GREENSBORO -- Local filmmaker Stephen van Vuuren wants to take you to Saturn.
Settle into a comfortable seat in a giant-screen theater and ride through space.
Travel back to the Big Bang that created the universe.
Journey to Saturn and look through its rings to see a tiny, distant blue dot — planet Earth.
The images — more than a million of them — come from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft’s seven-year journey to Saturn, the Hubble Space Telescope, Apollo, Voyager and other space missions.
From those still photographs, van Vuuren has painstakingly created the technologically groundbreaking film “In Saturn’s Rings.”
“This is as close as we can get to giving people that experience of being in space, not only seeing all this beauty but contemplating where Earth fits into that,” van Vuuren said.
Van Vuuren employed techniques never before applied to a film about space. He used a process called multi-plane photo animation to animate the photos to full motion, without use of computer-generated imagery.
After investing his life savings and seven years of work, van Vuuren finally sees a bright future for his dream film.
A minute of raw footage that he posted online generated 1.4 million plays, and praise from space fans.
It “makes you part of our species’ extraordinary extraterrestrial journeys,” wrote television’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
“The result can only be described as spectacular,” said io9.com, a popular website for science and science fiction.
Van Vuuren’s recent online Kickstarter campaign for the nonprofit film raised more than $63,000 in donations — $26,000 more than its goal.
That’s enough to hire the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra to record Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as the film’s music, pay for global recording rights and bring in expert recording help. The symphony will record the music on Jan. 17.
Van Vuuren hopes to finish the 40-minute film by summer and to premiere it at the Giant Screen Cinema Association Expo in September.
Las Vegas-based company Big & Digital has agreed to distribute the film worldwide.
By the fall, it should begin to appear in IMAX and other giant-screen theaters, then in planetariums or full-dome theaters around the world.
“When I started, I was excited about the chance that maybe this would play in one or two IMAX theaters,” van Vuuren said. “These are things that don’t happen for local indie films.”
Now 46, van Vuuren grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, wanting to be an astronaut.
The planet Saturn and its moon Titan had captured his childhood imagination. When he saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science-fiction film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he set his sights on filmmaking instead.
At 17, he came to the United States for film school. When he couldn’t afford Los Angeles, he moved to Greensboro in 1988 to study film at UNCG.
Debt prompted him to leave school for the computer business. By 2004, he worked in both computers and film.
That July, after a seven-year journey, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft finally arrived at Saturn.
“I was looking at the pictures coming back, and it was mind-blowing stuff,” van Vuuren said. “I felt these photographs needed to be seen more widely and experienced as if you were there.”
He created two short films using the still images but was dissatisfied and never released them.
Then in 2006, while listening to the ascending melodies of “Adagio for Strings,” the music ignited an idea.
“I knew what I needed to do — make a film that would allow people to feel like they were flying through these photographs,” he said.
Millions of space mission photographs are in the public domain, available through Internet databases but often difficult to find.
Turning them into a film for giant-screen and full-dome theaters proved far more complex than he imagined.
Van Vuuren assembled a studio in the basement of the condominium that he shares with Marie, his wife of 20 years.
For years, he researched and experimented with techniques.
“It was a huge learning curve for me to understand what all this stuff was,” he said.
For IMAX and other giant-screen theaters, he would have to create the film on much larger and higher-quality — and more costly — film than that used in regular theaters.
When he started, software was unable to render images in the high resolution required for a giant screen.
Software maker Adobe sought his feedback as it developed a new version that was released in 2010.
“So the software I have today and the capabilities that computers have today enabled the film to be a lot more spectacular than I envisioned,” van Vuuren said.
Cassini’s digital camera captures images in red, blue and green. To convert images to color, van Vuuren used computer software to combine and stitch multiple photographs to produce a panoramic or high-resolution image.
Processing images of Saturn’s rings alone took him 10 hours a day, seven days a week for three months. He used 30,000 images to create the Saturn fly-through, reducing them to about 90 seconds of film.
He considered adding narration to the film, but he decided to let the dramatic images speak for themselves, set against the background music of “Adagio for Strings.”
And he struggled with doubt. Was it all worth it?
That changed in 2011, after he uploaded a one-minute clip set to “Adagio for Strings” onto the Vimeo website.
The editor of io9.com wrote an article, and traffic to van Vuuren’s clip rocketed to 1.4 million plays. NASA deemed it its Astronomy Picture of the Day; Discovery Channel in Canada featured it. The Cassini navigation team sent him a letter of thanks.
The exposure attracted more volunteer help from college astronomy departments, scientists and leading amateur space image processors.
“The giant screen industry ... wasn’t sure how people would respond to still images from space set to music,” van Vuuren said. “But this demonstrated that there was tremendous value in that.”
Although audiences at IMAX conferences liked the film, they didn’t like its first title, “Outside In.” So in 2012, van Vuuren changed it to “In Saturn’s Rings.”
Big & Digital took notice and signed a distribution agreement.
Van Vuuren has posted a new three-minute teaser trailer on his www.insaturnsrings.com website.
The Greensboro Symphony will record film music on Jan. 17 at Westover Church, where the orchestra performs Pops concerts.
Symphony Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky will lead 52 musicians in “Adagio for Strings.” Resident conductor Nate Beversluis also will conduct his percussion arrangement of the music for the film.
“It goes without saying how excited we are that our recording will be heard all over the globe,” Sitkovetsky said.
For van Vuuren, challenges remain. He still has about 25 percent of the film to complete.
He seeks a sponsor to help with the $500,000 cost of a master film print, which will enable giant-screen venues that use film instead of digital to show it.
The prospect of bringing it to big screens brings tears to van Vuuren.
“People are responding to it, watching on their computer screens and tablets,” he said. “They have no idea what’s in store for them.”
Van Vuuren is grateful to those who have helped him along the way.
Among them are his parents and particularly his artist wife, Marie, who has sacrificed financially right along with him.
“I have learned to trust his vision,” said Marie van Vuuren, who has worked with her husband on other films.
And volunteer amateur image processors such as Mike Malaska, formerly of Chapel Hill, now a senior post-doctoral fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Van Vuuren calls him a “tireless cheerleader” for the project.
Malaska hopes that the film will inspire others to view online images from space missions.
“Getting a broader audience excited about the exploration and discovery of space that we are doing right now is one of the main goals of the movie,” Malaska said.
Stephen van Vuuren shares that hope.
“Exploration is the most important thing that we do as humans, and the thing we have lost the most as we populated the planet,” he said. “And exploration has gotten hard because it’s up in space and down into the depths of the ocean. My dream for this film is to rekindle that desire to explore and discover.”
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 373-5204 and follow @dawndkane on Twitter.