January 27, 2006

NASA’s Mars Rovers Star in New IMAX Film

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON -- Spirit and Opportunity, the spunky NASA rovers that have rolled around Mars for two years, are the unlikely stars of an IMAX movie, which opened on Friday, along with the astronomer who helped create them.

Millions of people have seen photos beamed down from Mars by the robotic rovers, on television or online, but the new film, "Roving Mars," puts together these images in a seamless moving picture and splashes it on a screen five stories high.

Steven Squyres, the rovers' principal scientific investigator and the movie's main narrator, said it gives an authentic feeling of actually being on the Red Planet.

"I've kind of had this picture of what Mars really looks like in my head for all this time, and for the first time on that IMAX screen, what I saw with my eyes matched my impressions of what it should really look like," Squyres said in a Reuters interview.

One reason it looks so real is that all the images in the film are based on pictures taken by the rovers' own cameras or from the scientific data they have collected.

"Every single scene you see is real data from the rover, it's just processed in different ways," Squyres said. "There is not a single fake shot of Mars."

A seemingly impossible shot -- the view of an airbag-covered rover landing on the planet -- was created by digital artist Dan Maas from data collected by the rovers as they bounced. Each bounce was just as it happened, just where it happened on the Martian surface.

Besides the rovers and Squyres, the other stars of the film are the thousands of people who worked on the project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere.


Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, came up with the plan for the rovers in 1987, but making it come to life took more than a decade, with tensions and technical challenges accumulating as the days and hours ticked down to a pair of launches in 2003.

This behind-the-scenes struggle, before and after the two spacecrafts bounced down onto opposite sides of Mars in 2004, is the central narrative of the film, which was written, produced and directed by George Butler.

Butler has made several documentaries but may be best known for the book and film "Pumping Iron," which introduced a bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger to mainstream audiences.

While Butler has made other IMAX movies, he is not an unquestioning fan of the format.

"I do not understand why so many bad IMAXes are made," Butler told Reuters. "Movies should tell a story, no matter what kind of movie it is. The big problem with IMAX films is they do not tell stories."

The idea to make a large-format film about Mars rovers came to Butler by what seems like sheer serendipity: an editor on his Antarctic film was Tim Squyres, the astronomer's brother, who mentioned that the rovers would have IMAX cameras aboard.

When Butler heard this, he said, "My mind sort of bumped, and I thought, that's a movie if ever there were one."

Paul Newman narrated the introduction -- "He sounds like the voice of God," Butler said -- and Philip Glass composed the otherworldly music.

The rovers were expected to work only three months, and their demise was originally supposed to be part of the film. But since they are still roaming and sending back data, the movie serves as a tribute to their endurance.

The Walt Disney Co.is the distributor, with major sponsorship by Lockheed-Martin.