Interview: Toni Myers, director of A Beautiful Planet


Toni Myers is one of the most successful IMAX directors of all time. She has helmed a number of award-winning documentaries, with a particular focus on space. On The Box was lucky enough to sit down with her and have a discussion about her new film, A Beautiful Planet.

One of the biggest differences in this film, compared to Toni’s previous IMAX space-docs Hubble and Space Station, was that it was shot on digital, rather than film. Shuttles to the ISS have decreased in frequency in recent years, so it was no longer possible for film to be regularly delivered back and forth to Earth. Shooting in digital allowed the astronauts to capture a, ‘whole new range of subject matter – with the digital we are now seeing lights on the Earth at night, the aurora borealis, thunder and lightning….it opens up a whole new socioeconomic view, seeing where the industrial centres are, where people gather in cities, how the population distributes itself’.

The logistics of such a film are naturally challenging. The astronauts are trained for about 22 hours in all aspects of movie making, from operating the cameras, to framing and lighting.

One of the best training tools is at the end of their training cycle we ask them to shoot, in the simulators, their own movie, which they have to light, and shoot, and direct their fellow crew members. Then we put it up on an IMAX screen to show them. That is the best training tool you can imagine! It’s like seeing your home movies 60 to 80 feet high – if the ‘focus’ penny hasn’t dropped it does then, that’s for sure! But, hardly ever is there a problem, they’re great students. I mean that’s why they’re astronauts; they’re the world’s best learners!

And technological advances – particularly shooting on digital – can make the process easier. Toni now receives phone calls directly from the ISS. So in less than 24 hours, the astronauts can discuss ideas, film them, send them down and they can then be reviewed, and sent back with annotations and suggestions.

Having directed several landmark space-documentaries over the last few decades, working with NASA and learning so many of the technical fundamentals, would Toni be interested in visiting outer space herself?

Oh, I’d go, I would go anytime! The one pause I had was when we were shooting ‘Space Station’, I did go up to the top of Soyuz launch tower…it takes about 15 paces to walk around, and it carries 3 people. It’s tiny. And the thought of them lighting an uncontrolled explosion right underneath gave me pause! I had a new respect for the people that get in this thing. So I sort of thought…. maybe not so fast!

The astronauts in the film are all extremely interesting characters, and there is a great diversity among the crew. The filmmakers did not choose any of the crews, they had to simply work with whomever their schedules lined up with, and Toni is full of praise for those she did get to work with – particularly Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

‘We were so lucky – I mean, they’re all great, but those three crews were fantastic. I could never have predicted how eloquent Samantha was – when you hear her talking, those words aren’t scripted. She said things I could not possibly have written, and just summed up things I wanted to say. When I showed the film to Jennifer Lawrence (the narrator), she said ‘oh gosh, she’s the star, I want to meet her!’ And they did, later, in New York, which was a great moment – there was mutual admiration there.’

The film is not shy in delivering a strong ecological message, and illustrating the damaging influence of humanity on the planet. Toni was conscious of the need to inspire people, rather than, ‘berating the audience – they don’t want to pay money to go the theatre and be told off for being “bad people”’.

‘What I wanted to do was to use the analogy of the ISS, which keeps 6 people alive simultaneously, and show how much that takes – well, the Earth is the same thing for billions of people – and it doesn’t get any resupply ships! I was hoping to inspire young people of the importance of looking after it, and also to go and find solutions to some of the problems facing us.’

She recalls seeing astronaut Susan Helms, who was the first woman to live for 6 months on the ISS, on a U.S talk show. ‘They asked her what had inspired her to become an astronaut, and she said the IMAX film ‘The Dream Is Alive’, I saw it when I was a kid”. I mean you couldn’t pay somebody to say that! And that gave us a clue of the sort of reach we could have…and so I hope in this way we might inspire some scientists and some engineers to do some problem solving.

Because we need it.’