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Behind the scenes: Live from Space

Blog
12 March 2014

Live events are now de rigeur for any self respecting TV channel. But Channel 4 takes the trend to a new level (literally) this week, with its Live From Space Season. Produced by Arrow Media, the co-pro with Nat Geo, will culminate with a live two hour broadcast from the International Space Station (ISS) – some 250 miles above Earth.

The season isn’t going to be full of the usual, run of the mill space stories about big rockets or daring landings. The live event will provide viewers with a birds eye view of Earth, which the ISIS orbits every 90 minutes – travelling at 17,500mph. The two supporting films, meanwhile, are classic ob docs that look set to do for astronauts what a series like Coppers did for the police. The docs, for example, are billed as portraits of the day-to-day lives of astronauts and of their back up teams in Houston. 

So we learn how the astronauts sleep, wash and eat in space; how they maintain the ISS; and look at the work and experiments they do while living on the ISS. The difference, of course, is that the cameramen for the live show and the documentaries are the astronauts themselves. Using three Canon XF 305’s, they’ve shot over 20 hours of footage which is being edited together for the pre-recorded films. The cameras will also be used for the live broadcast.

“NASA has never done anything like this before,” says exec producer Sally Dixon, citing “incredible access to the ISS”.

NASA has granted access because it wants to drive awareness of its ongoing work on the ISS, which gets little media attention as it lacks the high octane excitement of space shuttle take offs or the moon landings. As well as airing on C4, Nat Geo is broadcasting the season across its network in 170 countries

Arrow, meanwhile, aims to make a season that’s produced with contemporary TV viewers in mind, and is less corporate than official NASA output. The live show, for example, is presented by The X Factor-host Dermot O’Leary.

For the supporting documentaries, Arrow has encouraged the astronauts to shoot footage like ob doc filmmakers. Instead of speaking direct to camera, in their usual public affairs-like, presenter mode, they’ve been encouraged to let the camera roll. They are filmed as they go about their daily business - while floating in a micro-gravity environment.

And the reality of their lives on board is fascinating: astronauts for example, can’t shower in space so have to wipe themselves clean; when they cut their hair or trim their nails, they have to use scissors attached to a suction hose so the particles don’t float around and get in their eyes; and they have to exercise two hours a day to keep their muscles from wasting away.

Unable to brief the astronauts in person, the Arrow production team has talked to them on the Space Station over the phone – patched into  conference calls to the ISS from their office. Emails are also sent to the astronauts via NASA.  “It’s been incredibly exciting to get phone calls from the the ISS,” says Dixon. “You can’t quite believe that you are speaking to astronauts on the Space Station.”

Astronauts: Living in Space director Janice Sutherland, meanwhile, has also been granted access to the astronauts’ wives, who also help her communicate with the astronauts.

For Sutherland, one of the biggest revelations has been how the astronauts interact with their wives. Communications between the ISS and Earth are good, so they Skype once a week and call every day – usually to talk about everyday matters such as running the house or bringing up their kids.

The production of the live show, meanwhile, will be hugely complex. At any one time, three live video feeds from the ISS will be open for the production team to use. On-board the ISS, there will be live links to astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata. Presenter Dermot O’Leary, meanwhile, will broadcast from mission control itself, with space veteran Mike Massimino. Also taking part are Professor Stephen Hawking and British astronaut Tim Peake.

The show will take in a lap of the planet, which the ISS orbits every 90 minutes. The astronauts will film from the cupola viewing station of the ISS, providing viewers with a guided tour around the Earth, zooming into various landmarks as they spin round the globe.

Half of the show will make use of pre-recorded segments, as it will be night time for part of the planet. The pre-recorded segments will also be used in case cloud cover obscures the view, and also as a back up if the astronauts have to deal with an incident on the ISS.  It’s live television, after all, so the Arrow team need a back up plan just in case things do go wrong. “We’ve got to be prepared,” says Dixon.      

Details
The Live From Space Season is headlined by a two hour live broadcast from the International Space Station (ISS), Lap of the Planet. Two other films will transmit in the season – Astronauts: Living in Space and Astronauts: Houston We Have a Problem.

Executive Producers, Arrow Media

Tom Brisley, Al Berman & Sally Dixon
Director/Producer
Pete Woods
Assistant Producer
Sarah Barker
Live Producer
Sarah Sarkhel
Technical producer
Gayle DePoli
Line Producer
Sean Murphy
Assistant Producers
Sarah Barker, Kate Baller
Researchers
Sacha Thorpe & Dan Wan
Edit Producer
Lucie Ridout
Dir/Prod, Astronauts: Living in Space
Janice Sutherland
Dir/Prod, Astronauts: Houston We Have a Problem
Sid Bennett
Director, Astronauts: Houston We Have a Problem
Pete Woods
Executive producer, C4

David Glover
Executive Producer, National Geographic
Madeleine Carter
   

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