As soon as Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli arrived on the International Space Station in July 2017, he discovered that something was wrong. Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky had tasked Nespoli with shooting footage from space for a new documentary series called One Strange Rock. But the HD camera Nespoli was supposed to use didn’t work.
“When I turned on the camera, it was kind of foggy and snowy everywhere,” Nespoli tells The Verge. Plus, the attachment between the camera and the lens was glitching, so he’d have to control the focus and aperture of the lens manually. “It was a little bit distressing.”
Nespoli, who’s with the European Space Agency, had received a half day of training in Rome on how to use the RED camera, as well as the dozen or so lenses already on the ISS. The training also focused on storyboarding the sequences, which included NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. But troubleshooting a device that’s constantly bombarded and damaged by cosmic radiation wasn’t included. A software update eventually fixed the bigger problem with the camera, but Nespoli still had to adjust the focus manually. Doing that while wobbling in zero gravity makes filming more complicated, especially for someone trained as an astronaut, not a cinematographer.
“It’s like driving a Ferrari. You might know how to drive a regular car, but you jump in a Ferrari and start pushing the limits of the car, and it’s not that easy,” Nespoli says. “If the camera, or the car in this case, doesn’t work properly, it’s even more complicated.”
Nespoli and Whitson ended up sacrificing two weekends of their rare free time in space to film all the shots Aronofsky wanted. The hard work paid off: the scenes of Whitson waking up on the ISS, brushing her teeth, and looking out of the cupola observation module offer an incredibly intimate portrait of what it means to live away from our planet.
Aronofsky says those scenes are a key part of One Strange Rock, his 10-episode documentary series, which premieres Monday, March 26th on the National Geographic Channel. The series is his TV debut after a 20-year career of directing films, including Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and Mother! One Strange Rock focuses on how wondrous, intricately balanced, and interconnected life on Earth is. Shot in 45 countries on six continents, the series covers some of the most basic aspects of life on Earth, like breathing: for example, the first episode takes viewers on a journey around the world to explain how oxygen is made. Will Smith narrates the series, which follows the perspective of eight astronauts — the only humans who’ve actually experienced what it means to not be on this planet. One of these astronauts is Peggy Whitson.
Whitson holds the US record for most cumulative spaceflight hours, with 665 days in space. So for Aronofsky, telling her story was key. “We knew the show was going to climax with Peggy’s journey because of the incredible record that she has set and what she accomplished,” he tells The Verge. Her story also helps bring “the entire show back to, ‘What is home?’” It becomes particularly clear that home is planet Earth once you’ve traveled so far away from it that its gravity disappears.
But how to film Whitson on the International Space Station before her return? “They wouldn’t take me up there!” Aronofsky jokes. “I’m fit! I’m ready to go!” The opportunity presented itself when Whitson’s stay on the ISS was extended by three extra months. That meant she was going to overlap with Nespoli, who’s “a very keen photographer,” says Arif Nurmohamed, one of the producers of One Strange Rock. “We were very, very lucky.”
Nespoli says he’s loved photography since he got his first point-and-shoot camera at age nine or 10. By the time he was a teenager, he and his friends developed their own photos in a homemade dark room. And he even worked as a projectionist at the local church and movie theatre of his hometown of Verano Brianza, Italy, just north of Milan. “Photography, and in a certain way cinematography, was one of my passions when I was a kid,” Nespoli says. “I’m automatically drawn by this.”
In his second mission to the ISS, Nespoli collaborated with filmmaker Christopher Riley for the 2011 documentary First Orbit. So when Riley asked him to help with a new documentary project, Nespoli was eager to hold the camera in zero-g again. Only later did Nespoli realize it was a series produced by Darren Aronofsky. “I was a bit intimidated,” he says. “But I liked the challenge.”
A few weeks before his third launch to the ISS, Nespoli had an afternoon of training in Rome with the show’s producers and Aronofsky, who was Skyped in. The first thing Aronofsky asked Nespoli was about lighting on the Earth-orbiting lab. “All the fluorescent lights are on, it’s all very flat. We’ve all seen a ton of that footage,” Aronofsky says. “So I was like, ‘How do we shoot this in a different way?’ It’s kind of what I do with all my things, is how to make it a little different.” So the lights on the ISS were turned off, and Nespoli used the Sun’s natural light, as well as the light reflected off the Earth and the Moon, to illuminate Whitson’s face as she looks out at the planet. In other shots, Nespoli filmed Whitson turning on the fluorescent lights along the ISS corridors, creating dramatic patches of darkness and light.
“Paolo was a taskmaster. I had to do it over and over and over again,” Whitson tells The Verge. One of the scenes has Whitson waking up on the ISS, her pendant floating away from her. “I found my niche in acting,” Whitson jokes. “I can fake sleep!”
The sequences, which will run in the series’s final episode, required a combination of wide shots and close-ups, like any scene in a good movie. All the shots were storyboarded before Nespoli went to space, but he still had to send his footage back to Earth so Aronofsky could check on it, and comment via email. “I didn’t know I could just email an astronaut,” Aronofsky says. Though he followed the instructions bit by bit, Nespoli says he took his own creative freedoms. After getting a straight shot of Whitson floating through a hatch, as Aronofsky wanted, for instance, Nespoli also filmed the same scene at a 45-degree angle, which he liked more. “I don’t know which one he used” in the final cut, he says.
Nurmohamed says one of his favorite scenes in the whole series — the one he’s proudest of — was captured by Nespoli. It’s an extreme close-up of Whitson’s face as she’s floating in the cupola. In Whitson’s eye, there’s a visible reflection of Earth. “When I saw that, it just blew my mind,” Nurmohamed tells The Verge. “I have no idea how he managed to moor himself so he was stable enough that he didn’t give her a black eye.”
“That was really a problem,” Nespoli says. The cupola is fairly small, so it was really hard to fit the two astronauts and the RED camera in it. It was so tight that Nespoli couldn’t use a unipod. So to get the shot, he just held the camera in his hands and held his breath. If you look at the footage, you can see it vibrate a little bit, Nespoli says. “That’s actually my heart rate.”
Overall, Nepoli’s shots are just one tiny part of One Strange Rock, but likely some of the most extraordinary ones. With Aronofsky’s signature staccato cuts and discordant music, the series tries to redefine what natural-history documentaries can accomplish in terms of cinematography. The message, though, is similar to that of BBC’s Planet Earth and the recent Blue Planet II. “What we hope is that people come away with a renewed or new sense of wonder at just how extraordinary our planet is,” Nurmohamed says.