Images courtesy Eliza McNitt

Watching the Birth of a Star in Virtual Reality Is Interstellar Therapy

Experience a 'Fistful of Stars' in Eliza McNitt's soothing and operatic educational space odyssey, premiering today at SXSW.

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Mar 14 2017, 7:17pm

Images courtesy Eliza McNitt

I'm brushing elbows with the Hubble telescope. Eyes deep in Eliza McNitt's virtual reality film Fistful of Stars, debuting today at SXSW, I float past the 24,500-pound super camera. The telescope shoots me from a relaxing Earth orbit into the cosmos to watch a rare and beautiful moment: the birth of a star. 

McNitt avoids the existential despair that often accompanies the grandeur of space. Her poetic explanation of what I'm seeing makes me feel connected to the cosmos. I hover over the celestial body like a proud father, feeling in that moment a relationship to the mass of hydrogen many times my own size. 

As the fiery purple cloud of matter condenses into a sun, the narrator, advisor, and astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio's voice booms in my ears, "The atoms in our bodies were forged in nuclear furnaces at the heart of previous stellar generations. We literally are stardust. The DNA woven through our bodies contains about as many atoms as galaxies have stars." Livio echoes the philosophy of Carl Sagan, who popularized the idea that humans are, "made of star stuff." With her operatic, educational space odyssey, McNitt carries the beloved astrophysicist's mantle into virtual reality. 

McNitt's dedication to accuracy is as vital to her craft as compelling visual storytelling. She began making films while researching the impact of vanishing honeybees. The resulting documentary,  Requiem for the Honeybee, was broadcast on C-SPAN and her work received awards from the Harvard, MIT, the Audubon Society, CERN, the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, Pfizer, the United States Armed Forces, and the United States Air Force.

Last week at Arup Sound Lab's downtown Manhattan office space where I screen the film, she's dressed in a broad-brimmed hat and a leather jacket, and talks confidently about her creative process. She's the archetype of a cool New York filmmaker, but also geeks out about reconciling the poetry of space with the science. "Mario is very careful about the wording of the script," she recounts. "He'll say things like, 'You cannot say Hubble has opened our 'imagination' to the wonders of the cosmos, you have to say it has opened our minds. Without the mind, there is no imagination!'"

Fistful of Stars, commissioned by Brooklyn venue National Sawdust, represents the convergence of experts in many fields. "What makes this project unique is we have astrophysicists working with architects working with composers working with VR filmmakers," McNitt says. The team she brings together for Fistful of Stars includes Livio, VFX house The Endless Collective, and structural engineering firm Arup's 3D Sound Lab, composer and New Inc. alum Paola Prestini, and the 30-piece ensemble, 100-person choir, and duo from the Metropolitan Opera who performed her score. The epic arrangement was recorded right after a version of Fistful of Stars, called The Hubble Cantata, screened to a crowd at a free show in Brooklyn last year.

McNitt's next move is another educational space film, the subject of which isn't yet public. Check out more of her work on her website.

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