Imax, Lowry Digital in orbit with NASA footage

Much was made last week of NASA’s embarrassing loss of the original video from Apollo 11’s first-ever moonwalk and Lowry Digital’s engagement to restore it.

Most of that coverage glossed over the details of what exactly was lost and exactly what’s being done to restore it.

For Lowry, it’s a challenge not unlike, well, a moon shot.

NASA’s admission that the tapes were probably reused may conjure images of an overeager P.A. trying to save money, but Patrick Edquist, Lowry’s post manager on the Apollo 11 project, told Daily Variety: “There was one unique thing about the Apollo 11 tapes: They were just data tapes. They were not videotapes. (The video) was stored along with all the other data they were gathering, the heartbeat of Neil Armstrong, all the other telemetry. It was just another data channel on the data tapes.”

Later moon missions recorded their video separately.

The live feed from the moon was at just 10 frames per second. It was converted to different frame rates for broadcast on TV around the world, 25 fps for Europe, 30 for the U.S., using what were then state-of-the-art converters.

Lowry is working from news archives, kinescopes of the broadcast and even an 8mm home movie shot off a space buff’s TV.

Lowry is working backward from various sources to get back to the original 10 fps, taking out the extra frames, layers of noise and the problems introduced by the converters.

Lowry has built its business cleaning up and restoring images, from library titles such as “Citizen Kane” to the digital footage on last year’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It’s confronted almost every form of noise, decay and fading imaginable. But the deterioration of the Apollo footage, said Lowry algorithm scientist Kimball Thurston, “is unlike anything we’ve worked on before.”

“I keep telling the NASA guys if those 10-frame tapes ever show up, imagine the magic we could do to that, and really bring out some detail,” said Lowry VP of engineering Ray Mitchell.

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No such wizardry was needed for the spectacular footage screened at the July 15 “Astronaut as Filmmaker” event at the Academy in Beverly Hills.

After industry insiders mingled at a reception with six of the seven astronauts of the STS-125 Space Shuttle mission, a full house watched the sextet present footage they shot during their May mission, which took the Atlantis on the final repair trip to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The footage is fodder for an Imax documentary, “Hubble 3-D,” slated for March release.

“I wonder whether they shot in outer space because the tax rebates are better than in California,” quipped Acad prexy Sid Ganis in introducing the event, which was hosted by Oscar-winning “Star Wars” vfx supervisor John Dykstra and “The Right Stuff” d.p. Caleb Deschanel.

The astronauts’ digital high-def Canon cameras delivered visual proof of one hazard of space travel. Cosmic rays passing through the shuttle would occasionally zap pixels on the cameras’ sensors, leaving white specks on footage shot thereafter. By the end of the 13-day voyage, there were quite a few visible “hits” visible in the footage. Imax will clean up the footage inhouse before exhibition.

The footage was shot under a “Space Act Agreement” partnership between NASA and Imax. Imax provided cameras, film and filmmaking training for the astronauts; NASA owns the footage and licenses it to Imax.

“Hubble 3-D,” produced by Imax and Warner Bros., will also incorporate 65mm Imax film footage shot with a camera mounted in the shuttle’s cargo bay. Including its protective housing and mounts, the camera rig weighed 835 pounds, and at $10,000 per pound, it cost about $8 million to get it into orbit.

The camera had a single magazine about the size of an SUV tire, holding 5,400 feet of film. Yet since the camera shot side-by-side images for 3-D (65/30 stereo, to be precise), that turned out to be enough for just eight minutes.

Documenting the mission is always part of the astronauts’ job, but on this one, the astronauts were given a demanding shot list that had to be adjusted constantly as problems altered the mission schedule, all while operating in a significantly more dangerous orbit than NASA normally allows nowadays.

“It was a relatively busy time for us,” mission commander Scott “Scooter” Altman told Daily Variety diplomatically.

And even in this real-life space story, Hollywood’s aliens made a cameo.

“We got to watch the ‘Star Trek’ movie in space. How cool is that?” said mission specialist Mike “Bueno” Good.

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