Birds of A Life’s Work

Like most people, birds fascinate me. I’m not a birder, not even close, but I enjoy listening to and looking at them. I also enjoy filming them, when they’ll cooperate, which isn’t often. Working with cats and kids are a cakewalk compared to birds.

Here are some shots the cinematographers of A Life’s Work captured. The first two minutes were shot by Wolfgang Held in Copemish and Manistee, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, and Cordes Junction (Arcosanti), Arizona. I shot the next thirty seconds at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.* Andy Bowley shot the remainder of the clip at the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California. There is sound throughout, but it’s very quiet. The first shots were taken from inside looking out, so you won’t hear any chirping or squawking or feather-rustling or nothing.


It was fun putting this clip together and I find it very soothing to watch. I tried to tell a little story with the SETI footage.

What do you make of it? Do you have a favorite shot?

And if any of you birders out there would care to identify some of these beauties, please leave a comment here or on Facebook or send me a direct message. Thanks.

* My lame shots have no business being sandwiched between such fine work, but I like the sound of grackles, so I decided to use that footage.

In addition to monetary help, there are many ways you can support A Life’s Work. Why not consider being a part of  the film’s growing community.

Time Lapses

Where Does the Time GO?

Wikipedia tells me that Georges Méliès first used time-lapse cinematography in his 1897 film Carrefour De L’Opera. Since then it has been used only god can count how many times. Many people, myself included, would say overused. This is a shame, because time-lapse does a great job of visually getting the point across that time passes quickly.

I am wrestling with using time-lapse in A Life’s Work despite its triteness. Below are two shots we set up for time-lapse, one at Arcosanti, one at the Allen Telescope Array. They are sped up so that about 40 minutes appears before you in about 40 seconds. (My software tells me it is sped up around 7,500%.) There are very good reasons to use these shots in the film, but relying on a cliche is usually not my style.

And Now, the Time Lapse Shots


And Now, About the Time Lapse Shots

I remember when cinematographer Andy Bowley and I set up the Arcosanti shot. We trekked down a ravine and up the mesa across from Arcosanti. Andy planted the camera, pressed the red record button, and we sat on a couple of rocks and watched the sunset. These little birds  flitted around us and charmed me. Their wings made a sound like I had never heard before. I said so to Andy and he told me that’s because they weren’t birds, but bats, and it was likely we were near a bat cave. I knew bats were beneficial, and I’ve always had an abstract fondness for them, but until then I had never been so close to so many. (I’m a city boy, and my city isn’t Austin.)  I was momentarily freaked out and worried about one landing in my hair. Andy assured me this was an old wives tale and I put it out of my mind and enjoyed the sunset, the swooping, fluttering bats, and the desert’s summer evening air.

I have no memory of bats or anything else when we captured the Allen Telescope Array time lapse shot.

And  Now, About the Sounds Accompanying the Time Lapse Shots

Arcosanti: That’s me playing steel string acoustic guitar, a doodle I came up with while at Ucross. I kind of like it. I recorded this in my bathroom, sitting in the tub, with the shower curtain closed, my little recorder on the toilet tank. Hope that’s not TMI.

ATA: These are sounds recorded by NASA/JPL. They are, in the order they were played:

Lightning on Saturn, captured by Cassini

Lightning on Jupiter, captured by Voyager

Saturn’s radio emissions, Captured by Cassini

These bits of audio have been time compressed as well. Amazing how we can manipulate time, and how it manipulate us. (The guitar music was not manipulated in any way.)

You can hear more space sounds, and download some great ringtones, from the NASA website.



About the Clips

There are a bunch of original clips using footage shot for A Life’s Work on this blog. You can see a list of posts that contain clips by clicking here. If you visit the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel you can watch them without reading the text.

What’s With the Clips, Anyway?

Each time I put a clip up I have a little fear that someone will see it and think it’s part of the finished film. And then look at another clip and say, “Huh, what the hell are these two clips going to be in the same film?”

Editing at the MacDowell Colony, 2010.

Some are taken from the 36-minute sample editor Cabot Philbrick and/or I put together (“The Redwoods,” “Looking for Rare Gospel Vinyl,” “Jill Tarter on Growing Up in the 50s”), but most I edited especially for the blog. The film right now has a somewhat sturdy outline and many of those clips don’t fall within its parameters. Does that mean they won’t be in the finished film?

My Notebook

Some most definitely won’t be (“First Shots”)*, and others will most likely not be (“What’s My Favorite Tree,” though part of David Milarch’s answer and the archival footage might be). And the rest? Who knows? This blog has become a notebook for me, a way for me to focus what I’m working on and try some new things. Editing the clips makes me review footage and think of new possibilities. “Paolo Soleri Discusses Arcosanti Residents” is a good example of this. It’s quite possible that some of those shots and edits will make it in the final film, and that clip was really put together exclusively for here.

So, when you watch a clip, you might be seeing something like the birth of an idea that will be in the final film, or something that might make it to the DVD extras, or, in the case of something like “Ends,” just a favorite shot of mine that will only be seen here.

No matter where they wind up, it’s exciting for me to share them. Do you enjoy watching them? Let me know.

You can view most of the clips I mentioned and a LOT more by visiting the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel.


* “First Shots” and nine other clips are on Vimeo. These clips are mostly tangential, more like outtakes. They are usually just a series of shots or some weird little one offs such as this one: “Banter at the Allen Telescope Array.”



SETI – An Act of Imagination: A Clip

I know you enjoy seeing clips of A Life’s Work, and this post has one, but first this.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an Op-Ed by Christopher Cokinos about the SETI Institute’s financial woes. These two paragraphs jumped out at me.

Certainly we don’t cotton to the idea of being alone. We yearn for the big signal from the stars, the cosmic hail. When Stephen Hawking warns us against contacting E.T. because we might end up invaded by Klingons, we argue about it around the water cooler. We thrill to Contact and District 9 and play video games featuring tentacled aliens. We tune in when Carl Sagan and Timothy Ferris explain outer space on TV.

Yet we’re surprisingly unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam.

Why are we unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam? I don’t have an answer to this. Do you?

SETI requires something like five million dollars to keep the Allen Telescope Array functioning for a couple of years. You can’t make the cheapest, cheesiest straight to VOD science fiction film for that amount. And how much real imagination would go into making such a film? Probably not much.

The people at the SETI Institute are scientists. They are not UFO-ologists or some fringe group that believe in alien abduction, Roswell, ancient astronauts or any of that Erich von Däniken stuff. (I am surprised how often I have to tell people this.)

But they are also people of great imagination. For some reason, we don’t usually think of science and imagination together, but we should. SETI’s search involves cutting edge science and great imagination, and the ATA is an example of this. How to search? How to search better tomorrow than yesterday? Where to search? Heck, just asking the question, “Are we alone?” and considering the answer is a giant imaginative act, one that humans have been engaged with since the dawn of self-awareness.

Which brings me to the clip.

This is from the first four minutes of A Life’s Work, what I call the “Overture” section. In it, the subjects speak about why their venture matters, in a big picture way. Here’s Jill Tarter talking about why SETI matters.


Does SETI’s search matter? Is it a waste of time, money, or resources? You know my answer. What do you think?

(Note: some footage in this clip is acting as a placeholder.)

Take My Advice, Don’t Take My Advice

Here’s a recent email exchange I had with Andy Bowley, one of the fine, fine cinematographers who worked on A Life’s Work. How we arrived at this point in our back and forth doesn’t matter. What matters is the content of this excerpt, which I think fits in nicely with the theme of the film and the blog.
Andy Bowley
Where’s in the World is Andy Bowley? Among the Allen Telescope Array.

when i was in high school, i was encouraged to write a letter to a fellow who was doing a lot of work in computer graphics/filmmaking. i was interested in this field, so i wrote him a dorky letter asking him many questions, among them: which should i study if i am interested in both filmmaking or computers? a few months later a letter came back from the guy.  in a dense and beautiful hand, he wrote that it was a miracle that my letter was delivered at all, as it was addressed to his loft space, where he never received mail. he gave me great advice, telling me that when it came to pursuing computers vs. art, he suspected that the choice would be “made for me” — and in closing, he advised me never to take anyone’s advice too seriously. anyway, i was so happy that a new york guy had taken such obvious effort to craft such a thoughtful reply to a high school worm like me.

i have always remembered his name. it was carter burwell. who, i was delighted to learn many years later, had quit the computer graphics/academics racket altogether to become one of the most successful film composers in hollywood history.

a nice guy triumphs.

i like that.

I asked Andy’s permission to use this email and because he’s a very nice guy, he graciously agreed. He also added:

i should mention it was his father charles burwell, a teacher at my high school with a similarly generous sprirt, who put me in touch with carter.

And then I asked if he still had the letter.

i believe the burwell letter has gone the way of the dumpster. you’ve heard of pack rats? i am the opposite-animal, whatever that may be.

i do get a twinge of regret when i throw stuff like that away, but then it’s rare that i ever think about it or need it again.  and then and there i have gained another cubic foot of free space  such are the inner machinations of a man who lived on a boat for 10 years.

The moral of the story? Write to people you don’t know and ask their advice, and if you’re the person written to, respond thoughtfully and seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Here’s some Burwell music for you, from the end credits of No Country for Old Men, a film made by his most famous collaborators, The Coen Brothers.


For more on the cinematographers who have worked on A Life’s Work, click here.

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]

Designing SETI Institute Graphics: Guest Blogger Danielle Futselaar

(I’m thrilled that guest blogger Danielle Futselaar took time out from her very busy schedule to write the following post about her association with the SETI Institute. In her non-native tongue, no less.

I met Danielle through the wonderful world of Facebook. She somehow found out about A Life’s Work — drawn to it by SETI — and a correspondence began.  Danielle is a graphic designer and illustrator and owner of ArtSource Graphic Design. She has been — for a year now — the volunteer graphic designer for the SETI Institute. She lives in Arnhem, Netherlands.)

Is it not weird, how some things happen, and how you then wonder that things might happen for a reason, or how extraordinary it is that it happened at all?

My involvement with SETI and the SETI Institute has been such a thing.

I’ve always been interested in sci-fi and SETI. Who hasn’t wondered if we are alone in the universe? Many a time my husband and I gazed at the sky talking about stuff like that… (My husband has like 300 books on the subject.)

SETI reseacher Seth Shostak and I had communicated via email for a little while, and through him I learned more about his work, the Institute, Big Picture Science (their radio show). Two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Seth in person in San Francisco. He’s an inspiration when it comes to SETI research and the SETI Institute and all things astronomy.


Heeding SETI’s Distress Signal

When I heard that the Institute was in financial distress, and that the Allen Telescope Array was being put in hibernation because of that, I felt I had to come to their aid. So I digitally screamed out over the Internet how horrible their situation was, gave them ideas to improve their marketing and offered my help as a concept developer and graphic designer. My offer went unanswered.

Four months later I was ready to throw in my towel (and that’s the worst thing for a Douglas Adams fan like me). I wrote SETI again and they apologized (like a thousand times) and explained that they had not seen my offers and ideas, and if I still wanted to help, they’d be interested. That’s how it began, right when I thought it was over, it really only just began…

So I created some stuff, for TeamSETI, and for the Christmas membership appeal 2011. This led to designing a poster for SETIcon II (see image). When the people of the Institute saw that they were super excited. They LOVED it. I think they responded to the Drake Equation in the soap-bubbles…

Please Danielle, Can We Have More?

And then they said they really wanted three posters…This led to all the graphic work for SETIcon. I work alone and have for many years. I don’t subcontract or have employees. Needless to say, this turned out to be a lot of work for many months.

I designed a total of four posters, and everything else that needed to be done, from online-banners in many shapes and sizes, name-tags, directional signs, agenda boards, to eventually the program flyer… and I designed a lot of other stuff for the Institute as well, but that’s another story. I also created an artist impression of “Astroid Minerva and its two Moons,” a drawing based on the discovery by Franck Marchis, one of the SETI scientists.

The Rewards of Volunteering for SETI

They were so happy and thankful for everything I had done that they asked me to join a panel to discuss the topic “imagining exoplanets, artists getting it right” because of this Artist Impression. Franck Marchis will be the moderator of this panel. And I was also asked if I would like to have my illustrations in an exhibition! (Uhhh… Yeah!)

And that’s where we are now…

I am kind of nervous because I will finally meet those people I have worked so hard for. They will all be there — Seth, Jill Tarter, Frank Drake, Franck Marchis — all the graphic work I created will be there. Is it OK for me to be nervous?

To be continued …



Believe? No. Know!

I saw Ridley Scott’s Prometheus the other day and in it there’s some talk of “belief.” What does scientist Shaw, the Noomi Rapace character, believe and what does she know? It reminded me of  an exchange I had with Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute at the Hat Creek Observatory, home to the Allen Telescope Array.

In the audio below, you’ll hear me stumbling to find my question. Thankfully, Tarter knew what I was getting at and rescued me from embarrassing myself completely.

With apologies to The X-Files.




An Email On My Corkboard?

We all need some kind of reassurance from time to time. One of the things I need it for is my skill as a cinematographer. So on my corkboard is a print out of an email from Andy Bowley, a very fine cinematographer who shot much of A Life’s Work.

Here's an actual email from a real cinematographer!

Thank you, Andy. Your email not only flatters me, but it makes me laugh. And that’s why it’s on my corkboard.

And here’s the video clip in question. Which I shot. Enjoy the banter, which starts about 30 seconds in.


For more about this clip, which I shot, click here. Did I mention I shot it?

Do you keep such things around to bolster your confidence? Please tell me I’m not alone here.

Using the Accident

I’m doing some work for hire that I can’t talk about just yet, but I can tell you that the other day I researched special effects legend Douglas Trumbull’s animation work on the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I also held in my white-archival-gloved hands a copy of an early draft of 2001. My mind was blown.) Here’s a Trumbull quote from Expanding Cinema by Gene Youngblood.

Screenshot from the the Stargate sequence. (Not the transition mentioned.)

There was one short slit-scan sequence—a bad take, actually—which started out black and instead of having walls of color come at you it had little points of light which were parts of the artwork before it actually developed into walls. It started out black, then a few little red sparks came out, and then a few more and it generated more and more. That particular shot was done with a device I rigged for automatically accelerating the speed… Though the shot is brief, it was the only one with a transition effect: it started out black and slowly became something.

This “bad take” became the transition from a shot of deep space to the Stargate. Unintended. A mistake. It became an integral shot in the film.

Coming across this quote reminded me of something Jill Tarter said when I interviewed her for A Life’s Work.

The Vela Pulsar and its surrounding pulsar wind nebula.

We have a tradition in astronomy of building a new telescope, to look at the universe in a different way, and although we got the telescope funded by saying it’s going to solve this problem and this problem and some other problem that we know about, the most fantastic thing that new telescopes do is show us something that we didn’t expect at all. Something phenomenal.Jocelyn Bell and her thesis advisor, in England, in the 60s, strung a whole bunch of wire on fence posts over the British countryside, creating a telescope that looked at low frequencies at the radio sky. And suddenly, because Jocelyn Bell was extremely persistent and paid attention to the slight little anomalies that were in the data, she found pulsars. A new phenomena. No one could explain it at first. Indeed because these were such regularly occurring pulses in the sky, like clockwork, they were called LGM1, LGM2. Little Green Man. They thought that maybe that’s what they found. But the time they got to LGM4, they were thing that’s a lot of aliens up there, and by about that time, someone had unearthed a theoretical paper from 30 years prior that talked about the observational consequences of a rotating neutron star whose magnetic and rotational axis were not aligned, i.e., a prediction of radio pulses. And so that’s what was discovered. But we have many, many examples of this kind of unexpected discovery on the basis of building something new, something that looked at the sky in different ways.

For the Allen Telescope Array, we can expect that we might have as well, such serendipitous unexpected detections. We will be able, for example, for the first time, to study the transient radio sky. And there are many sources of emission that have been predicted and probably transient sources that no one’s ever thought about, that might be one of the legacies of this telescope. Even if it does not successfully detect evidence of someone else’s technology. It’s really a win-win situation. We’ve built this telescope to do SETI, better than we’ve ever been able to do before. But we can’t make any promises about SETI. However we’re going to look at the radio sky in a different way, and therefore we can be pretty confident that we’ll discover something new and marvelous.

Reading these two quotes I wonder why it is that certain people have an openness to see a mistake or an anomaly as something other than failure, why they might see in mistakes and anomalies something new and marvelous.

So can you be trained to see from this point of view or is it something some are born with and others not? What do you think?

Here’s Jocelyn Bell talking about the discovery of pulsars.


[cross posted on the mighty mighty]