The IMAX Innovator: A chat with James Neihouse, ASC

The sky isn’t the limit for James Neihouse, ASC. In fact, Neihouse views challenging environments as opportunities to make great films—he’s shot both underwater and in space. Yes, space. Neihouse’s specialty? IMAX, the larger-than-life movie format that offers hyperreal experiences for viewers.

Neihouse got his start in IMAX in 1976. After graduating from photography school, he joined the production company Marine Photographic Associates, who partnered with IMAX on the first underwater film, as well as projects for the Smithsonian and beyond. Neihouse trained IMAX founder Graeme Ferguson to SCUBA dive for a shoot, and the experience catapulted Neihouse into the IMAX world. But perhaps his greatest achievement was teaching astronauts to use IMAX cameras in space in 1988, empowering space station residents to capture amazing—and unprecedented—footage of the solar system. As the DP of the first IMAX project to be nominated for an Academy Award for The Eruption of Mount St. Helens!, Neihouse was also inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers in 2015.

Neihouse continues to dream big when it comes to future projects, most recently working as the DP for the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet, which premiered in April 2016. The film, made in collaboration with NASA, features footage of earth from space captured by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Neihouse stopped by our NAB booth to share some of his spectacular footage from space and around the world.

We chatted with James Neihouse, ASC about his views on IMAX and what’s next for this dynamic filmmaker. 

Story & Heart: What got you interested in filmmaking in the first place?

James: I have always had an interest in photography. As a kid growing up in Arkansas I was always taking pictures, I don't really remember when I didn't have a camera. While in school at the Brooks Institute of Photography, I saw my first IMAX Dome film at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in San Diego, and I was hooked. That's when I started moving more into motion picture. I couldn't find enough to read about the subject, unlike today where you can get almost any information you want right on your mobile device.

Story & Heart: How did you get into underwater filming?

James: I took classes at Brooks in underwater photography. When I graduated I was hired by a production company in Santa Barbara, CA that specializes in underwater work. About 2 months later, Graeme Ferguson, one of the founders of IMAX came to us to shoot underwater with their camera, something that hadn't been done before. I got to work on the first underwater IMAX film. I was a dive instructor, and Graeme wanted to dive to see what was being shot, so I gave him a quick "how to not kill yourself course" in scuba. Then he asked me to come along on the shoots as a grip and safety diver when he was in the water.

Story & Heart: How did that help prepare you for filming in space?

James: Shooting underwater is actually what got me into shooting in space. Graeme Ferguson was the founder of the IMAX space unit and it was he who brought me on to the space films.  Other than that, just having a basic understanding of how to work underwater, which is sort of a weightless environment, helped me better understand some of the challenges presented to the astronauts in zero g. Plus, both space and underwater are airless environments.

Story & Heart: What are the main challenges of filming in both water and space? How did you overcome them?

James: Both environments are very unforgiving of mistakes, so you try to minimize problems before you go. In both cases you want to make sure that your equipment is up for the task at hand. That means testing, testing, testing. That's really important for underwater, and mandatory for space. You just don't take a camera out of the box and launch it to the ISS. Flight certification can take as long as a year to complete. Our Canon cameras were put through the ringer by the engineers at NASA before flight. We even bombarded them with radiation to see if that would have an adverse effect on them. You have to depend on your equipment functioning properly in both environments.

...You want to make sure that your equipment is up for the task at hand. That means testing, testing, testing. That’s really important for underwater, and mandatory for space.
— James Neihouse, ASC, on filming underwater and in space

Story & Heart: You train astronauts to film in space, but you don’t go with them. What is it like to direct from afar? How does your relationship with the astronauts shape your final films?

James: I always say that I'm the only Director of Photography in the world that has to train his first unit how to shoot. While I'd much rather be up there shooting myself—I've always dreamed of flying in space—the astronaut crews I've trained have all done an outstanding job for us.  Having your crew sometimes literally a world away can be a challenge, but it's not really that unusual since film crews send second units out all the time.

It's just a bit more difficult to communicate with astronauts in orbit. With ground crews, you can usually just call them up, even if it means using a satellite phone. With astronauts, it's not that simple. We have to go through official channels at NASA to communicate with them and sometimes that is like playing a game of “Telephone.”  The astronauts did put us on their approved email lists, so we could email with them, but that is intended for non-operational communications. They also have the capability to call you from the ISS, but you can't call them. It's really cool to get "Space Station" showing up on your caller ID!

Over the course of training we usually establish a pretty trusting relationship with the crews. We've been making these films since 1984. We have a long history with the astronaut office of being very professional and respectful of the crews. We don't push the limits with them, and in return I think they appreciate that and go the extra mile for us. All of A Beautiful Planet was shot pretty much on their own time, so on "days off" and after hours they would be in the cupola (the observatory module on the ISS) shooting or setting up an interior shot with the other crew members. Sometimes they would do something several times to get the shot just the way they wanted it, and that dedication really shows on the screen.

Having your crew sometimes literally a world away can be a challenge, but it’s not really that unusual since film crews send second units out all the time.
— James Neihouse, ASC, on directing astronauts

Story & Heart: How do you think IMAX changed cinema?

James: When I first saw an IMAX film it was 1973. It was a dome projection system. I looked at that and I’m going, wow, this is really something special. At that time, we didn’t have big-screen televisions, and we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have a lot of things. We barely had running water in 1973! Just kidding. Touch-tone phones, that was the new thing. I felt that [IMAX] was something really special. As the years went on, I think that I knew that this was going to be a different type of cinema. As televisions grow larger and cinema screens grow smaller, there’s got to be something special to attract the viewing public out to a venue. I think IMAX is part of that, and that’s played out over the last 40 years. With home theaters and surround sound and all the other things that you can have at home, it takes something special like IMAX to bring the public out. It’s very experiential. VR is the big thing now, but IMAX was kind of VR since the beginning since it is the world’s best simulator in which you wear the camera lens.

There’s always a way to figure something out, and always a way around a problem. You’re only defeated when you give up.
— James Neihouse, ASC, on problem solving

Story & Heart: What types of stories continue to challenge you, and what techniques do you use to keep growing and learning as a filmmaker?

James: I steal as much as I can. I steal from only the best—no naming names. It’s tough, because I’m an old film guy. This whole digital thing has been sort of a revolution rather than an evolution and I’m trying my best to evolve and not revolve. I try to keep up with what’s digital. VR is something I’m still getting into. It sounds very interesting but it comes down to being unafraid to try.

Story & Heart: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re looking forward to diving into?

James: There are several. I’ve always wanted to make a film about the Chinese space program. I think it would be very interesting because the first rockets really came from China. To see it come full circle, because now they have a space station...I think that would be really great. Currently, I’m signed up to do a film about Lake Baikal, which contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and an entire species of freshwater seal, which is really unusual. It’s in Siberia. I’d love to do a film in Patagonia, because it’s beautiful. It lends itself to the IMAX format. So many people make IMAX films that should not be on the IMAX screen. It’s the places that wow you—Patagonia, the Himalayas, underwater…it’s those things that are the good IMAX subjects.

Story & Heart: What drives you to capture space and nature?

James: Well, space is fun. It’s easy for me because I don’t fly in space. So I don’t have to worry about dying when I go to shoot, you know. But it’s very interesting. I’ve always loved the space program and people are interested in the space program. Again, it goes back to being able to take the viewer someplace that they’re not able to go. The other thing is, when astronauts come back to watch the films, it takes them back to space. To be able to actually give back to your crew members that sort of gift is a really fun thing to do. That keeps me going back to space films. Just making films interests me.

Story & Heart: What advice do you have for filmmakers looking to push boundaries and make films in non-conventional or challenging settings?

James: First off, I'd say never take no, or “it can't be done,” for an answer. There's always a way to figure something out, and always a way around a problem. You're only defeated when you give up. It may not be easy to get the images you want, but unless you try you will never get them. It took me nearly 25 years to get an IMAX camera on a specific location I had in mind on the shuttle launch tower, but finally on our last launch shoot, they let me put it up and the shot was really cool. Persistence pays off in the long run.

Visit James’s site to learn more about him and his work, and get yourself to an IMAX theater to watch A Beautiful Planet, which premiered on April 29, 2016.