Wonders of the Moon director James Van Der Pool on capturing lunar cycle for Sony BBC Earth special

  • Sony BBC Earth's latest special Wonders of the Moon throws light on some known and unknown aspects of the moon and how it influences life on earth — physically as well as culturally.

  • Directed and produced by James Van Der Pool, Wonders of the Moon explores a stunning medley of lunar delights from across the globe — from blood moons, supermoons to total eclipses.

  • The single-episodic feature takes the viewers to a bunch of places across the planet to depict the wonders of the moon in its truest sense.

Most of us, during our childhood, have looked up to the sky and thought while the sun gives us light and warmth, what does the moon do? As we grew up, we came to know that the sun was much more than a bright light bulb in the sky, and is one of the prerequisites for the sustenance of life on earth. But our understanding of the moon, in general, has still remained in the shadows.

Sony BBC Earth's latest Special Wonders of the Moon throws light on some known and unknown aspects of the moon and how it influences life on earth — physically as well as culturally. Directed and produced by James Van Der Pool, Wonders of the Moon explores a stunning medley of lunar delights from across the globe — from blood moons, supermoons to total eclipses. Low light cameras reveal the moon in its natural light in ways that have rarely been witnessed against a range of stunning backdrops. The single-episodic feature takes the viewers to a bunch of places across the planet to depict the wonders of the moon in their truest sense.

From the rich undersea life of the South Pacific where coral reefs breed in synchrony with the moon cycles, witnessing the mid-autumn festival in Hong Kong where the entire city falls under the moon’s spell, to watching the total eclipse transform day to night across the US — Wonders of the Moon satiates one's curiosity for the moon and yet leaves you wanting for more.

 Wonders of the Moon director James Van Der Pool on capturing lunar cycle for Sony BBC Earth special

James Van Der Pool.

Showrunner James Van Der Pool spoke with Firstpost ahead of Indian premiere on 20 July. He has been a seasoned producer and director with BBC Natural History Unit, known for working on series like 40 Years to the Moon (2009) and Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) to name a few.

Edited excerpts from the interview below.

When and how did it occur to you to make a programme dedicated to the moon?

I think there's been a huge interest around a lot of lunar activities happening around. Globally, there has been a lot of public conversations around the supermoons that recently occurred. And then, we saw that 2017 was particularly an interesting year — there were supermoons and then a total solar eclipse. In 2018, there was a blue supermoon and the blood moon. So, I think, it was a timely moment to celebrate the moon and also explain these lunar phenomena to the public. They seemed really eager to know more about the moon in order to enjoy it even more.

How did you decide the scale and scope of the programme?

I think it is based around the activity of the moon. There was a solar eclipse in 2017 and then afterwards, there was the supermoon. So we thought, it was a year in the life of the moon. As we started making the film we realised that the lunar cycle is not so much annual, it is monthly. Hence, we thought we should structure our series around the phases of the moon. So, from a new moon to a waxing moon to a full moon to a waning moon — they became a sort of a structure [for the show].

As for the scope, the brief was to enjoy not only the cultural relationship between earth and the moon but also look at the physical relationship between them and how the moon has shaped the life on earth.

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What was the research process like?

The research was intense because we had to very quickly understand the stories. We had very little time to make the film because we realised there was only one full moon in a month. So, we had to plan very quickly how we are going to best use those few moments — across your production year — to get the moon. In terms of our reference points, we were looking for a mixture of culture and science. So [we wanted to make] a film that was both celebratory and warm, but also answers those very fundamental questions one might have about why the moon appears different in the sky. And also, to extend the viewers' knowledge, for example, talking about the far-sided section of the moon and looking at some of the science around that.

What were the most startling facts about the moon that you came across while researching and filming the programme?

To think through, some of them were very simple things. First thing, the moon does rotate and it is tidally locked to earth. It rotates once, on its axis, every month. As a result of that, we see only one side of the moon. So there is a far side that we never see from earth. Once you understand the mechanics of it, it makes perfect sense. Until you start thinking about it, it is quite curious.

Also, the far side is very different from the near side; it is so bombarded with meteorites endlessly. So, that gives it a very different quality. There are areas on the far side that haven't seen light for tens and thousands of years. The craters are so deep that they are always in shadow.

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We can see different light tones and intensities throughout the programme run. What were the cameras that were used in the shoot?

We used multiple cameras. I think, what was important is the fact that the film we made right now, we couldn't have made even five or 10 years ago. Today, because of camera technology, the sensitivity to light is extraordinary. So when we filmed the super moon in La Palma in the Canary Islands and when we filmed interviews with astronomers working in observatories there, we were able to film in full colour in the moonlight. In the past, that was unheard of. One would have to use infrared or use lights in the camera. Not just the sensitivity to light, the quality of the lenses has also improved manifold. We had a powerful telephoto lens that enabled us to capture the moon really big in the shots.

I think the other technology that we used is the Internet. The community of astronomical photographers, including amateur photographers, photograph the moon in such brilliant ways, again often using the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras. They have been filming and photographing the moon for years. So, the Internet provides access to this global community of experts who would share their work with us. It is the reason we could create a global picture of the moon. In addition to that, the Internet also enables us to move large files and images across the globe along with researching images and works from other parts of the world.

Is there a reason why you limited the programme to one episode?

I think a single film serves a good way to collect that sort of 360 experience when it comes to [narratives of] science and culture. Also, I feel it would have been impossible to make a bigger episodic series. What we hoped with this film — it has something for everyone. There's the exploration of the moon and Apollo programme and at the same time, there are elements of natural history and things about mythology pertaining to the full moon and how it is one of the more dangerous phases of the lunar cycle. I think whatever we wanted, this film sort of brought all of it together. Whereas a series needs to look at it from different aspects and so might not have a broad appeal [to the masses].

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How was filming this programme different from the previous projects you have worked on?

I have been trying to film the moon, especially in the UK, where it is often very cloudy. You could have your camera set up and wait for the moon to rise but if the clouds are in the way, you can't get the shot you want. That means you have to wait for months to get that shot the next time. Something like the supermoon which we filmed in the Canary Islands, we had just one chance of getting that shot in a year ourselves. So we had to know exactly where the moon is going to rise, ow the camera is going to record it. In the film, in that particular shot, we have a cyclist ride through the shot as well. So to coordinate all those elements — without any rehearsal and knowing we just have one shot — builds a particular kind of pressure.

In most of the films, we can do another take or go back as a safe-side option. But this one, we had to get it right the first time. We didn't have any second chance.

What else are you working on currently?

I have done another film on the moon about the Apollo 11 mission for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. So I have spent the last couple of years around the moon (laughs), which has been great!

All images courtesy of Sony BBC Earth.

Wonders of the Moon will air on 20 July at 11 pm on Sony BBC Earth.

Updated Date: Jul 23, 2019 12:46:59 IST