‘Space Chair’ Flies to 99,000 Feet and Here’s the Behind the Scenes Story

Man has dreamed about flight ever since man could dream. But Icarus is one thing. A chair tied to balloons is another. There’s whimsy, even innocence, to slipping the bonds of gravity and ascending to wherever the universe takes you. Wingsuits, gliders, and their ilk are “falling with style”, but balloon flight is more like pollen drifting on the breeze–or like Charlotte’s children at the end of Charlotte’s Web, when they cast themselves from the web into their destinies. It doesn’t happen without hope.

Toshiba’s “Space Chair” leaves Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and climbs to the edge of space (99,000 feet), carrying with it whatever we project onto it. It is a delightful short film–okay, it’s an ad, but who cares?–and like the snowboarding in the autumn leaves video posted here last week, it was made without special effects–just eight Toshiba cameras, some balloons, fishing line, and the chair.

When you watch it, make sure you stick around to the very end, when the balloon bursts and the chair falls back to earth.

In a recent interview with Boards, a Canadian trade magazine focused on commercial productions, Gary Amadeo, one of the project’s directors, talked about the making of the film. It took three tries, coordination with federal aviation authorities, and the assistance of an aerospace company that’s looking to launch satellites from the edge of space. Here’s a snippet, but it’s well worth reading the whole piece.

“One of the biggest production issues was the weight of the rig because the FAA stipulates that you cannot go over four pounds in weight for the entire thing: chair, cameras, everything. The reason for that is air strikes. If it does hit an engine apparently that’s the weight an engine can take and still continue to run. That was a real challenge but one of the things that fell out of that problem was the fact that we couldn’t have video playback because it would just be too heavy. We basically took the cameras apart and rebuilt them with special mounts to take the lenses we needed. We set the apertures, put the cards in the hard drives, switched the hard drives on and launched, hoping for the best. It was 90 minutes up and then half an hour back down, and then however long it would be to recover the rig. The most it’s ever taken JP Aerospace to recover a rig is five days because they track it with GPS, which is the sound you can hear intermittently throughout the whole film.”

Balloon flight is back in vogue these days. First there was the fake ascent “balloon boy” in Colorado and then there’s the movie Up, in which Ed Asner’s animated character flies his house to South America. For this, we might owe our thanks to Larry Walters, a.k.a. Lawnchair Larry, who tied 45 eight-foot helium balloons to a folding chair and climbed to 15,000 feet over Los Angeles before landing in Long Beach, becoming tangled in power wires, causing an electrical outage, and subsequently being arrested.

The FAA’s regional safety inspector, Neal Savoy, was reported to have said, “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed.”

Walters himself put it best: When asked why he did it, he said, “A man can’t just sit around.”

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