Movies & TV / Columns

Stephen van Vuuren Talks w/411 About His New Movie In Saturn’s Rings

May 10, 2018 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
In Saturn's Rings

The 411 Interview: Stephen van Vuuren

Stephen van Vuuren - In Saturn's Rings

Stephen van Vuuren is an award winning moviemaker, musician, and photographer who has been making movies for several decades. He has made over twenty movies in his career, both short form and feature length, and in multiple genres (documentary, narrative, experimental, and animation). Van Vuuren is also the founder of SV2 Studios, which was established in 2000. Van Vuuren’s newest effort is In Saturn’s Rings, a giant screen documentary about the planet Saturn that’s both mesmerizing and incredibly moving. In this interview, van Vuuren talks with this writer about In Saturn’s Rings, what it took to get the movie made, and more.



Bryan Kristopowitz: When did you know you wanted to make In Saturn’s Rings?

Stephen van Vuuren: It was the moment the first image came down from Cassini-Huygen’s arrival at Saturn. I was so awestruck by those first images yet bitterly disappointed that I was forced to watch this on a postage stamp web-stream as the lack of media coverage of the arrival in July 2004 was very painful to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to make, I just wanted to make “something that would make people feel like we sent a motion picture camera to Saturn.”

BK: How did you set up making In Saturn’s Rings?

SvV: By pure intuition. I really had no idea what I was doing at the beginning, both creatively and technically. I was driven to make “something” and was adamant about using real images from space. The project evolved from a one act multimedia play (true story) to the giant screen film it is today, so there was no single moment of this is when In Saturn’s Rings officially began.

BK: What was the hardest part of making In Saturn’s Rings? What was the easiest?

SvV: Filmmaking of any kind is hard given the combination of creative and technical challenges of the form. Anyone who completes a major work, from Tommy Wiseau to Stanley Kubrick deserves acclaim simply for finishing. In Saturn’s Rings as the first and only full-length work of photo animation was almost too hard finish. We had to figure out how to make the film while making the film as there was not a single case study, creatively or technically, to study. Combine that with having a beggar’s budget and needing to make a film at 16 times the resolution of HD, and sometimes it seemed impossible that we would finish. As for easiest, I racked my brain and can’t actually think of anything that I would call easy about it (which is why there will be no sequel 😊) – but since there are no on-camera people talking, we never had to worry about lip-sync.

BK: How did LeVar Burton get involved as the narrator?

SvV: The film’s script when through 30+ revisions. It started out as the one-act play with projected images, then a heavily narrated film, then without narration where I would have liked to have left it. But the film, from an objective cinema definition is best described as a “found-footage documentary” as we had no control over what the story of the film would be. We took this huge number of still photographs and turned what we could into multiplane footage that was 8K capable. We had a script that we hoped would turn that into a cohesive film without narration. However, it became clear to me as renders finished in 2015-17 that narration was going to be needed to explain what certain things were and to smooth the increasingly unwieldy title cards that were slowing the pacing of the film. I spent several months researching possible narrators. I knew I wanted someone with strong reading skills, a great voice, a background as an actor and as a bonus, a sci-fi name with global appeal. LeVar Burton rose to the top of the list and I thought, well, we can’t afford him, but let’s try. His agent was open and friendly to the initial contact after a few weeks of negotiation and a few more weeks of intense fundraising from our backers via email and social media, we had LeVar. He turned out to be both a consummate professional and wonderful, warm human being.

BK: You’ve made multiple short films. How is making a documentary like In Saturn’s Rings different from making something like your short films Return or Lost Souls?

SvV: I also co-produced, DP’d and posted a low budget feature and have done post supervision work on dozens of features through my company SV2DCP. A long-form film is not a “longer short film”. They are different animals. But In Saturn’s Rings is and will likely always be unique. Until someone else attempts a full-length multiplane photo animation (and since you would only do that if you have a subject that exists in photographs but you can’t get a video or film camera there, it’s not likely anyone will), everything about the film was different from everything else I’ve done and will likely ever do in film.

BK: Was the “chapters” structure you used for In Saturn’s Rings something you knew you wanted to use right from the beginning or was that something you sort of figured out you wanted to do later on?

SvV: Chapters/Sections was in the script from the very beginning and survived relatively intact until the end.

BK: How much footage did you cut from the movie? How long did it take to get to the movie’s current runtime of around 40 minutes?

SvV: Since no cameras other than time lapse was used in the film and most of the film is massive multiple animations at 8K our struggle was getting 40 minutes of footage period. In fact, due to the high resolutions and the way the film was made, it could not be brought into any editing software. The film was assembled and mastered, awkwardly, in Adobe After Effects which is was where the multiplanes were animated. We did have a few simple Saturn multiplanes that we did not use and some in development shots that we abandoned as they would have required CGI to make usable. And our rough cut had some stock footage which was replaced with multiplane and we trimmed some of the time lapse and a few multiplanes. But 90% of the film is 100% of the frames without a frame to spare of what we created. Even if we used every scrap we had, we don’t have even enough footage to make a 60 minute film. So in short, the current runtime was not achieved until the last renders were done. Completely backwards to every other project I’ve done.

BK: The music used in the movie is fantastic and very moving. How did you choose the music you wanted to use? Did you know right up front what you wanted or did you have to sort of “play” with the music and try to figure out what worked best?

SvV: Ferry Corsten’s “Adagio for Strings” came on my car stereo in 2006 when I was still trying to figure out what kind of film to make. In that moment I had a vision of a “flying through space film,” music driven, with “Adagio for Strings” being used for the Saturn sequence. So “Adagio” was always the plan. The opening composition “Infinitum” came about as the composer, Pieter Schlosser, approached me as a volunteer. We initially set out to compose a “reverse” “Adagio for Strings” for that piece but could not get the rights. But he took that basic concept and did something in that spirit but grander to match the galaxy footage and it was done years before we finished that section. It only required a couple of minor tweaks to fit as he composed it so well. The middle music, “Pillars of Light,” was a temp track by a composer friend of mind that I used over, and over, and over again to test footage. I actually did try lots of other pieces there before and after finishing those sections, but it was perfect and he generously donated the track to the film. Two other tracks by me round out the score. The end credits feature a mix of volunteer musicians playing with Pieter’s original draft of “Infinitum” to help cement what a group effort the film was.

BK: What did you learn about space and space exploration you didn’t know before making In Saturn’s Rings?

SvV: Far too much to detail here. I’m neither a scientist nor even a skilled amateur astronomer, so every day I was learning something new about space and space exploration and specifically the intricacies of image capture and processing in space missions.

BK: What sort of response have you received from people at NASA and other, for the lack of a better phrase, “space professionals?”

SvV: Still a bit early as we have not shown the finished film to many of them so don’t have any official responses yet.

BK: Why did you dedicate the movie to Carl Sagan and Stanley Kubrick?

SvV: Without Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the film would not exist. As a kid, I fell in love with Titan, Saturn’s moon, while reading Cosmos and wanted to be an astronaut who would go to Titan. That did not happen but I stayed glued to Cassini-Huygens mission over the years which, as you know, is the reason the film came to be. 2001 is the film I was watching at 19 when the idea of filmmaker leapt into my mind and Kubrick’s films and philosophy have always been my inspiration as a filmmaker. But more pointedly, Kubrick tried and failed to use Saturn as a major setting for 2001 but the lack of space imagery to create Saturn’s rings meant they used Jupiter instead.

BK: Beyond In Saturn’s Rings, any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?

SvV: Alas, I’m not beyond In Saturn’s Rings yet. We have the native 8k full dome version of the film that will render over the summer and fall. But I have several short and feature length scripts complete and in process for narrative style, sci-fi/fantasy films that I will move onto after ISR.

BK: Do you think any government will ever fund something like the Cassini probe again?

SvV: I would love to be an optimist and say yes, but the last couple of decades of both liberal and conservative American governments have not cared to support flagship outer solar system missions like Cassini. The ESA (European Space Agency) does not have the resources on its own. Russia’s deep space is near death. China and Japan’s are in their infancy. And I’m not highly confident that an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos would engage in high cost scientific exploration. So the realist in me says, not likely. But history has proved full of surprises before, so I still cling to the hope that it will happen.

BK: What will it take to get Americans and, to a larger extent, the world at large to become interested in space again? Is the idea of furthering human knowledge and understanding the universe enough to get people interested? Will space have to be “commercialized” in order to move the needle on general space interest?

SvV: I think SpaceX is the only thing getting people interested right now. But that is nowhere near the impact that something like Apollo had on generations that witnessed it. It may take a threat again to truly motivate us to realize our fragile world will not last forever and our future can only lie in the stars.

BK: Where can people see In Saturn’s Rings now, and where will they be able to see it in the future?

SvV: We have a screenings page on our website. Small, independent giant screen films like ours have a gradual rollout over a year or two around the globe. And then Blu-ray, streaming etc. will follow after that, so stay patient, request the film from your local giant screen theater (LFExaminer maintains a great website of giant screen theaters) and it will eventually be available to all.

BK: Will there ever be a sequel?

SvV: Not one done by me 😊 12+ years of the hardest work I’ve ever done is enough for one lifetime.


A very special thanks to Stephen van Vuuren for agreeing to participate in this interview and to david j. moore for helping set it up.

Check out the official In Saturn’s Rings website here, Facebook page here, Twitter page here, and YouTube page here.

Check out the SV2 Studios official website here.

Check out Stephen van Vuuren’s Facebook page here.

Stephen van Vuuren image courtesy of Stephen van Vuuren. In Saturn’s Rings poster image courtesy of Big and Digital.