Image: Cowen with actors
Melinda Sue Gordon  /  IMAX / Playtone
Director Mark Cowen instructs astronaut actors on the set of the Imax large-format film "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D."
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/19/2005 9:13:31 PM ET 2005-09-20T01:13:31

If you want to fake a moon landing, it's not enough to build a Hollywood moonscape and have your actors tromp around in vintage spacesuits. Nowadays, you have to put your "astronauts" on wires to duplicate the physics of the moon's one-sixth gravity. You also should go back and digitize the authentic NASA photos and films, to produce a virtual backdrop for the action.

And then comes the real trick: blending all those visuals together into a seamless 3-D whole, using the latest in computer-graphics technology.

The job may sound daunting, but it can be done. Just ask Mark Cowen, director of "Magnificent Desolation," the new Imax 3-D feature documenting the Apollo program's six missions on the lunar surface. "We knew how to rebuild the moon," he said.

Cowen and the rest of the documentary team blended imagery of the Apollo missions as well as the personal stories of the astronauts to produce a 40-minute virtual ride back to the moon. With the aid of high-tech 3-D spectacles, you see the moon as the astronauts did: an airless, eerie black-and-white wasteland that Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin famously described as "magnificent desolation."

"Magnificent Desolation" literally gets the red-carpet treatment during a world premiere Wednesday at the National Air and Space Museum's Lockheed Martin Imax Theater. Aldrin and other astronauts will be mixing it up with Hollywood types such as Tom Hanks, who served as the film's narrator, producer and co-writer.

It was Hanks who was the driving force behind the project, Cowen said. "Magnificent Desolation" is just the latest in a string of space-related shows for the Oscar-winning actor, who starred in the film "Apollo 13" and was executive producer for the miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon."

"Doing the movie with Tom Hanks gave us an entree to NASA unlike what I've ever seen before," Cowen recalled.

Hanks believed that the Imax 3-D format would be ideal for a "you-are-there" retelling of the Apollo saga — and Cowen, who had worked with Hanks previously on a World War II documentary, gladly joined the "Magnificent Desolation" team.

Cowen, 42, considers himself a child of the Apollo era — right down to the collection of astronaut trading cards. "I'm a space geek, and have been since I was a wee one," he said. So it was a special thrill to be directing actors on a studio moonscape the size of a football field, outfitted with replicas of the lunar module and lunar rover borrowed from the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.

"Standing on the set, surrounded by what looked like the moon, I was in this directorial 'pinch-me' phase," he said.

Image: Kicking up dust
IMAX / Playtone
A scene from "Magnificent Desolation" re-creates Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott's dust-kicking stride on the lunar surface.
To reproduce the one-sixth-gravity environment, the astronaut-actors were hooked up with the kinds of wire suspension systems typically used for martial-arts movies such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Other low-gravity effects were duplicated by filming in slow motion, Cowen said.

The live-action sequences were supplemented by archival footage and panoramas, digitally enhanced and enlarged for Imax's six-story-high screen. Production experts used sophisticated software — including what Cowen jokingly called "geotopographical-something-or-other maps" — to add 3-D depth to the 2-D originals.

The experts also used computer graphics to smooth over seams, gaps and glitches in the original imagery. "Sometimes the tops of mountains were cut off by the astronauts during shooting," Cowen explained.

All this was aimed at giving goggle-wearing theatergoers a 3-D view of the moon that's the next best thing to being there.

"This film really is a multiformat, hybrid, documentary, experiential something," Cowen said. "We really haven't quite come up with what it is yet, but it is unique in that we are melding a number of formats. Not just pandering to Imax, but I don't know of another film format that we could have done it in."

"Magnificent Desolation" of course hits the high points of the Apollo saga — from 1969's first small steps on the moon to 1972's last bootprints. But Cowen said he and the other filmmakers didn't want to stop there.

"One of the first things we decided very early on ... was instead of creating a movie of all the classic iconic moonwalk moments that we've all seen, we would go just to the left or to the right of what we know, or what we think we know," Cowen said. "So I would say the majority of the moments in the movie are not moments that we've seen before."

Image: Duke family portrait
NASA
Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke left this family portrait on the lunar surface during his 1972 mission.
The classic example is a private moment involving Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke. In the midst of his lunar mission in 1972, Duke walked off the beaten lunar track and dropped a plastic-wrapped photograph of his family on the dirt. Then he took a picture of the picture for posterity's sake.

Such moments "captured the spirit of the men who walked on the moon, and not just the rocks they picked up," Cowen said, and thus serve as the heart of "Magnificent Desolation."

"This isn't all about hopping and bopping around on the moon, and driving cool lunar rovers around the place, although we have that too," Cowen said. "This is more about the human aspect — and the fact that, as Tom Hanks says, it was the world's greatest road trip."

This report originally appeared as a Cosmic Log item on Sept. 19, 2005.

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