Earth trough the lens of an astronaut – background info on my new ISS shortfilm documentary

As you might have noticed, I am a fan of all things International Space Station – and my new shortfilm documentary “ISS Frontier – Making the invisible visible” is a result of a photographer and filmmaker being inspired by a great “photographer” (which in this case is a underestimation).


A view to our fragile, blue planet. from a even so fragile oasis.

A view to our fragile, blue planet. from a even so fragile oasis.

Hence, the film is no more or less a logical tribute to Dr. Don Pettit, NASA Astronaut and Astrophotographer (as well as logically all the other photographers up there too – for example Ron Garan), as well as the International Space Station Program. One of Humanity’s greatest projects ever. And it can not be emphasized enough, how Dr. Pettits innovative photographic work and his passion aboard the ISS has changed the way we see earth from space. Driven by great footage of a legendary speech on the challenges of astrophotography by Dr. Pettit, the shortfilm weaves a unique compilation of four timelapses I have processed from ISS footage (“intro”, “startrails”, “fisheye” and “aurorae”) into a new piece.

How did I come up to the idea for the project? For my first ISS short film “ISS TRONized“, I had combined ISS images and timelapse processing with a stacking method traditionally used for improving the signal-to-noise ratio of “Deep Sky” images and for creating Startrails from Timelapse Sequences (we do a lot of those at The World at Night), resulting in a new kind of ISS timelapse, someone even considered a new “Art form”. “ISS TRONized” got a huge surprise VIMEO hit (2.4 mio. loads, 440000 plays).

So, as usual, once in a while I returned to NASA’s Gateway of Astronaut’s Photography on Earth, to see what’s new. The timelapse and VFX nerd I am, I really love to process ISS footage. Each image of those intervalometer sequences (usually by the legendary Nikon D3s) tells a story to dive in, not only by the EXIF data. It captures a moment in time, as the Astronaut has seen it – travelling in a 80 m Spacecraft with about 28.000 km/h in an Orbit, 400 km off of the Planet.


Dr. Don Pettit enjoying a view, that he shared more than once with the world.

Dr. Don Pettit enjoying a view, that he shared more than once with the world.

But one evening screening the NASA archive, I nearly fell off the chair: I looked at what was a unbelievable ISS cupola opening sequence timelapse, with the cupola opening it’s shutters like a flower. Dr. Pettit sitting in there, obviosuly having fun, smiling, taking images (watching the moon rising). In a couple of frames of the sequence, you can even see him pointing to the moon. WHAT AN EPIC SCENE! (original appareance here). Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t have done it better! I continued to select and process images for the four different ISS timelapses, but now I knew the “intro” had it’s opener!

In the meantime I was told by the mighty Network that Dr. Pettit liked “ISS TRONized”, and when I was then pointed to the footage of his great lecture at Luminance Conference 2012, I knew I would be able to weave the four ISS timelapses I had put so much work in, into to a new short documentary. Allowing the timelapse clips room to breathe, embedded in excerpts of a spectacular speech providing first hand information by the man himself, on what the challenges of that kind of photography in a Spacecraft really are. After some negotiating and mails back and forth, the great folks at Photoshelter as well as Dr. Pettit gave their OK for me to use excerpts – start up all CPU cores.


Believe me, as a low light specialist (used to a D3s) I can judge under what circumstances all that night sky footage of the ISS was taken. All the problems with reflection, what working at the Cupola is like, how those intervalometer images had been done, the exposure problem with Aurora’s and so much more (see also NASA Earth Observatory). Aside processing all the timelapses, cutting Don’s original lecture from Luminance then was the toughest and longest part (what to leave out and what not), but in the end all worked out.


I usually take a lot of care about the soundtrack of my films – I have a melody in mind I’d like to match with the images, or the other way round. If I don’t find the right score, my projects can even get delayed a lot. For the soundtrack of the film, I was approached with three great music pieces: Two songs from Baobab’s Phil Torres (a biologist and philosopher), and one from finnish Astrophotographer Eero Joenrinne’s SoundOfLucas project. I even went on Phil’s nerves to have him do an acoustic version of the second song for further emphasizing the theme, which he thankfully did. With that all set, I could start to edit and get into flow – accompanied by good tunes that would fit for the film. And did.

Showing the film to my little 3-year old daugther Elena (she totally loves my astro-timelapses, space, the planets, and is a very honest critic), some friends and experts for feedback, I cut and cut, and did about 12 iterations. Duh.


Now finally, board the ISS, and enjoy stunning views of our Earth as well as great background information of a true pioneer of Astrophotography in Space – Dr. Don Pettit. His true fascination with imaging at the Space Station and solving a lot of problems that had not been on the table before, is more than heart warming and has inspired me as a photographer a lot – and will hopefully inspire many others, too. If one only could visit to the Station once in a lifetime. But that’s not an option for my Generation – so in the meantime the images must do. And they DO.

“Making the invisible visible” – the ISS Image Frontier from Christoph Malin on Vimeo.

Thanks to everyone who made this film possible!

All the best
Christoph Malin

PS: Here’s a great discussion of “ISS Image Frontier – making the invisible visible” by my friend Phil Plait of Slate’s Bad Astronomy Blog, who found his very own approach to the film. An approach I can only sign to the fullest. It is our planet earth which is most important to us.

PS2: And if you never can’t get enough films from Space, like I do, then I have a temporary cure: The Overview – blew me away. 200% stoked. Great interviews – most impressive is EDGAR MITCHELL – Apollo 14 astronaut, and so many beautiful details hidden in the footage.


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