John Schwartzman: Simulating a Rocket Launch

From American Cinematographer, When Worlds Collide by David E. Williams (July 1998)

The "firing room" a control center featuring a set of massive 25'-tall windows looking out onto launch pad 39B was one area at NASA where Schwartzman did do extensive lighting. The extra illumination was very necessary, given that he was replicating the awesome blast created by a shuttle liftoff.

"The firing room is the closest spot to the pad during a real launch. Of course, I couldn't get cameras in there when we shot our night launch. But they gave me clearance to work there even though [the Endeavor] was really on the pad and ready to go up a few days later. We could shoot in there from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. just two hours."

- John Schwartzman, ASC

Schwartzman began his lighting earlier that day by replacing NASA's warm-white fluorescents with Kino Flo 3200°K tubes. Outside, 10 Dinos were mounted on 86' Condors and positioned near the main window, along with ten 70,000-watt Lightning Strikes units.

"The firing room is located on the fourth floor of the building, so the top of this window is about 80 feet in the air. To create a moonlight effect, I also ripped in a couple of 18Ks to add some nice modeling on the interior walls. Then, as the guys went through the countdown and got to T minus four seconds, we throttled up eight Dinos on dimmers to simulate the shuttle's engines, which are very warm when compared to the solid rocket boosters. During an actual launch, the shuttle's engines burn for a few seconds, coming up to 100 percent of their capacity. But they're not enough to lift the shuttle; when the boosters kick in, the orbiter instantly shoots upwards for 88 seconds until they burn out. The boosters are so bright that at night they light up half the state of Florida. To create that effect, we instantly brought up the rest of our Dinos and set off all of the Lightning Strikes units. What was great was that we didn't use actors for that scene; the real NASA launch team came in on their own time to do it. They later told me that our launch lighting was very similar to the real thing, but maybe a bit brighter and more dramatic. That was neat."

- John Schwartzman, ASC

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