Melissa Butts has partnered with NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and National Geographic to bring museum visitors Imax-vast views of outer space, yet the 45-year-old Minneapolis producer/director says she’s not a huge science geek.
While her résumé includes a stint on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Newton’s Apple,” her background was production, not astrophysics. Still, she’s made her mark with award-winning documentaries that bring new science stories to light. “Space Junk 3D” is her third stereoscopic short, following “3D Sun,” about solar weather, and “MARS 3D,” featuring footage shot by NASA’s Mars rovers.
The new film presented unique challenges, including uncooperative experts. “All of the people we wanted to talk to on orbital debris were the people who helped create the problem,” she said. “Some people wanted to talk and others didn’t.” Luckily, Donald Kessler, NASA’s retired authority on space junk, came aboard, explaining how chain-reaction collisions have left floating minefields of dangerous trash in Earth orbit.
Location shooting at a giant meteor crater and observatory in New Mexico and Arizona was complicated by unseasonal snow squalls, 50-mile-an-hour sandstorms and the logistical problem of moving an unwieldy large-format camera up and down a giant hole in the ground.
“It’s a 300-plus-pound camera. It took six men to carry it. It felt like being the pharaoh of Egypt and watching the Pyramids being built,” Butts said.
The easiest aspect of the process was working with the narrator, English actor Tom Wilkinson (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), who greeted Butts in a Los Angeles recording studio with unexpected stories of mutual friends in the Minnesota filmmaking community. “We were done and eating fish and chips within two hours,” she said.