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Professor's Star-Studded 3D Film Premieres

An image taken by the Hubble Telescope.

An image taken by the Hubble Telescope. Courtesy of NASA.

Hubble 3D, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, takes moviegoers through distant while providing a first-person view of NASA’s STS-125 Space Shuttle Mission: a complex rescue operation during which the astronauts risked their lives to make sure that Hubble would continue to function for many years to come.  

Making such a groundbreaking film required synthesizing hundreds of moving parts into a unified whole.  That’s where American University School of Communication Adjunct Professor Greg Smith comes in.  

Smith is a producer, director, sound recordist and post-production mixer/editor who has worked on more than 60 feature films, documentaries and music videos for companies including IMAX, Lucasfilm, Paramount, Warner Bros. and National Geographic.  But Hubble 3D, the seventh film from the award-winning IMAX Space Team, presented new challenges.  

“IMAX asked me to redesign the film sound recording system on the STS (Space Shuttle) and ISS (International Space Station),” says Smith.  “I spent a lot of time testing recorders and thinking about how sounds are different in a space environment than they are on Earth.  The recorder I chose was a CF-card-based digital recorder, which was a successor to the cassette and DAT systems that had been in place before.  The results have been spectacular.  Coincidentally, Geoff Turner has several of the same model which we use to record sound effects for student films at SOC.”  

The space shuttle can’t accommodate a traditional film crew, so astronauts moonlight as camera operators and sound recordists. As one of IMAX’s lead astronaut trainers, Smith frequently travels to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and trains crews in an exact replica of the shuttle in order to ensure that spatial concerns are addressed.  

“Since they won’t let me fly,” Smith says, “I spend a couple of years training each crew and developing a shot list for the film.” Smith says the STS-125/Hubble astronauts rose to the occasion. “These are incredibly talented people that you could drop in the middle of the Amazon with a match and a penknife and they could survive for a week.  And you can see the results on the screen.” 

Training for the Hubble mission continued right up until last May’s launch of the shuttle at Cape Canaveral.  “I deployed six recorders to record that launch.  I was a one-man crew so it took a lot of coordination and planning,” he says.  “The closest recorder was placed on the Service Structure (that holds the shuttle in place prior to launch), and the farthest was three miles away at the V.I.P. Site.  We mix all of the recordings together to get a seamless, intense launch sound.  It’s the loudest thing I’ve ever recorded and shakes the seats in the theater.” 

Once they were in space, the astronauts filmed and recorded everything from their daily “housekeeping” chores to five intricate spacewalks required to make repairs to the Hubble. Hubble 3D combines breathtaking IMAX footage with images taken by the telescope during the nearly 20 years it has been our window into space. 

After the mission was successfully completed and the astronauts returned safely to earth, Smith conducted interviews with the crew and the audio was mixed into the soundtrack.  “They were expressive, thoughtful and somewhat emotional about the experience,” he says. This allowed the astronauts share their experiences and to provide personal context to some of the shots they had captured. 

A March 9 premiere of the film at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington was jam-packed.  The event gave the STS-125 Crew, NASA scientists, members of Congress and other lucky invitees a first look at the film.  The images, especially the CG travelogue through the universe courtesy of 3-D Hubble images, were stunning.  “What we’ve been able to achieve here,” Producer/Director Toni Myers said to the crowd, “is a remarkable journey to places that only IMAX can take you.”  Smith agreed: “I’ve had astronauts come up to me and tell me that seeing and hearing our films is literally the same as going up there. That’s pretty cool.” 

Hubble 3D opens in IMAX theaters nationwide on March 19, 2010.