Taking flight with Darlow Smithson and NGC

Darlow Smithson Productions' four-part series Virgin Galactic will give National Geographic Channel viewers an in-depth look at the space tourism quest, with its premiere episode set to air tonight.
October 18, 2010

Virgin Galactic, a four-part series from Darlow Smithson Productions (DSP) will give National Geographic Channel viewers an in-depth look at the space tourism quest, with its premiere episode set to air tonight.

The London-based prodco was able to gain access to Sir Richard Branson’s and aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan’s quest for commercial space tourism because DSP had connections to Virgin Galactic and experience in telling ‘jeopardy engineering’ stories, says Tom Brisley, DSP creative director and executive producer of Virgin Galactic.

The prodco approached Virgin Galactic through its contacts, who were interested in working with DSP to tell its story. Over the course of six months DSP gained access to the inner workings behind the space tourism initiative. National Geographic Channel EVP Steve Burns had previously worked on a Discovery program about the space competition X Prize that featured the prototype from which the latest ship, VSS Enterprise, was based, and was interested enough in the project to commission the four-part series, which will air over two years.

The first episode will provide background on Virgin Galactic and will also show footage from the first solo test flight of the VSS Enterprise at the Mojave Air Space Port, which took place quite recently – October 10.

After that test flight, the production team went into the cutting room for four or five days and the show was edited over this past weekend for transmission on Monday.

Darlow Smithson had made three quarters of the show before the test flight, which takes up about 10 minutes of the finished program. Another challenge besides the fast, one-week turnaround was that a lot of the material existed on different formats. ‘The onboard spaceship stuff was on hard drive and had to be converted,’ says Brisley.

‘We used [that flight] as a major part of the show because there was jeopardy. Nobody knew whether it would fly or fall out of the sky,’ says Brisley.

Having to film the spaceship from 45,000 feet in the air also proved difficult, but by having access to a telescope on the ground, DSP got a full frame shot of the ship’s release from its carrier, WhiteKnightTwo. All told, the production team had ten cameras on the ground, in the spaceship and cameras in WhiteKnightTwo.

The second part of the series is already underway, focusing on the rocket motor for the spaceship. That will likely air in 2011.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.