Look no further than Hanksville, Utah, or Albuquerque, New Mexico, should you ever wish to travel to Mars. That’s where cinematographer Barry Peterson found the red rock terrain most resembled the infamous red planet. He needed to replicate this barren and volcanic look for his most recent feature film, Peter Chelsom’s The Space Between Us, which takes place both on Earth and on Mars.
Peterson began his career as a visual effects (VFX) director of photography. Born out of a love for science fiction and 1977’s Star Wars, Peterson honed his craft with a Super8 camera as so many children of the era did. Eventually, the passion led to a career as a VFX camera man. The evolution of the industry pushed him toward commercials and independent films where he honed his craft as a cinematographer.
Ironically, sci-fi wasn’t the genre to grant him his first big break. That came via Ben Stiller and 2001’s Zoolander. “When your first studio movie is Zoolander,” Peterson laughed, “that leads to a lot of comedies.” He learned early in his working relationship with Stiller to effectively light actors’ eyes in a comedy.
“He told me that, if you don’t see somebody’s face, it’s not funny,” Peterson said. “And he was absolutely right.”
Sure enough, Peterson’s lensing talent for comics brought experiences with Starsky & Hutch, 21 Jump Street, We’re the Millers, 22 Jump Street, Vacation, and Sisters. His latest film, The Space Between Us, brought several unique challenges that helped further grow his talents beyond comedy. The film stars Asa Butterfield (Hugo) as Gardner Elliot, a boy born on Mars who wants to travel to Earth. Lensing duties on the film required Peterson to capture unique takes on Mars, to re-imagine Earth through the eyes of a human alien, and to visualize the space between the two planets during travel.
Mars obviously comes from a little of the NASA footage that’s available and the JPL footage you can see, but primarily it was an evolution that Peter (Chelsom) and I developed together trying to design something interesting. We had our own perception of what it could be and our perception of what other movies have done over the years. There’s true science. We know that the skies are typically orange. The sun’s rays don’t travel the way they do on Earth. The colors of the rock are volcanic. A lot of that is known science, but beyond that is cinematic interpretation.
It was fantastic. We’d never worked together on a film before, but we’d done a commercial together about five or six years ago. He told me he wanted to do a movie with me eventually. Five years passed, and he finally called me. I read [The Space Between Us] script and thought it was fantastic. As a DP, the challenges and excitement of trying to film three different worlds was incredibly exciting to me. I jumped at it.
Peter’s a very visual guy. He’s someone who understands quickly what an image can portray. He understands you don’t have to convey a story only through words. That you can do so much visually. We just got along incredibly well.
What’s funny is that The Martian released exactly when we were starting our pre-production. Peter and I went to a theater and sat down to watch it. We saw things we loved about it, and we saw things we didn’t like about it. It’s funny because the landscape wasn’t one of the things we talked too much about. We talked a little more about science and story. We appreciated [The Martian], but it wasn’t going to be a guide for us.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just escapism for everybody. We’re all getting bored of living on Earth, I guess. It’s somewhere else to go. It’s funny because I talked to a NASA scientist at one point, and he said one of the funniest things about us as Earthlings is our fascination with moving to distant planets. If they really wanted to have that experience, then they could go to Palmdale or Lancaster. It’s not that different, and you don’t have to wear a helmet. I think it’s just a fascination for humans. We’ve always been explorers, and we’ve always wanted to move on. If we didn’t have that spirit in us, then we wouldn’t have found America.
Earth to us felt like the most important in the film. We felt like you had to see Earth through new eyes as if you were seeing it for the first time. He’s seen it via the internet, via images shown on Mars, but this was the first time he’d ever seen it with his own eyes. This is something we as Earthlings don’t understand, but we actually get to feel the wind. We get to smell the scents. It’s just an overwhelming thing that we get used to everyday, but when you come from a place like Mars where you have a helmet on the whole time or in a hermetically sealed environment, you don’t have those experiences. When he came to Earth, we wanted it to be vivid. We wanted it to be wider in scope. We wanted it to be beautiful. Capture images that you’ve seen, I’ve seen, but capture them as beautifully as we possibly could. A bug. The Grand Canyon. Malibu. All things we’ve seen before, but we wanted to capture them beautifully.
Well, the thing about capturing zero gravity on film is that there’s hundreds of hours of footage available at NASA or JPL where you can see astronauts filmed in those conditions. You can see water droplets or their hair floating. You watch that footage, and you think, “Oh gosh, we’ve got to make it look like that.” We used that as true inspiration because people are seeing it more and more. Since we’re obviously shooting on Earth, we could do it one of two ways. Either get in the vomit comet, fly up in the air, and make people float in the air. In this movie, that wasn’t going to be financially feasible. Here, we did everything you see with cables with the actors suspended. The cables were then digitally removed.
My favorite sequence is the two kids falling in love around the fire at night. To me, it was a fresh palate. There was nothing around it at night. We started shooting right at magic hour and got beautiful silhouettes. For me, it was just a beautiful, innocent scene that was 100 percent lit. There was zero real about it.
The Space Between Us is now playing.