Movie magic from the Midwest

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2012 - 3:32 PM

A 3-D Imax film about space debris emerges from a collaboration among Minneapolis businesses.

The team behind the 3-D film “Space Junk” celebrated its premiere: Melissa Butts, Melrae Pictures (sitting); Luke Ployhar, Afterglow Studios ; Kimberly Rowe, Melrae Pictures, producer; Tom Hambleton, ­Undertone Music ; Jason Malkovich, Afterglow Studios; Carl Jacobs, Splice (on the laptop in Las Vegas.)

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Champagne flowed inside the dimly lit editing suite at Undertone studios in downtown Minneapolis last week, as a small group gathered to toast the world premiere of "Space Junk," a 3-D Imax documentary highlighting the growing problem of satellite debris floating around outer space.

Four Minneapolis businesses collaborated on the 38-minute movie, an effort they say pushes the boundaries of digital filmmaking and proves to Hollywood that the Twin Cities can hold its own in the world of high-tech film production.

"Just because you're doing things on a grander scale doesn't mean you have to go to either coast," said producer-director Melissa Butts, founder of Melrae Pictures in south Minneapolis. "Great talent already exists here. These vendors are within three blocks of each other."

Luke Ployhar and Jason Malkovich of Afterglow studios created multilayered stereo 3-D effects and animation that makes use of the sweet spot of the domed Imax screen and gives "Space Junk" viewers the sense that they're riding a satellite through space.

Tom Hambleton of Undertone produced the original score and mixed the sound; Carl Jacobs of Splice edited film that was so data-rich it consumed the equivalent of 100 laptops of memory.

Butts and managing partner Kimberly Rowe knew from the start that they wanted to shoot in stereo 3-D, which added more complexity to the project because segments are produced separately for each eye so that images will pop off the screen. They also chose to present "Space Junk" in full-digital 4K, a high-resolution format. Its larger pixel size provides about four times the clarity of movies shown in traditional theaters.

Working with the 300-pound Imax camera created its own challenges. Because there are so few of the cameras available, they were forced into a tight, one-month shooting deadline. The Imax helicopter pilot and crew went from "Space Junk" to start work on "Batman: The White Knight."

"Ten years ago, you would have had to go to Hollywood to do all of this," said Jacobs, who was in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show and took part in a virtual celebration via laptop over Skype. "The digital revolution has allowed us to participate in this where we couldn't before."

"Space Junk" is aimed at science museums and planetariums. Though produced with the 90-foot screen of an Imax in mind, it also can be shown in traditional 2-D formats and even a mobile phone.

The film isn't available yet in Minnesota, but about 15 Imax and other giant-screen specialty theaters around the world have signed contracts for a six-month to one-year run. It debuted Friday at the St. Louis Science Center Omnimax, a hub of aerospace history. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago also will show the film as well as another Melrae production, "3D Sun."

Finding funding was challenging, said Rowe, as most of the likely corporate and military sponsors also "helped create the problem."

It didn't help that the women launched their project at a time when banks weren't lending and few businesses had money to spare. A family member helped line up private investors, and Melrae Pictures has retained copyright. Butts declined to provide specifics, but said "Space Junk" cost "well below" the $6 million to $9 million needed to produce a typical Imax film.

The topic is timely, as the malfunctioning Russian space probe, Phobos-Grunt, is expected to fall to Earth on Sunday or Monday and land in the Indian Ocean. Scientists are concerned about the 12 tons of toxic fuel on the failed probe, which, if frozen, could survive the crash through the atmosphere.

Retired NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who appears in "Space Junk," predicted 30 years ago that we'd reach a tipping point with all the debris in space. More than 6,000 tons of the stuff is floating in low earth orbit, including military and weather satellites as well as those we rely on to use cellphones, GPS devices, satellite TVs and to call up Facebook and Twitter.

Debris falls to the earth every day, sometimes burning up, often hitting the ocean. Collisions are becoming more common, worrisome and expensive.

"Space Junk" aims to raise awareness about a growing problem, but the producers hope people will start thinking about solutions.

"That's the exciting part of putting the story together and talking to people who are designing true innovations to clean up space," Rowe said. "Is it going to be a net? Is it going to be laser? What's the most economical way to do it?"

"Fifty years of launching satellites in the name of exploration and discovery is an awesome thing and it's done wonderful things for our planet," said Butts, who began her career working in St. Paul on the PBS series, "Newton's Apple."

"But it has also compromised our space environment. It's not unlike our land, our oceans and our air. The film is about space junk, yes, but it's also about how deeply we human beings are connected to space."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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