Fistful of Stars Eliza Mcnitt & The Science of storytelling

Eliza Mcnitt

Imagine being transported out into space floating above the earth, suspended in the cosmos, surrounded by stars. Suddenly you’re propelled into the luminous wonders of the Orion Nebula – all swirling clouds of gas and dust, witnessing the birth, life, and death of a star, all while being treated to a live performance of a 100 voice choir, Metropolitan Opera stars, and 30-piece orchestra!

This is what happens when you view a Virtual Reality (VR) film called “Fistful of Stars” – equipped with headgear synched to your app-loaded smartphone – transporting you in a 360-degree surround in a mere five minutes. You are trillions of miles into the furthest reaches of the Milky Way galaxy via the Hubble Space Telescope, with narration by the booming voice of astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio: “The atoms in our bodies were forged in nuclear furnaces…We literally are stardust.”

The creator of the film is Eliza McNitt of Greenwich whose cutting-edge talent for translating science into breathtaking imagery has her at work as writer-director in this brave new VR medium in New York City. McNitt has audiences awestruck by the ethereal beauty of the universe, a dream of hers since childhood when first seeing those Hubble space images. Her ‘”Fistful of Stars,” a two-time award winner at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, debuted last year with a live performance of the “Hubble Cantata” before 6,000 (constituting the world’s largest communal VR experience) in Brooklyn, New York. In March, “Fistful” premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in a more intimate presentation, sans live performance.

McNitt presided over hundreds of viewers taking their places two by two, outfitted with their synchronized Samsung Gear VR headsets, and seated in specially automated swivel chairs to enhance that 360 degree experience. “People came away with a sense of awe and wonder that they’d been transported to another world,” said McNitt. She herself was “overwhelmed” with her viewers’ responses.

Meanwhile, audiences in Connecticut are being overwhelmed by new images from our Solar System as shared by Stratford-based NASA Solar System Ambassador, Andy Poniros. His show-and-tell presentations feature images coming from three ongoing NASA space exploration missions: Dawn, New Horizons, and Cassini, all traveling a bit closer to Earth but also in the Milky Way galaxy.

“The splendor of these images is just incredible,” said Poniros. “What most people don’t realize is that teams of NASA scientists and image makers put these images together to give us these breathtaking images like we’re near these planets – with many of them color-enhanced.”

Poniros is referring to those artists at the NASA Studio at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California using all the colors of the rainbow (steering clear of the color green indicating life) to introduce these new findings in space Like that technicolor vortex on Saturn identified as a hurricane and dubbed “Rose” – just one of the images brought from a near billion miles away by the Cassini spacecraft. Saturn, that gas giant of a planet – second only to Jupiter in size in our Solar System – has 60 moons counted thus far. One of those moons, Enceladus, seen through Saturn’s famous rings, has a newly discovered ocean.

“The Cassini spacecraft came within 17 miles of Enceladus,” said Poniros. “This little moon of Enceladus, only 300 miles across, is so dynamic! It’s a very cold place, but it has these saltwater geysers spraying out that are continually adding to the outermost E-ring around Saturn. Finding these geysers and a salt water ocean on Enceladus was absolutely amazing. The energy that shoots these geysers into space could fuel 15 coal burning plants. If we could send a mission to Enceladus we’d have all the energy we need to complete the mission.”

Poniros has one foot in space as an amateur astronomer, another as longtime volunteer for NASA; and for the last 20 years one of NASA’s estimated 500 Solar System Ambassadors. He’s a frequent broadcaster on NASA programs on Connecticut radio station WPKN, 89.5 FM when not presenting before museums and astronomy enthusiasts. “When I look at the detail and splendor of these NASA images,” he said, “I feel compelled to show them to everyone. These are worlds that we had no idea what they actually looked like.”

McNitt’s embrace of the universe through film came via the honeybee. As a science student at Greenwich High School, she wished to tell the story of the deadly Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder. She chose the medium of film, won the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering’s Gerber Medal – the state’s highest award for student science, and saw her film. “Requiem for the Honeybee” broadcast nationwide by C-Span.

Ever since, McNitt’s film work has been on a prize-winning track. But VR film making was a definite step-up. “It’s the enormity of collaboration,” she said, “involving artists, filmmakers, sound designers, and scientists. It goes beyond storytelling. It’s about discovery and the individual experience.”

Her “Hubble Cantata” came together when the composer of the Cantata, Paola Prestini, requested she put together some “innovative visuals” for viewers to experience “floating in the cosmos.” McNitt’s narrative would tell the story of “the cosmic connection between humans and the stars,” featuring that iconic color-fused image of the Orion Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope, as “a nursery for star birth.”

Poniros points to the Hubble Space Telescope, launched over 25 years ago and no bigger than a school bus, still whirling around Earth at some 17,000 mph, directly pointing to areas in the Solar System worthy for the NASA missions to explore.

A joint observing campaign between the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft currently in orbit around Saturn, has brought imagery of another of Saturn’s six moons – Titan. What is seen again, said Poniros, is the dynamism found in space. “Titan has a similar atmosphere to early Earth, with rocky dried up river beds. Where did that fluid go? It’s the only place in the Solar System to have a fluid system. It also has seasonal lakes, a possible hidden ocean, and an ice volcano. It has the building blocks of life, dunes of hydrocarbons. Building blocks of life are found all over the Solar System!”

Not too big a leap to believe there is intelligent life to be found out there believes Poniros. “There are billions of stars in each galaxy, and more than a billon other galaxies that we know of. We’ve found that almost every star we look at has planets revolving around it. So, for us to say we’re the only intelligent life in the universe is pretty unlikely.”

So mused Winston Churchill in a newly unearthed essay he wrote over 75 years ago discovered by McNitt’s “Fistful of Stars’” distinguished narrator and astrophysicist, Livior. He shares in a recent issue of Nature magazine how Churchill in his essay, Are We Alone in the Universe “muses presciently about the search for extraterrestrial life.” Churchill’s thinking boils down to where there’s water, there’s life. “The presence of water in liquid form still guides our searches for extraterrestrial life,” writes Livio, “on Mars, on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, or on extra solar planets (beyond our Solar System).” And, Livio continues, “As well as being essential for the emergence of life on Earth, water is abundant in the cosmos.”

There’s no doubt that film maker Eliza McNitt whose mantra is “science is storytelling,” will continue to exercise her gifts for telling stories about the cosmos in VR. She sees VR as a “tool for empathy (more than one viewer of “Fistful” has been brought to tears.),” and as a way to connect viewers in “a new form of storytelling.” Indeed, her next VR project – “Pale Blue Dot” – is to be an interactive film. “It’s an exploration of our future amongst the stars, where the viewer plays a role in the story,” said McNitt. “You have a deeper sense of immersion when you interact with the story.”

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph of Earth was taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. It was famed astronomer, Carl Sagan who requested from NASA that Voyager 1 upon completion of its primary mission and leaving the Solar System, should turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across that great expanse of space.

Eliza McNitt’s Fistful of Stars premiered at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, Canada in April, with a similar synchronized paired viewing. On May 25, McNitt’s Fistful of Stars will be presented once again with an hour-long live performance of the Hubble Cantata, for an audience of 2,500 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In June, Fistful of Stars will be available for home viewing via a Samsung Gear VR headset and a smart phone equipped with Viceland’s “Beyond the Frame” app.

Visit Eliza on the web at: http://www.elizamcnitt.com

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