Film recreates what Yuri Gagarin would have seen during his first space flight
18 April 2011
British writer, broadcaster and film maker, alumnus Christopher Riley talks to Reporter about his latest film First Orbit which follows the route that Yuri Gagarin took around Earth during his flight into space in 1961.
On 12 April you released your film First Orbit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space. Could you explain what happens in the film?
The idea for First Orbit was to film the view that Yuri Gagarin would have seen 50 years ago on his pioneering flight around the world. To do this we matched the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS) to the ground path, which is the projection of the spacecraft’s orbit onto the surface of the Earth, and time of day of Gagarin’s Vostok 1 flight. Then the original mission audio of his words describing what he could see was combined with the new pictures.
Technically, this must have been a difficult film to create. How did the actual filming logistics work and what were the most challenging aspects?
A big challenge was scheduling time on the space station for our director of photography, astronaut Paolo Nespoli, to film. He arrived on station at the end of November 2010 and we had only one opportunity over the Christmas period to film it in time for the 50th anniversary. So, throughout the holiday period, we were refining the filming times, which kept changing slightly every time a Shuttle or a Soyuz vehicle arrived at the ISS, and trying to integrate these opportunities into Paolo’s tight schedule. We got the film back in late January and then worked flat out to turn all the footage into a single coherent journey around the Earth, with Yuri’s voice and an original musical score from composer Philip Sheppard.
You released the film online for people to watch and download. Do you know how many people visited the first orbit website to watch the film?
On the day of the anniversary, our server really struggled to cope with the demand for downloads but, thankfully, we had partnered with Google and YouTube to create our planet-wide premiere, and I’m thrilled to say that over two million people shared the film around the world in this way on the first day, which is wonderful.
To coincide with the online launch of the film, it was also shown at over 500 venues around the world. Do you see space travel as a collaborative endeavour?
Any big space mission, like Yuri’s flight or Apollo 11, was always claimed by the whole world. We all felt like we’d done it together – as a species rather than an individual nation. These days, that is really true; the space station represents a collaboration of over 60 nations, which is the way space exploration should always be – an international endeavour.
To most people Yuri Gagarin is an intrepid astronaut who was brave enough make the first orbit around Earth. During the making of the film, did you get any insights into what he was like as a person?
Making this film gave me a new respect for Yuri. Looking at the views he’d seen and hearing his voice so intensely for the weeks we were editing, made me realise just how brave he was. The unknown is still the most unsettling thing for a human being and anyone who does something, particularly something as dangerous as space flight, for the first time, is confronting the potentially terrifying unknown. But somehow Yuri undertook his voyage into this unknown with such great courage and jubilation, which you can hear in his voice. This made me realise just what a special man he really was.
You studied for your PhD here at Imperial. What was your route into film-making and broadcasting and how has your scientific background influenced your creativity?
I studied for my PhD in remote sensing between 1990 and 1995. I was already interested in science journalism and documentary-making and, whilst I was at the College, I spent a lot of time working for IC Radio, the student newspaper, Felix, and STOIC, the student TV channel. After my PhD, I started freelancing for BBC Radio and eventually moved into TV working on the BBC 2 landmark series, The Planets, in the late 1990s, followed by Tomorrow’s World, Rough Science, Space Odyssey, Voyage to the Planets, and many other programmes. In 2005, I made Channel 4 feature documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, which won the world cinema audience award at the Sundance film festival in 2007. The success of that film opened lots of doors for me and ultimately led to the chance to make First Orbit.