Vol. 37 Issue 3 Reviews

Mars in 3D

3D Blu-ray disc, 2013, AIX 86067; available from AIX Records, 2050 Granville Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA; telephone: (310) 479-0501; electronic mail orderdesk@aixrecords.com; http://www.aixrecords.com/.

Reviewed by Gareth Loy
Corte Madera, California, USA

Mars CoverOn 6 September 2012, the newly reconstituted Mars in 3D film and sound track were shown in Dolby Laboratories’ state-of-the-art screening room in San Francisco. The occasion was the release of a new 3D Blu-ray disc of the film, originally written and produced in the 1970s by Elliott C. Levinthal for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Featuring images radio-transmitted from the two Viking spacecraft’s missions to Mars in 1976 (Viking 1) and 1979 (Viking 2), the film presents the first stereoscopic views of the Martian surface, giving viewers a visceral and immersive experience of this alien world.

Mike McNabb and Bill Schottstaedt, composers of the original soundtrack, have restored this historic footage, and have resynthesized their soundtrack, achieving truly astonishing video and audio clarity. The result is a tour de force on all levels, artistic, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, and technical.

Each Viking spacecraft consisted of an orbiter and a lander. The orbiters took stereoscopic still images far above the Martian surface with a single camera by photographing the identical area from precessing orbits (whereby rotational axes were employed). The landers took stereoscopic movies of the Martian surface using two on-board cameras. Close-ups of the landing sites provided geologic detail and were intended to help determine whether life existed on Mars; panoramic shots supplied meteorological information.

After the mission, Levinthal, who had been a member of the Viking imaging team, was commissioned by NASA to produce a film that would allow the public to experience the amazing three-dimensional images of the surface of Mars, captured by the Viking missions. The original format of the film required two synchronized 16-mm projectors and stereoscopic glasses to be worn by viewers. The remastered film is encoded for Blu-ray 3D-High Definition (1920 x 1080 at 23.98 Hz.) with Multi-view Video Coding (MVC format, an amendment to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC). Because MVC can encode sequences captured simultaneously from multiple cameras using a single video stream, it is the ideal contemporary medium for this restoration. The audio can be set to either multichannel Dolby TrueHD, or stereo Dolby TrueHD.
As it pans and zooms stereoscopically across the Martian surface, the film allows the viewer to feel as if he or she were physically present on the surface of Mars. These images are the stars of the show. Levinthal’s narration, in contrast, is delivered in a studied monotone at least as dry as the parched Martian surface, as he explains the imagery, the mission, and its results. But even his stilted delivery does not undo the gripping power of the Martian footage.

Levinthal clearly knew that his film needed music to bring it to life, and he knew that not just any music would do. A Stanford professor at the time, he was aware of the work of John Chowning, then director of the brand-new research project called the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). He approached Chowning, asking that a computer music score be written to accompany his film. Chowning introduced him to then CCRMA graduate students Mike McNabb and Bill Schottstaedt, who together composed original music for the film using the new Systems Concepts Digital Synthesizer (Samson Box) that had been built by Peter Samson for CCRMA in 1977.
After the film had served its purpose, it was curated in the archives of the History Office at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and was all but forgotten as subsequent space adventures captured the world’s imagination.

Thirty years later, in 2010, McNabb wanted to revive the film for a concert series of computer music honoring Chowning’s 75th birthday, to be held in a movie theater. McNabb contacted NASA Ames, and found the director’s prints in their archives, but discovered that they could not be projected in a modern theater. And so McNabb and Schottstaedt launched what came to be a multi-year restoration project to reconstitute the film and the music into high-definition digital video and audio, using state-of-the-art 3D cinema technology and digital audio synthesis. 

There were many stumbling blocks. No high-quality digital recording of the music had been made before the Samson Box was decommissioned in 1993, and the soundtrack on the original film was low-quality 16mm optical format. But Schottstaedt and McNabb still had the original score files containing the machine instructions to operate the Samson Box. So Schottstaedt wrote a C program to emulate the Samson Box in software(!) format, which they then used to regenerate the music. Because Schottstaedt’s emulator used 32-bit floating-point data throughout, it had much greater arithmetic precision than the Samson Box, and since all internal calculations enjoyed this extra precision, the music rendered through Schottstaedt’s emulator achieved breathtaking fidelity.

McNabb tackled converting the film to modern digital cinema format. The two cameras on each lander were separated by 0.8m, which, when used together, could render 3D images, but the wide separation caused severe 3D “fusion” problems. McNabb also had to address the limitations of 16mm film, such as jitter, varying shadows and lighting, and color mismatches between the left and right reels. McNabb also found the master dialog track in the NASA archives, so he digitized and denoised it separately, then remixed it with the re-engineered soundtrack and visuals. The film restoration effort took a year and a half, including hundreds of hours of computer processing. The result is visually and musically stunning. It has brought new life to a hidden gem.

The music greatly intensifies the emotional impact of the viewer witnessing the devastatingly strange Martian landscape as though in the first person. Watching and listening, I was arrested by the statically violent vistas unfolding on the screen, powerfully reinforced by the out-of-this-world soundtrack.

I was also struck by the many cultural resonances the movie evoked. The subject, the images, and the soundtrack perfectly capture the American frame of mind in the late 1970s. With the Viking program, the NASA space mission was going from strength to strength. The sky was literally no longer the limit. Silicon Valley (just down the road from Stanford) was poised to explode. The then-novel use of computers to make music was an artistic reflection of this age of scientific and engineering breakthroughs. Finally freed from the constraints of slow general-purpose computers, composers at CCRMA were able to generate music of arbitrary length and complexity interactively, writing nimble software to control the Samson Box, and hearing the results in real time. The highly experimental computer music created at CCRMA in those times was infused with a palpable sense of wonder and discovery. New sonic resources were marshaled to express the seemingly unlimited micro- and macroscopic vistas being opened up by modern technological advances. It was in this expansive cultural milieu that Levinthal, McNabb and Schottstaedt created this confluence of art and science.

I was also a composer and programmer at CCRMA during this time, and hearing this music brings back memories of listening late into the night to the sounds emanating from the Samson Box over our shared loudspeaker system as we developed our tools and our music. Not much has been written about the compositional aesthetic of CCRMA, but at least in those days it had a distinct one, which is aptly reflected in the music in this film.

Because I am so familiar with their music, I could easily tell where the composers traded off in the different sections of the film. McNabb’s sonic palate is celestial: he developed an additive synthesis simulation of a singing female voice, which he used to create an airy just-intonation choir of angels to accompany the orbiting satellites. Schottstaedt’s music evokes the unrelenting frozen violence of the Martian landscape. Filtered noise is combined with mutating sounds of brass and strings, based on advanced frequency modulation (FM) synthesis techniques he had developed using the Samson Box. Microtonal scales lend emotional tension and a steely strangeness.
Common compositional elements that show up in many CCRMA works of that era (and which are also present here) include the atmospheric projection of sound in vast spaces, a pristine sonic background, sharply defined but otherworldly musical shapes, and non-rhetorical musical semantics. These characteristics perfectly complement stereoscopic vistas of the remote Martian surface.
The 3D Blu-ray disc also contains a video interview with the principals: Chowning, McNabb, Schottstaedt, and Uri Geva, a colleague of Leventhal’s, and also a member of the Viking imaging team. There are bonus tracks containing just the music. As if that were not generous enough, there are extra music files on the ROM section of the disc, including a special version of the 5.1 “stage” mix that is specifically intended for headphone playback. Formats available include stereo FLAC, MP3, and 48 kHz/24-bit PCM audio. A Blu-ray ROM drive connected to a computer is required to access these extra files. While the disc plays normally on any 2D Blu-ray player, viewers must have a 3D Television or 3D Projector, a 3D Blu-ray player, and 3D glasses appropriate for that system to experience the movie in 3D.
A copy of the restored Mars in 3D movie can also be viewed on the Internet at http://youtu.be/ubRHSg5daMs using anaglyph glasses, 3D video players, or 2D computer screens and televisions.

It is a shame that Levinthal did not live to see his film reborn. He died 14 January 2012. The opening credits dedicate the movie to his memory. McNabb and Schottstaedt’s loving revival of Mars in 3D is a worthy testament to Levinthal’s remarkable and lengthy list of accomplishments.

Mars is certainly a different place than it was in the 1970s: now there are teams of people whose day job is to guide vehicles such as the rover Curiosity over its dusty surface. Perhaps someday women and men will stand on Mars, witnessing with their own eyes what we can only glimpse on screen. But even then these stark Martian landscapes will still fascinate. Restored to perfection beyond their original condition, these historic first stereoscopic images of the surface of Mars, and the music that brings them to life, capture the experience of humankind’s first immersive encounter with another planet.