When it comes to how big a movie experience can get, Sphere has answered that question once and for all: The sky is the limit. The first film to play in the enormous, immersive new space in Las Vegas, Darren Aronofsky‘s “Postcard From Earth,” has plenty of blue-screen, so to speak — that is, vast skies that stretch to fill the dome that towers 366 feet over the venue’s floor level. The 50-minute movie takes you into the reaches of space, too, with a wrap-around science-fiction narrative that is apropos for Sphere’s wrap-around screen. But “let’s get small” is an operative motif, too, as the proprietary Big Sky cameras zoom in on objects as tiny as a praying mantis.
Aronofsky’s films always have a lot more on their minds than bedazzlement, and “Postcard From Earth” is no exception, as it turns out the journey by a pair of astronauts to a distant planet at the beginning and end of the film is in response to a long-simmering crisis back home. In the end, “Postcard” is what it aims to be — a love letter to a planet that aims to leave audiences feeling a little more protective toward it.
The film officially opened in Sphere Friday night, seven days after U2 christened the venue with the first concert on the premises, and five after “Postcard” was first showed off at a private screening for its makers’ friends and families and some press and local dignitaries. It will screen there for the public on the five days a week that U2 does not have a show booked in the next two months, and beyond. “I thought U2 was great,” Aronofsky said in talking with Variety just before the movie’s debut to the general public this weekend. “I like that we’re totally not related in many ways — that the screen is that powerful, that it can capture so many different tech uses and possibilities, so that if you see one, seeing the other is still a whole different experience.” One thing “Postcard” has that even U2’s show likely never will: 4D effects that change with the on-screen weather, including quite convincing thunder and wind.
There’s a history going back 70 years of attempts at immersive cinema, almost all of them seeming pretty primitive now compared to this — from three-projector Cinerama in the ‘50s to Disneyland’s 360-degree “America the Beautiful” travelogue, which closed in ‘84 — most of which dealt with the old problem of using different cameras and having the seams showing. Did you have any kind of nostalgic fondness for any of the old immersive experiments?
I don’t think that’s what drew me to it. I’m sure I ran into a lot of those techs, like you, over the years. I was at Epcot Center in the ‘80s; I can’t really remember what was going on there, but I’m sure there was something! A lot of people have talked about the different screens that have been attempted over the years. I mean, I used to go to the planetarium in New York City to see the Led Zeppelin laser show in high school. That was the latest technology.
So you were just drawn to this by believing that it could take cinema into the future, in some way?
I didn’t really know what it was when it first came to me. It just sounded kind of bananas. The ambition was just wild. But, like everyone, I had no idea what an 18K image would look like on a screen four football fields large, wrapping around you. I really couldn’t imagine the resolution or what it would be. It was more like, OK, someone’s building this and wants to make something intense. The story possibilities are what I think intrigued me. There’s so many cliches about Vegas; I felt one thing that wasn’t there was a natural history show on the planet. But I wanted to figure out a way to do things differently. I didn’t want to just have the most beautiful images we could create, with a voiceover. I wanted to try to see if I could put an emotional narrative in it as well. And that was the challenge Ari Handel and myself took on: How do we sort of blend fiction and documentary and make something new?
How long have you been working on it, and how were you approached as someone who might be interested in a project for Sphere?
Jane Rosenthal (film producer and CEO of Tribeca Enterprises) was involved with it, and she sent me a very early deck of it when it was just a bunch of images. It was almost two years ago now when I first flew out to see the construction site. You could see the massive scale, which had been kind of lost on me at first. It was like: Oh, this is a stadium — but they want to make it a stadium where you can watch basically a huge movie. That was really intriguing, the possibility of that.
But the cameras didn’t exist at that point. So Ari and I spent a few months working on the story and on the script. At that point they basically had 12 RED cameras welded together to get enough resolution for this, but there were really big complexities of how to stitch all the different images together to create this one image. We tried shooting with that a few times —I think there’s one shot (in the finished film) in the Antarctic that we shot with what they called the Array — until finally Big Sky (cameras) showed up. But once again, it was a prototype. It was the first camera that ever existed that could capture 18K. Some of the things about it were amazing, but other things were still growing and evolving. As time went by, the cameras started to come off the assembly line that were more equipped, and the results were incredible.
So it all kind of paid out in such a strange way. I think I said in my introduction last Sunday what David Dibble, the head engineer of this project, said: It’s like we were flying the plane while building it.
With all the shooting that was happening around the world, did you go on any of that, or were you just seeing what a filming team sent in?
I went when I could go. I knew to do this right, I needed to bring the best natural history person on the planet, and luckily I had worked with him: Graham Booth, who I first met on (the documentary series) “One Strange Rock” for Nat Geo, and then we did a show called “Welcome to Earth” (on which both Booth and Aronofsky were executive producers). He was thinking about what to do next, and I was like, “Do you want to do something really crazy with me?” He was all game, so he assembled an incredible team, and they hit every continent on the planet. And whenever I could, I would tag along. I went to the shot in the opera house when everyone’s staring at the camera. I actually have a cameo in that shot. And I got also to shoot some of the aerials with some of the best aerial photographers on the planet. It was a really amazing experience. We went up to Oregon and did a bunch of forest-fires work, which, none of the fires actually made the show, but some of the other stuff we shot made the show. It was a lot of fun.
People at the premiere screening had questions. Like, how much is real, and is digital animation a part of what we’re seeing? Some of the animal action seemed too good not to be digital work, some people thought.
It’s all real. Of course, some of the sci-fi sequences are obviously visual effects, but that’s it. There’s a lot of cleanup that has to happen because the camera sees everything, and so we had a lot of crew members that we had to remove. On all the aerials, the camera comes up the top, so they all had helicopter blades in all of them. And the camera was so sensitive, we learned — only after shooting aerials a couple of times — that the sun went through the propeller, and the reflection of that was hitting the top of the frame and actually made the shots not usable because it created this flicker. It took us a long time to realize that, oh, we have to shoot early in the morning or late at night to get shots from a helicopter. So there were all different types of weird challenges and lessons that we learned that no one really figured out until we actually did it, and were like, well, what’s going on that’s wrong there?
But the elephant footage is completely real, not animated? That specifically is what some friends were wondering.
No, no, no, no. I mean, I don’t think it would have been possible to do a digital elephant with that level of detail. If you look, you can see there’s hairs coming off of his trunk, which is something I’ve never noticed on elephants, but like we have hair on our arms, they have hairs on their trunk. It’s an interesting experience, because I think if an elephant was really that close to you, even if it was a tame elephant, you still would be freaking out. I think with this, you are freaking out a little bit, but you also realize that you’re watching an image and you can really look at the image, and your eye and your brain allows you to take in other types of information that you probably wouldn’t have noticed if you were in the presence of that creature. So, that’s a real image; there’s no digital fakery there.
As far as the narrative wraparound to put around all this footage, did the sci-fi aspect of it come to mind pretty quickly for you and Ari?
Yeah, that was a very early idea. We had a different idea originally. It was originally going to be one of the astronauts on the planet alone, getting a letter from a loved one, or it was different things, but it was always the future. We always knew we had to tell the story of earth. And I think the only way to tell the story of earth — or at least right now, what’s happening on the planet — is from the future, so we can look back on it and think about it.
The framing device has a man and woman traveling through space and landing on an uninhabited planet as they remember earth. They’re a future Adam and Eve. That seems to tie in, in some way, with all the book of Genesis references in your work, from “Mother!” being an Adam and Eve/Cain and Abel allegory to, obviously, “Noah.” So even with a semi-documentary project you have some throughline with your narrative career, here.
Thank you. I’m very aware of that, and I’m glad that they connect in a certain way — that stuff made in that 20th century medium called cinema actually translates to this 21st century medium.
We could also think of it as being in a tradition, a little bit, of sort of dystopian ecological films like “Silent Running.”
I love “Silent Running.” It’s funny you bring it up.
There’s obviously a big message aspect to the film, in terms of using a possible future to comment or warn about what’s happening today. Was that a big impetus for you?
I wouldn’t call this a dystopian film. I think if anything, it’s protopian. Look, it’s undeniable what’s happening on the planet right now, and it’s a dire situation. But I think we do need stories that are dreaming about a future where humanity has found a balance to live with Mother Earth. And I think that’s now the job of storytellers, to start figuring out how to tell stories that inspire people to connect with the planet and to figure out a better outcome for where we seem to be headed.
As much as people will be looking to this to be of in the historic tradition of kind of travelogue films that show off a great new technology with beautiful images — which this has by the hundreds — you’re brave enough to include some less idyllic images, like a shot of a canal strewn with garbage —before you get beautiful with it again.
Yeah, that was actually a lucky grab. They just saw it (the garbage in the water) and decided to shoot it and I was like, “That’s great.” It’s a pretty upsetting shot, but I think it sort of sets up everything we’re trying to do.
You went for obviously the largest-scale things possible, but then you’ve also got a praying mantis. If this were a monster movie, it would be a great medium for that, because you’ve got this tiny creature that is, what, maybe hundreds of feet tall on the Sphere screen?
Yeah, I think it’s a hundred feet tall. I actually don’t know how big it is, but yeah — that was an amazing thing. I think if you were to look at a praying mantis, normally you’d be looking at it through a magnifying glass to see that level of detail. To not have the magnifying glass there and to see it with such clarity in 18K… you guys last week were the first people to ever really see that. No one’s really seen 18K images on this scale before, and that level of detail is a very interesting experience that’s different than anything that’s been out there before.
Did you think about how often you needed to make people look up and really see the top of the dome?
Yeah, every shot. Every shot, we just tried to maximize where people could look. It’s interesting: It takes people a long time to start looking around. I’ve been noticing people are so programmed to look forward and just stare at that, and we have things going over the top throughout the beginning and then people start to realize, “Oh, wow, there’s images up there, too.” I can’t wait to see with a couple more crowds this weekend.
In the early days of Cinemascope, the movie might start out in an Academy aspect ratio and then there’d be a guy who would literally push the edges of the screen back. You don’t have anything that gimmicky here, but you do have the opening framing sequence playing out in something like 2.35:1 — which looks big enough on this screen — before the expansion to 35 stories tall happens.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I really wanted to try to recreate that moment when the train pulls into the station, one of those first images of cinema (in silent film), and do a similar thing here where people are seeing what they regularly expect a movie to be, and then at a certain moment have their minds blown.
You have a scene with quite a few giraffes in one shot, and turning my head I was pleased to see one little giraffe head just kind of peeking over the left side of the upper balcony. On top of the giraffe that is very, very foregrounded.
That was great. We were very fortuitous. We stuck the camera there, and the front of the (Big Sky) lens is actually very reflective, because it’s a big ball of glass, so the giraffes were just very, very curious about the giraffes that were in that camera, and they kept coming over to look at them, and eventually we got one that was great. That was the secret.
There is a cinematic first in this film, I think, even though it may not be the spectactular visual that most people talk about most. At the very close, you manage to gradually get all the credits for the entire film on the massive screen at once.
That’s true. They were like, “You want to do a roll or something?” I was like, “You know, actually, it might be just kind of interesting to stick everyone’s name up there.” And I think it’s 2,000 names. The nice thing about that is we’re able to get the credits done in about 90 seconds, which is great, too.