For millennia, humans have been fascinated by the mysteries of the sky — and nothing has captivated their imagination like the spectacular light phenomenon known as the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis. Still, capturing the phenomenon on video from Earth proved tricky, and shooting from high in the sky almost impossible.
When Denver-based adventure filmmakers Nate Luebbe, Autumn Schrock and Austin Smith of Lost Horizon Creative decided to film the Aurora Borealis from space, they knew it wouldn't be easy...or cheap. They spent a year planning a trip to Alaska, where they would fly an expensive, full-frame camera in a styrofoam container attached to a weather balloon 120,000 feet in the sky.
Between unpredictable weather, mathematical foibles and physics follies, the odds of success were stacked against them. But they persevered, and managed to shoot stunning footage of the Aurora Borealis.
They chronicled the entire process of conceiving and launching the balloon — failures and all — and just released an inspiring short documentary, Light Side Up (see it below). Westword spoke with Smith recently to learn more.
Westword: Tell me about the film.
Austin Smith: Light Side Up is the culmination of a year-long endeavor to shoot the Aurora Borealis in a way that had never been done before: with a cinema-quality camera lifted to the edge of space by a high-altitude weather balloon. We had a team of three — Nate Luebbe, Autumn Schrock and myself — that spent a year in research, planning and shooting to make it happen.
Almost nothing about making this wild idea happen was easy. We're all adventure photographers with a huge passion for the outdoors, and this kind of challenge is the sort of thing we really sink our teeth into. Together, we were able to succeed in sending our camera balloon up to well over 120,000 feet, and film some of the most pristine Aurora footage ever captured.
How did you come up with this idea, and what was your interest in the Aurora Borealis?
The Aurora Borealis is one of those natural events that is absolutely mystifying to see. If you spend enough time outdoors, you really come to admire how wild, beautiful and crazy nature can be just on its own. It can do things that look just like the most cutting-edge CGI in a Marvel movie, and the Aurora Borealis is one of those things. I spend a lot of time outdoors. I probably camp about 75 days a year, and I have seen nature do so many incredible things along the way, but the Aurora borealis is still the thing that can take your breath away.
The film is the brainchild of Nate Luebbe. who brought the idea to Autumn Schrock and myself in August of 2019. He said, "Okay, I want to shoot the Aurora in a way that's never been done before: from the edge of space. How do we do that?" We spent the next year answering just that question and bringing that vision to life.
What obstacles did you encounter making the film?
Almost everything was an obstacle. It's easy to send a GoPro to this altitude, but something that small won't film anything near the quality we wanted. Instead, the challenge was to get a full-frame camera lifted by the balloon. So we had to find a camera that was light enough to attach to a balloon but that was also able to shoot at 24 frames per second in extreme low-light conditions and still pick up a high-quality image. Sony was gracious enough to lend us a few pre-production A7Siii cameras — probably the first camera ever produced that fit that bill of being both light enough and sensitive enough.
We also traveled to Alaska to capture the shot and had a very narrow window between the start of Aurora season and the time of the year when the polar vortex becomes so strong that it would quickly carry our balloon over Alaska and into Canada. In fact, this almost happened with our first launch.
The other obstacle was the extreme cold. It's very, very cold at 120,000 feet. This is over four times the cruising altitude of a 747, and ambient temperatures in the polar night at that altitude can reach -100 Fahrenheit. So we had to find a way to keep our camera and GPS warm. Eventually, we found that simply filling our payload with hand warmers was effective!
Finally, when the balloon reaches its maximum height, it bursts and falls under a parachute back to Earth. Only, it's the Alaskan wilderness. We had to chase our GPS signal down with a helicopter deep into the Alaskan grizzly country. It was a truly wild ride.
How has the Aurora Borealis been filmed before, and what are you doing differently?
There's lots of simple Aurora photography out there. It's an incredibly beautiful thing to see and, for a photographer, the chance to photograph it even once can be a lifetime experience. What there is very little of, however, is real-time cinema-quality film of it. It's possible to film it, but this is always done from the ground with a very large and heavy camera system. So our challenge was to film it, but from a vantage point that's never been done before: the edge of space. This adds all kinds of obstacles — mainly the weight restrictions, because a weather balloon can only lift so much.
Tell me about your production company.
We're a group of four adventure photographers — myself, Autumn Schrock, Nate Luebbe and Mio Monasch — that all have the most ridiculous passion for the outdoors. Almost all of our work is with brands that have some adventure, outdoors or environmental element to them, and we have the outdoors expertise to go into extreme environments to get the perfect shot for them. I've climbed all of Colorado's 14ers, and both Nate and I have stood on top of 5,000- and 6,000-meter peaks in South America. These kinds of experiences are what we get up in the morning for, whether someone's paying us to or not.
We're so excited to share this film, and we hope folks enjoy it. I believe strongly that folks should be in awe of the Earth and continuously fall in love with it. The more we fall in love with something, the more you want to protect that thing. We hope this will inspire that kind of awe and love.
Visit the Lost Horizon Creative website for more about the company.
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