Month: December, 2013

Picture wrap: “Crossing the Space Frontier”

Ad Astra's VASIMR plasma engine being tested in a vacuum chamber. It's amazing to think that this technology is real.

Ad Astra’s VASIMR plasma engine being tested in a vacuum chamber. It’s amazing to think that this technology is real.

Mark_2 (sm)

From our interview with Mark Carter, one of Ad Astra’s plasma physicists. Charlene and I wanted bright spots near the heads of our subjects to symbolize ideas. We achieved this through a combination of careful background choices, lighting, and set design. Shot on location at Ad Astra’s lab facility in Houston, Texas.


Eileen Collins, the first female Space Shuttle commander. We shot this in a hotel suite in San Antonio, embracing the window and adding our own shaft of sunlight. Loved hearing Eileen talk about being photographed by Annie Leibovitz in 1999. An inspiring moment for me: one of the greatest astronauts telling me about her experience working with one of the greatest photographers shooting one of my most favorite portraits. Not a bad day.

Just wrapped principal photography on a documentary about a new engine technology being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket Company. It was such a rewarding shoot: a subject I find fascinating (space exploration), interviews with astronauts and plasma physicists, and a great creative relationship with the director, Charlene Music. Looking forward to seeing the final piece!

The view from Anchorage St (for the holidays): crisp surf and familiar faces.

Onward into 2014!

On location at the Ad Astra Rocket Company

Franklin Matt + Franklin 2 (small)

I’m just back from the first of several shoots with producer/director Charlene Music for a documentary about the Ad Astra Rocket Company. Ad Astra is developing plasma engine technology that will revolutionize space travel by providing an alternative to traditional solid fuel propulsion. Everything we send into orbit today requires rocket fuel that is heavy and expensive, and its extreme inefficiency is limiting mankind’s ability to travel beyond Earth. Plasma-based propulsion offers a solution. By superheating gas to very high temperatures (approximately one million degrees) these engines use magnetic fields to propel this plasma to create thrust.

One of our principle goals as filmmakers on this shoot has been to capture how exciting Ad Astra’s work really is. Many of the physicists and designers who are developing this engine speak about the value of the technology in terms of where mankind will be hundreds of years from now. It’s difficult not to be inspired by that kind of rhetoric, especially when this propulsion system is so close to being flight tested. As fantastical as it sounds, this technology is real: Ad Astra has built a plasma rocket engine that it has test fired in vacuum over 10,000 times.

From a strictly photographic standpoint the biggest challenge was transforming a grey industrial space (Ad Astra’s laboratory) into an environment that conveys vision and excitement on screen. Charlene and I invested heavily in the interview set-ups, often introducing a deep cyan tone to symbolize the plasma technology itself. We also chose to shoot the interviews using a direct address style where the subjects speak directly into the lens, which I think succeeded in drawing out the big-picture descriptions of what they are doing, descriptions that can often get lost beneath so many technical details. It was a very inspiring week.

Many thanks to Wilhelm Steinvorth for helping push this documentary into existence and to Craig Benjamin, whose great photographic eye and on-set support made him a welcomed member of our crew. And the shoot continues! Next week: Huntsville, San Antonio, and Costa Rica.

The view from Pasadena: boxes and boxes, with another move on the horizon.