Minnesota filmmaker readies premiere of 'Space Junk 3D' in Twin Cities

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Houston, we have a much bigger problem in space, and Minneapolis filmmaker Melissa Butts is examining it in a big way, appropriately, on IMAX screens.

Butts and several other crewmembers from the Twin Cities area are the creative forces behind "Space Junk 3D," an awe-inspiring IMAX production that keys in on a pollution problem that until the last few years, has largely flown under the radar.

For the first time starting Thursday night, local audiences will get a chance to see the film when it premieres at the Great Clips IMAX Theatre at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

People who attend will not only get a chance to screen the film, but ask questions of director-producer Butts, producer Kimberly Rowe and other locally-based filmmakers after the screening and attend a meet-and-greet in the lobby.

Getting to show the film locally since it was released last year is particularly a big thrill for Butts, who has shown the film virtually everywhere but her hometown.

"It's been shown globally. It's playing in China, Europe -- you name it -- and has been translated in nine different languages at my last count," Butts told me in a recent interview. "It's definitely made its way around the world. The first lease for the film was signed in St. Louis and the second one was in Kuwait two years ago. It's just the nature of business that when you make a film in the IMAX format, you want it be received well in all countries, not just the United States."

Without question, there are no boundaries for the problem "Space Junk" addresses, because, the debris that's floating in the space above us is everywhere. Through the use of her team of computer illustrators -- mostly based in Minneapolis -- the illustrates through stunning animation the growing level of space debris from abandoned satellites and rocket refuse that's threatening the safety of Earth's orbit.

See the trailer for "Space Junk 3D" below.

For Butts, Rowe and their production company, Melrae Pictures, "Space Junk 3D" provide a rare opportunity to tell the story that's relatively new to moviegoers.

"We wanted to produce a story that had never been told before that would be unique to museum audiences -- something entertaining yet with an educational edge to it," Butts said. "So we shopped the subject matter around to museums to get their weigh-in about three years ago, before we started making the movie. We just wanted to tell something new and surprising."

One of many surprising things that "Space Junk 3D" reveals, is how if one object as tiny as a BB strikes another piece of space junk, it could shatter the object and effectively produce a bigger risk to satellites -- and possibly spacecrafts like the International Space Station (ISS).

The film highlights incidents like the crash between an Iridium Communications satellite and the Russia's Kosmos 2251 satellite in 2009, which left, by NASA's estimates, 1,000 pieces of debris more than 4 inches in diameter apiece.

"Often times the ISS has to move due to that debris from the collision," Butts said.

In addition to the animated "space junk" footage, the film features the work of scientist Don Kessler, because he saw the problem of space junk coming decades ago.

"In the '70s he was already crunching numbers and looking at data, projecting crashes and predicting that we'd start having these problems," Butts said. "It took awhile, but his way of thinking has grown into reality. It was such a pleasure to work with someone so brilliant like him. His work has been so understated until now. He's now known in popular culture as the 'Father of Space Junk."

While several possibilities are being examined to stop the spread of space junk, Butts says, at least NASA's intent right now on working on one solution.

"NASA's mandated that satellites be designed to fall out of the atmosphere and burn up after their usefulness, which is about 25 years, as opposed to being up there for another 50 years moving around at 17,000 miles per hour," Butts said.

Even though "Space Junk 3D" has been playing in various large-format venues since 2012, the film is bound to attract a bit more attention from mainstream movie audiences over the pending release and escalating Oscar buzz over the space disaster drama "Gravity," starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

"The movie is getting a ton of press and it's very cinematic. I don't know a lot about the story, but I understand it's about a piece of space junk hitting the ISS from a Russian satellite that Russian intentionally blew up," Butts explained. "And of course, in real life, one of the biggest problem with orbital debris stems from China blowing up one of its satellites, and doing it at an altitude that would leave debris up there for the next 150 years."

Ironically, Butts said, the production considered asking Bullock to do the narration for "Space Junk 3D," but eventually landed actor Tom Wilkinson for voiceover duties.

Whether big or small, Butts says she welcomes any attention her film gets from "Gravity."

"I woke up this morning and got an email from a friend at the Toronto Film Festival who said they saw 'Gravity' last night, and that 'it's a 90-minute commercial for your film,'" Butts said with a laugh.

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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