On Sunday 14th October 2012, 8 million people were glued to YouTube to watch the site’s biggest livestream to date: Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking skydive, in which the Austrian fell from around 120,000 feet back down to Earth.
During the jump and in the moments after Felix landed safely, half the worldwide trending topics on Twitter were about the event, whilst a picture of Felix back on terra firma generated nearly 216,000 likes on Facebook.
But there is far more to the story than what the world saw that day. Space Dive, a forthcoming documentary about Felix’s extraordinary leap, will give the inside story on Felix and his team: the setbacks they faced, the obstacles they had to overcome, and the relationships they forged along the way. We sat down with the director, Colin Barr, to find out how he prepared as a filmmaker, just how long he worked on the project for, and why he was so inspired to take up this challenge in the first place.
(From l-r) Joe Kittinger, Colin Barr, Felix Baumgartner
Directors UK: How did you come to be involved in this project?
Colin Barr: Oh God...It was four years ago! It was one of those projects...it’s just been an extraordinarily long time. It’s a long and probably rather boring story. Peter Salmon (now Head of BBC North) had some sort of connection with Red Bull and we’d been talking about projects coming up and this was one of them. At that point it was really just a germ of an idea. Peter came to us with it and I’d been working in drama for four or five years, hadn’t really made a documentary for a while, but had been looking to make one. Then this came along.
'He thought he was hanging in space. He looked up and he saw the balloon racing away upwards, and he realised he was falling. I thought, “God, that’s the most profound thing I’ve ever heard”.'
Weirdly, I’d always remembered listening to Joe Kittinger once on the radio – he was a pilot and the previous holder of longest skydive record, jumping from 102,000 feet. And I remember listening to Joe describing how, when he stepped off from his balloon, he thought he’d got snagged on his balloon. He thought he was hanging in space. He looked up and he saw the balloon racing away upwards, and he realised he was falling. But because there was no resistance and no sound, he just had the sensation of being suspended above the air. I always remembered that description and thought “God, that’s the most profound, most emotional thing I’ve ever heard”. Then this project came along and I made the connection between it and Joe, and when I found out that Joe was actually involved in it, I thought it was too good to be true: imagine trying to find a way of capturing that feeling in a film. So that was it, really.
At that point we felt like it was going to be six months: this was the tail-end of 2008, and I started filming May 2009. At that point we thought there was going to be a jump in November 2009. That’s how naive we were! So we had this crazy, headlong rush to shoot as quickly as we possibly could to try and capture everything that needed to be captured. Slowly, it became clear that it was never going to happen in that timeframe. We never would have imagined it would have been three and a half years later. But it’s clear that it’s so complicated technically, they needed so many permissions, the training was going to take so long, the team was going to take so long to put together, that it was just extending out. It became one of those projects where, every two or three months I’d have to nip out and do some filming for a week and then come back.
D-UK: So you were working on other projects throughout?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. I was exec’ing, mainly, on other things and would just fit this in really.
D-UK: There’s probably a very obvious answer to this, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why 120,000ft, specifically?
CB: You know what, I’m not sure there is an obvious answer! It’s sort of arbitrary, because they went to 128,000ft in the end. 120,000 was just a sort of estimate.
It’s actually driven in part by just how large a balloon you can get. The whole thing is limited a little bit by that. You can’t really have a balloon that’s much bigger than the one that they used for a manned flight. You’ll get slightly bigger balloons that are used as weather balloons. But their balloon’s 29 million cubic feet, which is about 68 storeys high, the width of a football pitch: absolutely gigantic! It has to be that big because there’s so little resistance at that altitude you need an enormous surface area to keep up anything. You can’t really get much bigger than the balloon that they used, so it’s unlikely that - until someone jumps out of a rocket ship or something – someone’s going to be able to go much higher than they went.
In the end they went about 5,000 feet higher than they were expecting, but they couldn’t really have gone any higher: that was as high as they could go out of a balloon.
'Without a pressurised spacesuit, all of the fluids in your body would be released. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Total Recall, but that scene is scientifically accurate!'
D-UK: In what way did the dangers increase for Felix as the height did? What provisions did the team make to counter this?
CB: In terms of the risk of altitude, beyond about 63,000 feet the risks are basically the same. At 63,000 feet you have what’s called the Armstrong line, which is the point at which the outside pressure is no longer great enough to hold the fluids in your body in position. So without a pressurised spacesuit that is keeping you at some sort of constant pressure, all of the fluids in your body would be released and begin to form into gaseous substance rather than being held in their fluid state. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Total Recall, but basically that scene in the film (where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face begins to explode when exposed to the Martian atmosphere) is scientifically accurate! Everything that’s inside your body will try and rush outside your body. Uncontrolled, fluid would burst out your eyes, ears, nose...it’s a really gruesome death!
Above 63,000 feet, that’s the point at which it starts to become an issue. It doesn’t really become any more of an issue the higher up you get: once you’re beyond that, you’re in that dead zone really. Also there’s a lack of oxygen, so very quickly, if you’re not breathing oxygen you can go what’s called hypoxic, which means there’s a lack of oxygen to the brain. Hypoxic can be mild or it can be severe: in its mild form you could be climbing...they talk about the death zone on Everest, where you’re no longer thinking straight. It has a sort of drunk quality: you don’t know that you’re not thinking straight, you feel ok, but actually your brain is beginning to shutdown. You need oxygen very, very quickly to correct that imbalance you have.
So lack of oxygen becomes a massive issue as well, and to counteract that you need a pure oxygen supply, and you need a pressurised environment. They designed and built a pressurised space capsule, so that’s the first layer of protection. Inside that it’s a constant temperature, constant pressure: the only point at which that changes is when he opens the door at 128,000 feet. At that point, that’s when his pressurised spacesuit becomes key, because it has its own internal oxygen supply, and it also keeps him at a constant pressure of 3psi (3 pounds per square inch). Ultimately it’s the suit then that’s keeping him alive as he falls, and it’s also the suit that protects him as he falls through the sound barrier, because without the suit, the shockwave of passing through the sound barrier would probably be enough to rupture the organs internally. So the suit ends up acting almost like a suit of armour: it’s keeping him alive physiologically, it’s protecting him against the shockwaves.
But it’s the thing that makes the fall really difficult because Felix had never jumped in a spacesuit before. He’s used to jumping where you have complete control, where you’ve got lots of air to use to control your movements, and all of a sudden he’s jumping in what’s akin to a diving suit. There are restrictions around visibility too. The single biggest challenge for him was to learn how to fall in such an alien environment.
D-UK: You didn’t accompany Felix on any part of the voyage; it was a solo voyage, wasn’t it?
CB: I didn’t go to altitude, no. I only went as high as 18,000ft in a helicopter! Never anywhere that required oxygen or training or anything like that. The training is so specialist that you just can’t.
'We knew we wanted a shot that ran along Felix’s body with the face plate, because the face plate is really the thing that gives you the view: you’ve got the Earth perfectly reflected in it.'
D-UK: So how did you capture the jump on film without actually jumping with Felix? Where did you choose to position the cameras (and why)?
CB: Well we had about 25 cameras of varying formats and frame rates and stuff. We had four cameras on the outside of the capsule to capture the step-off and the initial phase of the fall; we had three cameras inside the capsule to capture the ascent; and in the end we had five cameras on Felix, although three different angles. In all cases all of those cameras had to be specially designed, either to withstand the really cold temperature and the lack of pressure, or the incredibly fast speed.
We had a really useful reference in terms of Joe Kittinger’s jump, which had been filmed with two cameras ultimately, which created really beautiful footage, really lovely to look at. They were quite useful in knowing, partially, where you’d want any camera to be. But it took a lot of to’ing and fro’ing, a lot of testing, to work out what the best angles were going to be. We knew we wanted a shot that ran along Felix’s body with the face plate, because the face plate is really the thing that gives you the view: you’ve got the Earth perfectly reflected in it. We knew that we’d want a camera that was pointing back up towards the balloon, because you would see what looked like the balloon racing away when in actual fact it was Felix racing away.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the live footage, but there was a long lens, black-and-white scanner shot that showed this little figure falling. That was military technology that had been customised for this jump which enabled us to film from a lateral distance of about 10km up to a height of about 128,000 feet and you could still make out a figure falling, which was really amazing really. It’s such a powerful lens that you could film a jumbo jet at about 35,000 feet and it would fill the frame. It’s attached to a huge truck down on the ground – it’s huge, absolutely gigantic. The shots you saw of Felix falling and tumbling came from that, so that was incredibly useful. And then there were various cineflexes and helicopters, half a dozen cameras on the ground...
Every camera either on Felix or on the capsule was a scientific challenge, because it had to not compromise any of the safety features, either of the suit or the capsule, add as little weight as possible to either, but at the same time capture HD images.
Space Dive is broadcast on 4th November, 9pm BBC2. Read part 2 of the interview at the Directors UK here.
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