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Earlier this month, in celebration of National Space Day, Google partnered with filmmaker and VR artist Eliza McNitt to debut “Dot of Light,” a short film about three female astronauts—Anousheh Ansari, Kathy Sullivan, and Nicole Scott—and their journeys in space. The video launched alongside a new collection of celestially-themed Google Artworks Live Cases for Pixel.
McNitt is a New York-based director whose work focuses on science and outer space. Last year, she created a VR experience of the Orion Nebula for the public in Prospect Park entitled, “Fistful of Stars.” This week, on May 25, the program will take place at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
Whitewall spoke with McNitt about how her interest in science led to film and eventually virtual reality.
WHITEWALL: What was the starting point for this project? What was it like interacting with these three women astronauts sharing each of their experiences in space?
ELIZA McNITT: I’ve been working on VR experiences about space for the past couple of years, which Google was familiar with. With National Space Day approaching, they wanted to do a project with a video element tied to their Artworks Live Case program—soon enough, we were off!
I’ve always dreamt of stars and worlds beyond our own. In “Dot of Light” I wanted to explore the human connection to the cosmos told from the perspective of women who have floated amongst the stars, experienced the overview effect, and brought the cosmos back to Earth.
I grew up with the images of the Hubble Telescope. They expanded my knowledge of the Universe and led me to think about my place within it. Dr. Sullivan was the first American woman to complete a spacewalk and was actually on the mission that deployed the Hubble. To be able to include one of the first women to be involved in the space program was truly an honor.
In 2014, I saw a beautiful documentary called “Sepideh” where a young Iranian woman who dreams of the stars receives an inspiring phone call from Anousheh Ansari, the first woman space tourist and the first Iranian in space. Ansari motivates Sepideh to follow her dreams. As a young woman who found her voice through science, I was very moved by the film and tweeted about it. Ansari responded to my tweet!
I eventually met both Ansari and Nicole Scott at a conference. I was so captivated by their experiences in space and how different their paths were to accomplishing their dreams. Nicole spent over 105 days in orbit. She’s an artist, and was the first human to ever paint in space. Anousheh is the first Iranian space tourist to journey to the stars. But it was their tales of seeing Earth from above that I deeply connected to.
WW: Did any aspect of their story surprise you?
EM: Something Nicole Stott said has really stuck with me: people on Earth hear about the launch and the landing, but we don’t always think about the mission. Astronauts like Peggy Whitson are up there now pushing boundaries, shattering records, and conducting incredibly important scientific research.
I was also blown away by the idea that it takes 90 minutes to orbit Earth. You don’t just see one sunset, you experience 16.
WW: As you say, “Dot of Light,” as well as some recent projects like “Fistful of Stars” have dealt with the subject of space. Why has that been something you keep returning to?
EM: My fascination with space began when I was 17 visiting the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. In the heart of the Particle Accelerator, I walked along the inner workings of the LHC where particles are smashed together on a quest to answer the deepest mysteries of the Universe. I began to wonder about what lies beyond our daily experiences here on earth; how are we connected to the rest of the universe; and how do we as humans on earth experience the cosmos? My interest in these “mysteries” of space were reignited with the possibilities of Virtual Reality.
WW: How did you get into VR?
EM: I’m a writer and director who brings narratives about science and technology to life through storytelling. My journey into film began when I “discovered” science. My interest in science led me to outer space, and outer space led me to Virtual Reality.
A little over a year ago, I was approached by composer Paola Prestini at National Sawdust to develop a visual experience for a live space opera called The Hubble Cantata. The goal was to make people feel as if they were floating through the stars. The Cantata is based on the poetic ideas of Dr. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who worked on The Hubble Telescope for 24 years. He says that “the atoms in our bodies were forged inside the furnaces of stars, therefore it is true we literally are stardust.”
I wanted to transport people to the deepest pockets of the Universe that only The Hubble Telescope can see thousands of light-years-away. It felt like VR was the only way to tell that story.
WW: Why was it important for you for those projects to also be about the communal experience?
EM: It was always a dream of mine not just to stare at Hubble’s images of cosmic wonder, but to float within them. The Orion Nebula was a unique setting for us to concentrate on because it is the birthplace of stars. VR allowed me to bring the Orion Nebula to life, and to put myself and other people within it.
One of the most exciting aspects of VR is that there are no rules. Virtual Reality is typically an experience you enter indoors, alone, with the use of headphones. “Fistful of Stars” debuted outside, in Prospect Park as part of BRIC! Celebrate Brooklyn. 6,000 people participated, and it marks the world’s largest communal Virtual Reality experience to date.
With our first live performance, we wanted to redefine how people think about VR. For many people, this was their first experience and hopefully it was entirely different than their expectations. The first performance was accompanied by a live space opera, under the stars, without the use of headphones. It was accessible to a wide audience for free. But most importantly, “Fistful of Stars” became a communal experience that you shared with your friends, family, and complete strangers.
WW: On May 25th you’ll also recreate the Orion Nebula VR experience at the Kennedy Center. Can you tell us more about that event?
EM: “Fistful of Stars” will have its next live performance this Spring on May 25th at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. It will then be distributed through VICE x Samsung on Beyond The Frame on June 15th on the Gear VR.
WW: What are you working on next?
EM: I’m developing “Pale Blue Dot,” an episodic VR series that explores future worlds and our connection to the cosmos. For the project, I’m collaborating on with Intel to explore the possibilities of interactivity as a storytelling tool to further immerse viewers into the experience. As a filmmaker and artist, I am most excited to push the technology to its limits and fail upwards, uncovering new discoveries along the way.