For National Geographic’s 10-part “One Strange Rock” series, executive producer Darren Aronofsky sought to convey the interconnected story of life and survival on Mother Earth, told from the unique, long distance perspectives of eight astronauts. A mash-up, if you will, of astronomy, anthropology, biology, physics, chemistry, and sociology that travels from the macro to the micro — as well as Aronofsky’s eclectic interests.
But for Simon de Glanville, the Emmy-nominated British natural history and documentary cinematographer (“Forces of Nature with Brian Cox”), it was a varied journey of beauty and wonder as visual metaphors for larger, cosmic statements. “Above and beyond the smaller details, there was a desire to shoot actuality stories about real people having real conversations in real places,” he said.
The intention was to shoot as cinematically as possible (with the Red Dragon or Phantom cameras), using fixed focus, prime lenses, mostly in straight lines with stabilizing equipment. And in typical Aronofsky fashion, the visual pattern consisted of going wide and small, with lots of rotations (assisted by drones for the widest perspectives).
For the first shoot of the series, de Glanville filmed an Italian marble quarry. It was a simple sequence, following the captain of the quarry team as he controlled the digging equipment, using hand signals like a conductor. “It’s like these machines are forming a ballet, doing his bidding,” he said. “You can make the quarry itself look beautiful because it’s all these bright, white surfaces that are exposed out of the mountain.”
“It produces a really beautiful quality of light as it’s reflected back all over the people and everything else,” de Glanville added. “And they’re cutting all this rock, which produces the finest dust that you can imagine. While you’re filming, it’s sublime, but the technical challenges are pretty miserable.”
For a water fight in Varanasi, India, De Glanville deployed the Phantom to create a visual metaphor for the heavy bombardment of water that was delivered on Earth as a result of crashing asteroids and comets. “There were children having a water fight on the streets of Veranasi,” he said. “There was one team of kids with water pistols and another team with water bombs chasing each other. The point of the exercise was for the moment when you see these water bombs hitting these dusty paving stones on the streets of Varanasi in super slow motion.”
However, shooting a rocket launch in Kazakhstan in the middle of the night was a lot more stressful. This was was a new experience for de Glanville and he had one chance to get it right. “We took around seven cameras to cover the launch in various ways,” he said. “And one in a glass booth box that we managed to get permission to put on the tarmac about 100 yards from the rocket.”
The biggest technical challenge, he said, “was to make that camera in the box work for that whole 24-hour period and then when the launch was happening. The rest of the cameras were 800 meters away, so we shot on long lenses and had cameras on wide lenses positioned all over the place.”
At the same time, de Glanville captured the juxtaposition of the buildings surrounding them: remnants of the former Soviet space program. “When it takes off at 2:00 in the morning, it was so bright that it was like the sun rising,” the cinematographer said. “The big challenge was trying to expose for it because you don’t know how bright it’s gonna be. I was able to track down a NASA photographer and look at some of his photographs from a previous launch. I was able to calculate the exposure to dial in to our cameras to get it right.”
The most poetic moment for de Glanville was shooting the monarch butterflies that migrated back to Mexico during The Day of the Dead festival. “Everyone’s dressed as skeletons and wearing Victorian finery and it’s quite an extraordinary environment,” he said. “We used it as a backdrop for the journey of the butterfly that passes through on its way to the factory. The monarch butterfly is quite an important motif. People believed they were the returning souls of their loved ones.”
It was one of the few times, though, that de Glanville resorted to hand-held in chasing after the butterflies. “You get a good five seconds of a butterfly flying down the streets, and that’s as low-fi as you can get,” he said.