About two weeks ago, Fabio Di Donato’s video Around Saturn bolted across the internet like a meteor in the sky.
Di Donato’s short film is compiled from 200,000 pictures taken by NASA's Cassini mission between June 2005 and June 2013. The flicker of the black and white images looks like an old moviehouse projector, the passing bodies look like dust on the film. Rocky Saturnine moons that don’t look real give the piece an almost Ed Wood-esque feel at first glance. Then it really gets going, with rings and moons whipping past to the soundtrack by Shostakovich. It’s really sharply edited–a collage of just one subject.
This isn't the first time that Di Donato has tackled the incredibly immense in the shortform–as it turns out he has enough of a back catalog that I pretty much had to get ahold of him. We chatted over email about his videos of the Earth shot from the International Space Station, of probes flying over the Moon, as well as his process, influences and favorite planet.
MOTHERBOARD: So what’s your background, your day job?
Fabio Di Donato: I'm an ICT consultant in Rome for a couple of companies where I manage teams for developing Enterprise Integration Systems (EIS) solutions in both telecommunications and public administration.
What’s the journey that brought you to the method (compiling still photos)?
I had already used still photos in other videos, my passion for editing actually started because I wanted to edit a classic holiday video three years ago, then things got a little out of hand.
Insect Sight was the first one and almost entirely made using 3 pictures I took of the Aegean Sea; Post Atomic and Signs At The Dawn Of The Earth are made of pictures of paintings by the great painter Nino Cordio, the father of a friend of mine; with these two also I started to play with space resources (the sound; it's not clear yet if that's real sound recorded by the Voyager or not, but I like to think that it is).
The Saturn video is 200,000 images, right?
It's a selection from more than 200,000 pictures (I'm counting 238,125 pictures, but the original number of pictures that Cassini had taken in those 8 years is a little bit more. I lost a few pictures during the conversion); the video itself is made of about 6,800 pictures.
I wanted to edit a classic holiday video three years ago, then things got a little out of hand.
How long did that take you? Can you describe your process a little bit?
I started downloading and processing the pictures last February; the pictures are provided in a native NASA format called Vicar (with .IMG extension); I needed a software to convert them in PNG for the editing, so I found this video (I see now there's still my like from 5 months ago there) explaining a procedure in Python written by Jessica McKellar and Adam Fletcher to process the RAW data.
I wrote a bash script to call recursively the procedure on all the pictures, then my computer actually melted. I took this as a sign that maybe it wasn't the right time to edit the video. I started over again last June, I edited for one month (not full time though, because that was while I was also working) and I published right before I was going on a holiday.
Did you do the Delicate Home and Grail movies in the same way?
Delicate Home and Dancing with the Stars were also made with space pictures, but the process was much easier since you can download high resolution photographs from here and they come usually as 4256*2832 JPEGs.
These pictures are taken by the crew on board of the ISS with the purpose of creating time-lapse videos, so we can enjoy long-lasting scenes; with the Cassini footage it's all a different story; it's very rare to find a sequence of pictures that last more than one second; that's also one of the reasons for I edited Around Saturn with that fast montage style.
And Grail was different altogether. I made Grail not using pictures but remixing videos already published by NASA and MoonKAM; the source video was really interesting but it was actually taller than it was large–it didn't fit a usual 16:9 screen format, so I had the idea of mirroring it, creating a sort of "Sea Parting" effect.
You mention Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack in the Saturn video’s description. Are there any specific works of hers that stick out to you, that inspired you?
When I was a child, I read several books from Piero Angela, an eclectic and very popular science journalist and writer, among his works was one about the cosmos; I remember I liked it a lot but for a while I didn't read other books on that topic.
Then I first saw Margherita Hack in person, holding a public speech at the Auditorium of Rome six years ago. The scenery was beautiful because that was in the Cavea, which is outdoors.
I remember I was very inspired and fascinated by all I've heard and I was imagining, so I started reading her books. She was also a strong character, with a sharp, enthusiastic approach to life, science, knowledge and politics; so it's the whole thing of her that I loved and that inspired me, a vision connecting the stars and our role here that I shared. Also, she was a bike lover, as I am.
What's your earliest memory of being interested in outer space?
I actually remember a dream I made when I was a child. I was walking through the orbits of the planets in the Solar System…
Any other artists or scientists who inspire your work?
After Margherita Hack I went reading narratives of physics and cosmology such as Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, and watching documentaries from Morgan Freeman and Stephen Hawking.
As for the artists, someone watching my video has written comments quoting Méliès, Kubrick and Fritz Lang; I love all of these giants, and of course I just can't read my name associated with them, but yes they are part of our common background; I also love David Lynch.
But the two artists that originally inspired me of making experimental-unusual videos are Thorsten Fleisch and Ulu Braun: I saw their works at the Aarhus Film Festival in Denmark, 2008, that was mind-blowing.
Do you have a favorite planet?
Other than the Earth?
What do you have planned next?
I have several ideas for more videos and also for a couple of movies, but I really have to deal with the difficulty of finding the time, resources (and the ability) to do them while working.
As for the videos I want to do more with physics phenomena, mixes of science, music, sounds with a bit of my personal expression; then my other focuses are on the environmental issues and the human condition in these fast times (such as in Play, Feel the Tech Touch, and the never-ending Life Cut); but to be honest I really don't know what video will be the next one. What usually happens is that, while I have these ideas cooking in my background, I listen to some music, I feel the urge to associate it with images, then the whole thing couple with the ideas I had before; I just have to wait for that to happen.