The Search for Life in Space – Interview with Stephen Amezdroz

With the release of IMAX documentary The Search for Life in Space, I was afforded the opportunity to have a chat with the film’s producer-director Stephen Amezdroz, Head of the Giant Screen division at the Melbourne-based December Media.

Amezdroz began his career in the film industry in art direction, having worked on the original Mad Max (1979) and its sequel Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior (1981), before moving into producing by 1985 with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

He then focused largely on television documentaries with the likes of The Great Wall of Iron (1989) centered on the People’s Liberation Army of China and Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery (2007) about the famous explorer’s life. Amezdroz would eventually produce Australia’s first IMAX 3D film Hidden Universe 3D in 2013, which took audiences on a stunning scientific journey to the furthest reaches of the currently visible universe.

We talked about the appeal of IMAX and the whole process of putting such a massive documentary together …

Firstly, could you tell me a bit about your progression into filmmaking? Because it looks as though you’ve come from art direction and then moved into producing documentaries?

Yeah, you’ve obviously done your research, thank you very much!

I think the best way to describe it is that what I’m doing now is an extension of art direction and IMAX is all about the image and the visual experience. It’s not driven by narrative, it’s, as I said, about the visuals. And the whole idea is to be able to obviously take an audience to places where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. So, what we want to present to the audience is the richest visuals possible. So for me, it’s just a natural extension.

I see, and was that how you came to originally produce Hidden Universe? Because that was an Australian first.

That’s right, yes. I proudly say it was an Australian first — the first 3D IMAX film and I think that rekindled the fire for me or sort of re-awoke the whole thing for me.

I had been doing television for a number of years and I had seen [TV] move from something that was visual to something that was largely journalistic, and I wanted to get back to the visuals and that’s what IMAX particularly offered me.

… just don’t get lost in there!

And how did that go about? Did they [IMAX] approach you or did you sort of go to them with your idea? How did that start?

It was Russell Scott at Swinburne [University of Technology] who first approached us with the idea of doing a 3D film and he didn’t know that he wanted to do an IMAX film — none of us knew about that. We sat down and discussed it and we looked at what they had available to them.

They had a massive supercomputer and they were able to do rendering on a scale we’d never seen before. They’d previously been doing a small amount of ‘astro-rendering’ or 3D work and we felt we could probably push that onto the largest screen around, being IMAX.

So we headed off to the States and we spoke to our distributors, MacGillivray Freeman Films, and they basically stood beside us, held our hand and took us down the path of IMAX film production.

That’s wonderful. I remember seeing Hidden Universe in Sydney, so you know at the time, that was the largest IMAX screen and it really blew me away. I got to see The Search for Life in Space yesterday and really enjoyed seeing those images — it’s just amazing going to those far reaches. How do you actually decide what images to put up there? Because, I’d imagine, there’s so much to sift through?

It’s interesting you say that. When we were first there and we did Hidden Universe, everything’s there before you, so you go in and sort of ‘raid the pantry’ — you take the best and you go up there and you work with that. Then you come back the second time and you go ‘Oops! We’ve used all the ingredients!’ So, we had to scratch around there for a little bit, and what we did was we upped the ante, too.

With The Search for Life in Space, all our 3D CGI was in 8K, whereas in Hidden Universe it was in 5.6K, so that meant the images or data we start with has to be of a high enough resolution for us to be able to take it up to the level of 8K, because the one thing we don’t do is we don’t reinterpret — we actually don’t, for want of a better expression, use an artist’s impression of things. These are all based on actual data, that’s what we were looking for — data that would stand up to the 8K test.

Who’s next for the hot springs?

Well, stemming from that actually, what was the post-production like? Did you try to utilize the new laser system at the Melbourne IMAX — like high dynamic range and things like that?

That was tracking in parallel to what we were doing when we were shooting and IMAX is really good at keeping things under wraps — they don’t release it until it’s ready to go out there for the public. And the contrast range that came through with that laser system was absolutely amazing. I think it was convergence at the end.

We learnt a lot out of that experience, we’re really happy with that system and the way things have shaped up at the end. I think we’ll even step out a little further next time having slightly more knowledge about that system.

Just another question about collaborating with IMAX — did they give you certain things to go towards? Because one thing I’ve noticed a lot with the documentaries, they have that 45-minute kind of format, so did they push you to go for that length or were they allowing you to go a bit longer if you wanted to? What sort of relationship did you have there?

As you’re absolutely aware, because it’s the largest format and now Melbourne takes the mantle from Sydney — Melbourne’s the largest screen in the world — it’s such an assault on your visual senses that to go anymore than 45 minutes really is a draining piece.

One of the skills of actually producing an IMAX piece is not to tire the audience by having them move their head left and right, up and down for that whole 45-minutes — we try and make it as passive as possible, because just the 3D experience itself is a helluva lot to take onboard. The person who understood that most was James Cameron when he did Avatar (2009) — it was the blend of 2D and 3D together. He’d take you along on that experience of 3D, then he’d drop you back into 2D so you could actually breathe again. You could take time out and that’s what happened.

When you’re dealing with a 4:3 image that’s going from the tip of your toes to way above your head on a 7-storey screen that’s 3D, you’re really asking a lot of the audience. That’s where the 45 minutes comes into it.

Well actually, stemming again from the technical side, what did you shoot on? Was it a mixture of film and digital formats?

Yes it was. Yeah.

Reach for the stars!

And so you got to utilize the 70mm IMAX format and in terms of the digital side, what did you use there?

We were using Dragons at that stage, RED Dragons.

Now with this second film, it’s just getting better and better — you were saying there you’re becoming more familiar with where you can push things and such. Do you feel that maybe we’re gonna see more Australian large format films in the future?

You’ll see more from us! We’re finishing up shooting on our third IMAX film, which is called Earth Story, which is the story about the creation of Earth, and at the end of this week we start our fourth IMAX film, which is on the Great Barrier Reef.

That’s wonderful, keep ‘em coming! Going back to The Search for Life in Space, what’s your biggest hope for viewers to take away from the film — a thought or is there something particular that you’re really excited to share with your audience?

I think a lot of audiences believe that the whole idea of aliens is just mythology, so what we do is we scrutinize the science and look at the assumptions we make or the tests we apply when we’re searching for life in space. Once you see and understand what those tests are, you then start to stand a little bit more on the side of science and say, ‘Well, this whole thing doesn’t feel like a myth, there’s a lot of truth to it.’ And I think that’s the big takeaway, we don’t push anybody to be a believer or non-believer; we just examine what that process is. We hope that people walk away and are able to form their own opinion.

Obviously, the younger generation has a better understanding than people my age and that’s what we hope to do — share that knowledge with people. Space is not a scary place; it’s an amazing place.

The other thing we want to do as well is that when we talk about the universe, we talk about a galaxy, we see Earth as being something outside of that, without actually seeing ourselves as being inclusive. And I think that’s the other important thing with this project, we use Earth as an analogue because it’s the only place in the universe we know there is life, but it is part of the universe, it’s all inclusive and I’d really love people to think about ourselves a little bit more like that rather than something outside of it.

‘What?! No WiFi?!’

Well, that was certainly one of the most powerful things for me when I saw The Search for Life in Space — that section where it basically explains how we’re all part of the universe and essentially made of the same sort of material and it was really inspiring in that. Again, with this documentary, the thing that I really responded to was how you use what we understand on Earth to explain the connection to the universe, so I think that definitely comes through.

Fantastic! That’s great! Thank you very much for that.

Well, thank you so much for your time. This is a great doco and I’m so glad that you’re already making so much more, because I’ve certainly loved what you’ve been producing.

Well thank you very much and we hope to talk to you about our next two films and anything we do in the future.

Thank you, I’d love that.

That’d be great.

Recorded on March 17th, 2017, by Steve Ramsie

The Search for Life in Space is currently playing at IMAX Melbourne, Australia