Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

The far side of the moon (frame 29) as shot by Luna 3

It is 1959. Just two years have passed since the launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite blew the starting whistle for the Space Race. Sputnik 2, carrying poor Laika the dog, and the American satellite Explorer 1 swiftly followed. Crewed spaceflight is still a couple of years away, but already the eyes of the world’s superpowers have turned to Earth’s nearest neighbour: the moon.

Early attempts at sending probes to the moon were disastrous, with the first three of America’s Pioneer craft crashing back to Earth, while a trio of Soviet attempts exploded on launch. Finally the USSR’s Luna 1 – intended to crash-land on the surface – at least managed a fly-by. Luna 2 reached its target, becoming the first man-made object on the moon in September 1959.

The stage is now set for Luna 3. Its mission: to photograph the far side of the moon.

Luna 3

Our planet and its natural satellite are in a state known as tidal locking, meaning that the moon takes the same length of time to circle the earth as it does to rotate around its own axis. The result is that the same side of the moon always faces us here on Earth. Throughout all of human history, the far side has been hidden to us.

But how do you take a photograph a quarter of a million miles away and return that image to Earth with 1950s technology?

At this point in time, television has been around for twenty years or so. But the images are transient, each frame dancing across the tube of a TV camera at, say, Alexandra Palace, oscillating through the air as VHF waves, zapping down a wire from an aerial, and ultimately driving the deflecting coils of a viewer’s cathode ray tube to paint that image on the phosphorescent screen for a 50th of a second. And then it’s gone forever.

For a probe on the far side of the moon, with 74 million million million tonnes of rock between it and the earthbound receiving station, live transmission is not an option. The image must somehow be captured and stored.

Video tape recorders have been invented by 1959, but the machines are enormous and expensive. At the BBC, most non-live programmes are still recorded by pointing a film camera at a live TV monitor.

And it is film that will make Luna 3’s mission possible. Enemy film in fact, which the USSR recovered, unexposed, from a CIA spy balloon. Resistant to radiation and extremes of temperature, the 35mm isochromatic stock is chosen by Soviet scientists to be loaded into Luna 3’s AFA-Ye1 camera, part of its Yenisey-2 imaging system.

Luna 3 launches on October 4th, 1959 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in what will one day be Kazakhstan. A modified R-7 rocket inserts the probe into a highly elliptical Earth orbit which, after some over-heating and communications issues are resolved, brings it within range of the moon three days later.

The mission has been timed so that the far side of the moon is in sunlight when Luna 3 reaches it. A pioneering three-axis stabilisation system points the craft (and thus the camera, which cannot pan independently) at the side of the moon which no-one has seen before. A photocell detects the bright surface and triggers the Yenisey-2 system. Alternating between 200mm f/5.6 and 500mm f/9.5 lenses, the camera exposes 29 photographs on the ex-CIA film.

The AFA-Ye1 camera

Next that film must be processed, and Luna 3 can’t exactly drop it off at Snappy Snaps. In fact, the Yenisey-2 system contains a fully automated photo lab which develops, fixes and dries the film, all inside a 1.3x1m cylinder tumbling through the vacuum of space at thousands of miles per hour.

Now what? Returning a spacecraft safely to Earth is beyond human ability in 1959, though the following year’s Vostok missions will change all that. Once Luna 3 has swung around the moon and has line of sight to the receiving stations on Earth, the photographic negatives must be converted to radio broadcasts.

To that end, Yenisey-2 incorporates a cathode ray tube which projects a beam of light through the negative, scanning it at a 1,000-line resolution. A photocell on the other side receives the beam, producing a voltage inversely proportional to the density of the negative. This voltage frequency-modulates a radio signal in the same way that fax machines use frequency-modulated audio to send images along phone lines.

Attempts to transmit the photographs begin on October 8th, and after several failures, 17 images are eventually reconstructed by the receiving stations in Crimea and Kamchatka. They are noisy, they are blocky, they are monochromatic, but they show a sight that has been hidden from human eyes since the dawn of time. Featuring many more craters and mountains and many fewer “seas” than the side we’re used to, Luna 3’s pictures prompt a complete rethink of the moon’s history.

Its mission accomplished, the probe spirals in a decaying orbit until it finally burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight will capture the public imagination, and unmanned space missions will suddenly seem much less interesting.

But next time you effortlessly WhatsApp a photo to a friend, spare a thought for the remarkable engineering that one day sent never-before-seen photographs across the gulf of space without the aid of digital imaging.

One of the 500mm exposures
Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

24fps or 25fps, which is best?

The monitor overlays here show how “Annabel Lee” was shot at 24fps with a shutter angle of 172.8 to prevent flickering of non-incandescent light sources, a typical recipe for UK filmmakers today.

An article of mine from 2014 weighing the merits of shooting at 24 vs. 25 frames per second has recently been getting a lot of hits. I’m surprised that there’s still so much uncertainty around this issue, because for me it’s pretty clear-cut these days.

When I started out making films at the turn of the millennium, 25fps (or its interlaced variant, 50i) was the only option for video. The tapes ran at that speed and that was that. Cathode ray tube TVs were similarly inflexible, as was PAL DVD when it emerged.

Film could be shot at 24fps, and generally was for theatrical movies, since most cinema projectors only run at that speed, but film for television was shot at 25fps.

Three big technological shifts occurred in the late noughties: the delivery of video over the internet, flat-screen TVs and tapeless cameras. All of these support multiple frame rates, so gradually we found that we had a choice. At the start of a shoot, as a DP I would have to ask which frame rate to set.

The frame rate and resolution menu from my old Canon 600D, the first time I owned a camera that could shoot 24fps.

Americans and others in NTSC regions are in a different situation. Their TV standard of 30fps has a discernibly different look to the international movie standard of 24fps, so the choice of frame rate is as much creative as it is technical. I don’t think anyone can tell the difference between 24 and 25fps, even on a subconscious level, so in Europe it seems we must decide on a purely technical basis.

But in fact, the decision is as much about what people are used to as anything else. I shot a feature film pilot once on 35mm at 25fps and it really freaked out the lab simply because they weren’t used to it.

I shot the 35mm pilot for “The Dark Side of the Earth” (2008) at 25fps because tapes still played a part in postproduction at that time. Today I would not hesitate to shoot at 24.

And what people seem to be most used to and comfortable with in the UK today is 24fps. It offers the most compatibility with digital cinemas and Blu-ray without needing frame rate conversion. (Some cinemas can play 25fps DCPs, and Blu-rays support 25fps in a 50i wrapper which might not play in a lot of US machines, but 24 is always a safer bet for these formats.)

Historically, flickering of non-incandescent light sources and any TV screens in shot was a problem when shooting 24fps in the UK. These days it’s very easy to set your shutter to 172.8° (if your camera measures it as an angle) or 1/50th (if your camera measures it as an interval). This ensures that every frame – even though there are 24 of them per second – captures 1/50th of a second, in sync with the 50Hz mains supply.

 

The Times when 25fps is best

There are some situations in which 25fps is still the best or only option though, most notably when you’re shooting something intended primarily for broadcast on a traditional TV channel in the UK or Europe. The same goes if your primary distribution is on PAL DVD, which I know is still the case for certain types of corporate and educational videos.

Once I was puzzled by a director’s monitor not working on a short film shoot, and discovered that it didn’t support 24fps signals, so I had to choose 25 as my frame rate for that film. So it might be worth checking your monitors if you haven’t shot 24fps with them before.

“Finding Hope” was shot at 25fps simply because the director’s monitor wouldn’t accept 24fps signals.

Finally, if your film contains a lot of archive material or stock footage at 25fps, it makes sense to match that frame rate.

Whichever frame rate you ultimately choose, always discuss it with your postproduction team ahead of time to make sure that you’re all on the same page.

24fps or 25fps, which is best?

“Superman II” Retrospective

At Christmas 1978, when Superman: The Movie opened to enthusiastic reviews and record-breaking box office, it was no surprise that a sequel was in the works. What was unusual was that the majority of that sequel had already been filmed, and stranger still, much of it would be re-filmed before Superman II hit cinemas two years later.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic-book icon had made several superhuman leaps to the screen by the 1970s, but Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget feature film. Producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer father/son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind purchased the rights from DC Comics in 1974 and made a deal to finance not one but two Superman movies on the understanding that Warner Bros. would buy the finished products. Salkind senior had unintentionally pioneered back-to-back shooting the previous year when he decided to split The Three Musketeers – originally intended as a three-hour epic – into two shorter films.

After packaging Superman I and II with A-listers Marlon Brando (as Kryptonian patriarch Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (as the villainous Lex Luthor), the producers hired The Omen director Richard Donner to helm the massive production. Donner cast the unknown Christopher Reeve in the title role, while John Williams was signed to compose what would prove to be one of the most famous soundtracks in cinematic history. Like many big genre productions of the time – Star Wars and Alien to name but two – Superman set up camp in England, with cameras rolling for the first time on March 24th, 1977.

Tom Mankeiwicz (creative consultant), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Richard Donner (director), Pierre Spengler (producer). Brando is dressed in black to isolate his head for the Fortress of Solitude hologram effects.

“We were shooting scenes from the two films simultaneously, according to production conveniences,” explained creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz in a 2001 documentary. “So when we had Gene Hackman we were shooting scenes from II and scenes from I, or when we were in the Daily Planet we were shooting scenes from both pictures in the Daily Planet, while you were in that set.”

Today – largely thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – we are used to enormous, multi-year productions with crew numbers in four figures, but the scale of the dual Superman shoot was unprecedented at the time, eventually reaching nineteen months in duration. It was originally scheduled for eight.

“Dick [Donner] never in the course of the picture got a budget; he never got a schedule,” claimed Mankiewicz. “He was constantly told that he was over schedule, way over budget, but nobody told him what that budget was or how much he was over that budget.”

Given that overspends were funded by Warner Bros. in return for more distribution rights, Spengler and the Salkinds were watching the value of their huge investment trickle away. So despite Donner’s popularity with the rest of the cast and crew, his relationship with the producers became ever more strained, to the point where they weren’t even on speaking terms.

Richard Lester directed iconic Swinging Sixties films like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Knack… and How to Get It”.

Ilya Salkind suggested bringing in The Three Musketeers director Richard Lester, who agreed on condition that he would be paid monies still owed to him from that earlier film. By some accounts his role on Superman was that of a mediator between the director and the producers, by others he was a co-producer, second unit director or even a back-up director in case Donner cracked under the pressure of the endless shoot. “Where does this leave… Donner?” asked a newspaper report of the time. “‘Nervous,’ a cast member says.”

Eventually, with the first movie’s release date looming, the filmmakers decided on a change of plan. Superman II would be placed on the back burner in order to prioritise finishing Superman: The Movie – and get it earning money as quickly as possible. At this point, three quarters of the sequel was already in the can, including all scenes featuring Brando and Hackman, both of whom had had contractual wrap dates to meet.

Superman: The Movie was a hit, but Donner would not direct the remainder of its sequel. “They have to want me to do it,” he said of the producers at the time. “It has to be on my terms and I don’t mean financially, I mean control.” Of Spengler specifically, Donner was reported to bluntly state, “If he’s on it – I’m not.”

And indeed Donner was not. The Salkinds had no intention of acceding to his demands. Instead, the former mediator Richard Lester was hired to complete Superman II, and Donner received a telegram telling him that his services were no longer required. “I was ready to get on an airplane and kill,” he recalled years later, “because they were taking my baby away from me.”

Master of miniatures Derek Meddings wets down the New York street. Many miniature effects were reshot simply so Lester could claim directorship of them.

Meanwhile Brando was trying (unsuccessfully) to sue the producers over royalties, and demanded a significant cut of the box office gross from the sequel. Rather than pay this, the producers elected to re-film his scenes, replacing Jor-El with Superman’s mother Lara, as played by Susannah York.

It was far from the only reshooting of Superman II footage that took place. Ironically, given the earlier budget concerns, Lester was permitted to redo large chunks of Donner’s material with a rewritten script in order to earn a credit as director under guild rules. Major changes included a new opening sequence on the Eiffel Tower, Lois Lane’s realisation of Clark Kent’s true identity after he trips and falls into a fireplace, and a different ending in which a magic kiss from Clark erases that realisation from her memory.

Some of the reshoots included Lex Luthor material, but Hackman declined to return out of loyalty to Donner; the result is the fairly obvious use of a double in the climactic Fortress of Solitude scene. The deaths of Geoffrey Unsworth and John Barry, plus creative differences between Lester and John Williams, meant that the sequel team also featured a new DP (Robert Paynter), production designer (Peter Murton) and composer (Ken Thorne) respectively, although significant contributions from all of the original HODs remain in the finished film.

Comparing his own directing style with Donner’s, Lester told interviewers, “I think that Donner was emphasising a kind of grandiose myth… There was a type of epic quality which isn’t in my nature… I’m more quirky and I play around with slightly more unexpected silliness.” Indeed his material is characterised by visual gags and a generally less serious approach, which he would continue into Superman III (1983).

Although some of the unused Donner scenes were incorporated into TV screenings over the years, it was not until the 2001 DVD restoration of the first movie that interest began to build in a release for the full, unseen version of the sequel. When Brando’s footage was rediscovered a few years later, it could finally become a reality.

Footage from Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen test was incorporated into the Donner Cut to show Lois Lane discovering Clark Kent’s true identity. Although causing some minor continuity errors, the scene is far more intelligent than Lester’s rug-tripping revelation.

“I don’t think there is [another] film that had so much footage shot and not used,” remarked editor Michael Thau. A vast cataloguing and restoration effort was undertaken to make useable the footage which had been sitting in Technicolor’s London vault for a quarter of a century. Donner and Mankiewicz returned to oversee and approve the process, which used only the minimum of Lester material necessary to tell a complete story, plus footage from Reeve’s and Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen tests.

Released on DVD in 2006, the Donner Cut suffers from the odd cheap visual effect used to plug plot holes, and a familiar turning-back-time ending which was originally scripted for the sequel but moved to the first film at the last minute. However, for fans of Superman: The Movie, this version of Superman II is much closer in tone and ties in much better in story terms too. The Donner Cut is also less silly than the theatrical version, though it must be said that Lester’s humour contributed in no small part to the sequel’s original success.

Whichever version you prefer, 40 years on from its first release, Superman II is still a fun and thrilling adventure with impressive visuals and an utterly believable central performance from the late, great Christopher Reeve.

“Superman II” Retrospective