A journey to the solar system

The Planets-An HD Odyssey

A forthcoming Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra concert will combine a performance of Holst's The Planets with a groundbreaking film about our solar system. Dominic Wells meets the director behind The Planets: An HD Odyssey.

By Dominic Wells

As a military beat begins to build, the huge screen behind the orchestra slowly fills with a giant red orb spinning slowly through blackness, its louring face pitted with scars as though it belonged to some belligerent, bald gangland boss. Then, as the music takes off, so do we – skimming across the rugged red rocks with a jetpack’s-eye-view of the previously mysterious alien surface. This is the striking opening to Duncan Copp’s film The Planets: An HD Odyssey, to be screened at the Qatar National Convention Centre on May 11 alongside a live performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gustav Holst’s The Planets symphony.

A tall man of boundless enthusiasm, Duncan Copp is unusually well suited to the daunting task of collating footage and tens of thousands of high-resolution images from satellites, telescopes and space probes, and editing them into a coherent whole. He acquired a love of geology from his mother, who took him fossil-hunting near their Somerset home, and of space from his father, who would point out the constellations. He combined the two passions into a PHD in Planetary Science at Imperial College, London, where he spent four years mapping two volcanic regions of Venus the size of Brazil.

“When I arrived at Imperial in 1993,” he explains during a break from editing his next film, “the Magellan probe had just completed its mission to record the topography of Venus. There were drawers and drawers full of imagery that no one had yet looked at: it felt like being an explorer.”

Copp started researching science programmes for the BBC, branching out into directing with a film about the space shuttle in, appropriately, 2001. But he has also loved The Planets ever since his parents played it to him at the age of ten. “We want to bring classical music to a wider and younger audience,” he says, “and this visual accompaniment to the music allows us to do so.”

It’s only in the last two decades, Copp says, that we have fully appreciated the wonderful variety of our solar system. A day on Mercury lasts two years, and its temperatures range from -184C in the shade to +427C in the boiling sun. Jupiter’s moon Europa may, scientists believe, actually hold life in the liquid beneath its thick sheets of ice. I ask Copp for the highlights of his grand tour:

Mars: “Holst’s music here has a bombastic, driving beat, which is helpful in putting together the images. Just as it reaches a military crescendo, I have the Rover probe from Earth shooting through space and landing on the surface. It’s slightly tongue in cheek: I wanted to show that whereas in science-fiction we are always being invaded by Martians, in reality we are the ones doing the invading.”

Venus: “Venus is the most hostile planet: it rains sulphuric acid, the temperature is twice that of an oven, and the gravitational force would crush you – it can crush lead. But Holst didn’t know any of this; he’s writing music about the goddess of love. So to fit with that, we’ve slowed everything down. Even though it’s a hellish world, the imagery can still be beautiful.”

Mercury: “This is the shortest piece: the images come quickly of crater after crater in montage, then a large shot that shows there’s thousands of craters. One part I love is, and this is very rarely seen, where Mercury passes across the surface of the sun: when this tiny weeny planet is moving across it, you get a terrific sense of scale.”

Jupiter: “This movement is subtitled ‘The Bringer of Joy’, and that fits Jupiter, which is big and colourful, like a Monet. It’s fantastic because of its beautiful clouds and the different compounds and elements that colour them, as well as its diverse suite of moons.”

Saturn: “We fly in under the rings of Saturn. It’s a bit of a tease because it’s so close you don’t know what you’re seeing at first, and then we pull back to see this wonderful imagery, just so aesthetically beautiful. It was Holst’s own favourite musical movement, too.”

Uranus and Neptune: “These were more difficult, pictorially. We’ve only had one spacecraft go out that far, the Voyager II, but that was built and designed in 1979 so the camera is pretty unsophisticated. There was a limited amount of useable pictures, especially as out there it’s so dark. We made up for it by creating computer graphics, as true as possible to what it would be like if you were flying around them.”

The ending of the film is awe-inspiring. Holst pioneered the fade-out – commonplace in recorded music now, but a sensation in the early 20th century. He had a choir sing softly off-stage, and as their voices faded away, the open door to their room was slowly and noiselessly closed. Copp echoes this visually, taking one final look at the crescent moon of Triton, and then pulling back very slowly… and off into the infinite void.

For Copp, that’s a hopeful image, rather than a lonely one. “There’s nothing more inspiring,” he says, “than standing on a mountaintop and seeing the Milky Way, and thinking that it’s made up of millions of stars, and yet it’s just one arm of our galaxy, which itself is one out of millions upon millions of galaxies. I find it comforting, standing on our little rock, that the stars don’t change from your birth to your death; they’re always there.”

Our Earth, of course, is the only planet not represented in Holst’s symphony. Copp has rectified the omission in a follow-up film, The Earth: An HD Odyssey, set to Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and is currently editing the third in the trilogy, Cosmos. Does Copp get the feeling that if only the world’s leaders were to hold the next UN meeting on a space station high above our blue planet, they might better set aside their differences?

“I think so!” he laughs. “I made a film called In The Shadow of the Moon where we interviewed ten Apollo astronauts; and while of course going to the moon was incredible, what was really extraordinary to them was looking back at the Earth. They took a famous photograph of it rising above the moon, and that image did more for the environment that any other. It encapsulates how fragile we are, as a species and a planet.”

The Planets: An HD Odyssey will be screened at the Qatar National Convention Centre on May 11 alongside a live performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gustav Holst’s The Planets symphony.