on the venue.
This even involved testing and preparing final elements, such as the wind effects, which come from the front of the venue. “It takes like 30 seconds for some of the wind to hit you, and so we had to time out how wind comes to the front row and the last row,” he explains. “They put these plastic cups with some tinsel on top of it so we could track when different areas were getting [wind]. … It’s been a tight month.”
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