Behind the NASA Documentary Above & Beyond with Award-Winning DP Tom Hurwitz

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

NASA’s awe-inspiring 60-year history and its current ambitions to understand the health of our planet are explored in the new feature documentary Above and Beyond, directed by Rory Kennedy, the Academy Award®-nominated and Emmy®-winning documentarian and youngest daughter of Robert Kennedy.

We recently spoke with DP Tom Hurwitz, ASC, about the documentary. He's won two Emmy Awards, the Sundance and Jerusalem Film Festival Awards for Best Cinematography. Hurwitz has photographed films that have won 4 academy awards and several more nominations (including Dancemaker and Killing in the Name most recently). 

PH: Describe Above and Beyond and how you became involved.  

Tom Hurwitz: Above and Beyond is a feature documentary, screened in theaters and broadcast on the Discovery Channel. It looks at NASA’s first 60 years of exploration, both in — all the way to edge of our Solar System and beyond — and of the earth: our climate, our geology our geography. It also forecasts what comes next for this amazing agency.

I had shot several films with Rory Kennedy, the director and niece of John F. Kennedy who, as president, focused NASA’s effort to reach the moon.

PH: What preparation and pre-production went into the project?

Tom Hurwitz: There is so much archival material in this project and it covers so much complex history, that obviously research was most extensive. NASA is a huge organization and a great deal of time was spent coordinating and filming with them. 

 

PH: How many hours were spent interviewing and shooting?

Tom Hurwitz: We spent about 300 hours of interviewing and filming. 

PH: Was there a lot of NASA research and visiting involved to be able to have it translate well in the film?

Tom Hurwitz: We worked very closely with NASA throughout the process on research and to identify the stories the film focused on. We also worked with NASA to access their vast library of archival materials and animations that were used in the film. And we did careful fact-checking with them as well.

PH: What techniques did you lean into and work with for the film?

Tom Hurwitz: We did a lot of filming in NASA facilities. The buildings were huge and lit by all sorts of sources, and with big spaces that were impossible to light. We relied on Canon color science to keep things looking rich and balanced.

Rory wanted the interviews to stay within NASA’s extraordinary world, filled with technical wonders and also history. So, although we were careful with our backgrounds not to be distracting, we also wanted them to feel as though they were in this NASA environment. This meant sometimes working in huge buildings, but also shooting in a few conference rooms that we had to dress with NASA props. Working at low F-stop with Canon Cine Primes made this possible.

PH: What features made the C300 Mark II, and EF and Cinema Prime Lenses a no-brainer to work with? (answered above) 

Tom Hurwitz: I love the C300 Mark II. It is ergonomically beautifully designed. The size of the camera makes easy to move quickly in the often difficult spaces that we worked in. The features of the camera, from multiple internal ND filters to brilliant color science make it my first choice for most documentaries.

Canon lenses are crisp but not clinically sharp, with great optical characteristics. I use them all like a buffet of choices, Cine Primes and Zooms and L series lenses. The 14mm L series, virtually distortion-free lens is a wonder. Shooting the interviews, the facial recognition auto-focus is a gift with a subject who tends to move a bit. When the location, on a catwalk or in a small space, forced us to be hand-held, the image stabilizer is a great tool as well.

PH: What are you hoping the audiences get out of the film?

Tom Hurwitz: I hope the film will help people see the amazing things that the government can do when it is pointed in the right directions. I hope that it will help people to think about the value and wonder of science, and what it can tell us about our universe and also the state of our world.

 

PH: What upcoming projects are you working on?

Tom Hurwitz: I am always working on several projects at the same time. Right now, along with Above and Beyond. I have three other films out, Cradle of Champions, Studio 54 and China Hustle, all have been well received, and all were shot with the C300 camera.

PH: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Tom Hurwitz: I think that does it!

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