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.”



Ask the Filmmaker: Why Didn’t You Shoot That?

Dear Filmmaker,

It seemed like there was big news recently involving the Milarch’s and the planting of some redwoods they cloned in Oregon. I noticed that you put a link to the event on the A Life’s Work Facebook page, but didn’t blog about it. Does that mean  you didn’t shoot the event? 


(yeah, me, one in the same)

Dear Filmmaker,

It’s true. I did not shoot the planting in Oregon.

Every time one of the subjects does something that makes the news (and this happens quite a lot), my first instinct is to go and film. But as I’ve written before, production is over (sort of). I feel like I have shot the stuff necessary (mostly) to tell this story.

That being said, I will be shooting another interview very soon. More on that in the coming weeks. I will just say it’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

But there is another reason I didn’t rush out to Oregon.

This planting was a media event. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s all it was, it was another example of the Milarchs’ important work. But I’m not interested in shooting any more media events. I’ve shot all the media events I need.

Another reason I’m not interested in showing up to media events is it’s nearly impossible to get time with the subject at these things because they are swamped by the TV crews and they , understandably, take precedent over what I’m doing because they’re airing their stories that evening. Me? Well, you know, I’m not airing it the evening of. (To hear NPR’s story about the event and a brief interview with David Milarch, click here.)

And there are budgetary considerations, too.

So, those are the reasons why I didn’t fly out to Oregon.

Thanks for playing Ask the Filmmaker, Filmmaker. I hope it eases our mind some.



The Filmmaker

You, too, can play Ask the Filmmaker. Just leave a question in a comment and I’ll answer it as best I can.


Panic! Is It a Valuable Part of the Process?

In a previous post (The First Cut Is the Hardest), I mentioned how I edit the sit down interviews first. I go through the transcript and select everything one of the film’s subjects said about a certain theme. I then try to construct some kind of arc from that material.

Right now I’m doing this with the “different successes” section.

How Does the SETI Institute Measure Success?

I was particularly interested in how the SETI Institute measured success, and Jill Tarter spoke eloquently about this. So, I edited and edited and edited and came up with these two-minutes.


It’s not finished. I’m still ambivalent about “and therefore you take your success incrementally.” And the timing will change once the images are on top of it. But overall, I’m somewhat pleased with audio.

I decided I’d keep the beginning as a talking head because she starts off in this contemplative pose.

Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter contemplates my question: How does the SETI Institute measure success?

But  I wanted show Tarter doing something other than sitting in a chair and talking to me, so it  was time to find the visuals that would go over much of this. But first …


Yes, panic. Panic that I don’t have the right footage. Panic that I used all the good footage already. Panic that I didn’t shoot enough. Panic that I need to fire up the camera and shoot more. Panic that I don’t have a clue what to put over this audio in the first place and therefore I’m a total fraud of a filmmaker and I should just go eat some worms. Panic, panic, panic!!!

 And Then About an Hour Later …

I took a breath, closed my eyes, and listened to what Tarter was saying.

“ …my colleagues and I…” “We…”  (seven times in one minute) “For us…” (her emphasis).


Though A Life’s Work is about these subjects, I also want to show at some point that they are not engaged in these endeavors alone. They stand on the shoulders of giants, and they are all part of a team. This is what I heard Tarter saying and this was my opportunity to show the teamwork.

Did I have the footage?

Yes. I had footage of Tarter’s SETI colleagues working, sometimes together, sometimes on their own.

At the Hat Creek Radio Observatory Allen Telescope Array
SETI Institute offices in Mountain View Frank Drake



But there is no mini-narrative as there is, for example, in the Searching for Gospel Vinyl clip.

Does This Matter?


But Back to the Panic!

Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a little on how much I panicked. But I did panic.

I don’t think panic is a bad thing, as long as you don’t let it take over and/or paralyze you.

A Life’s Work is not on a deadline. This can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I have plenty of time to think and make decisions. On the other hand, there’s no sense of urgency, and sometimes urgency isn’t such a bad thing. Urgency demands quick and often creative decision making. Panic kind of works the same way for me. Sometimes. Maybe. At least in this case it worked.

And now, back to dealing with images that will cover the second half of the audio above. First order of business: some panic.

Has panic ever worked for you? Or is it just bad, bad, BAD!


A Quote About Work

“If you lose yourself in your work, you find who you are. If you express the best you have in you in your work, it is more than just the best you have in you that you are expressing.”

Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian.

So, what exactly is this “more than just the best” that Buechner is talking about?


Apparently, it’s something called “Giving Tuesday.” You can give to A Life’s Work by clicking here. It’s easy to do and all amounts are welcome, $5 to $50,000. You can be sure to receive at the very least my eternal gratitude and an origami crane. And if that’s not enough, your donation is tax-deductible!

Other Platforms, Other Comments

A Life’s Work blog has, at last count, 587 comments (since I reply to all comments, about half of them are mine). But many people are shy about leaving a comment on the blog but not so shy about leaving a comment on Facebook. Here then, a couple of great comments that might have slipped under the radar.

A Comment Regarding SETI’s Jill Tarter on Gender Bias in the 1950s: A Clip

One of my favorite clips from David Licata’s film, A Life’s Work, and a note to David, when I was in high school the choice was Home Ec or Vo Ag (vocational agriculture), I didn’t like the Ag teacher so I had to take Home Ec, the only class I ever failed. Still trying to write a poem about that!


M.E., I’m still eagerly awaiting that poem!

A Comment Regarding Steely Dan and A Life’s Work (wherein I went off on the guitar solo in Peg)

I love the geeky grandeur of this post. I have a lot of things like that in my head as I write, too, metaphors that (I assume) make sense only to me. It’s great to hear one explicated like this.

Related note: the great English stage actor Ralph Richardson was a classical music fanatic. From his favorite director (I wish I could remember who it was!) he would get notes only in classical music. “That moment is a little more Bartok,” that kind of thing. Worked perfectly.


PS – I embody all sides of the Steely Dan debate. I can change from loving to hating them within a single day.

There are lessons to be learned (or reminded of) in these old theater stories. Thanks for sharing that one, J.Y.

I used to try to convince people to leave comments on the blog and not on Facebook, but now I don’t care. I just like it when you comment. So please, keep them coming.

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.)

Cabinet of Wonder

I wrote a post about summing up A Life’s Work in one word: legacy. But there is another word that runs a close second: wonder.

The work Robert Darden, Paolo Soleri, Jill Tarter, and David and Jared Milarch do keeps them asking questions and searching for answers, and that’s what wonder is, right? Each embraces this. I don’t know if they all have an object or objects in their offices or homes that represents or reminds them of their life’s work, or inspires them, or reminds them why they do what they do. I didn’t think to ask them. But if you’re a regular reader of this blog and you’ve read the “what’s on my corkboard?” posts, you know that I do.

Cabinet of WonderBut there are many things that aren’t on my corkboard that I wished were. Actually, I’d like to get more 3D than my corkboard will allow. I’d love to have a wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Wonder.” And what are some of the things I’d have in my fantasy cabinet of wonder? A chisel used by Michelangelo, a moon rock, a pine cone from the oldest bristlecone pine tree, one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s electric guitars, an Etruscan vase. These are just the first things that come to mind and have some relationship to A Life’s Work. I’m sure there’d be a bunch of other stuff in there as well.

What would be in your Cabinet of Wonder?

SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter on NPR’s Fresh Air

Did you hear Jill Tarter  of  the SETI Institute on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday? If not, check out the interview. It’s well worth 25 minutes and 26 seconds of your life.

Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute

I don’t know why it surprises me, but  Fresh Air’s Dave Davies asked many of the same questions that I did when I interviewed her. The result, the same answers. This makes perfect sense, of course. Do I feel threatened? No, there is no scoop here. And just as A Life’s Work is not a work of journalism, so, too, a radio interview (or this one, anyway) is not a work of art. Fresh Air is providing information, and information and art are very different things. In the Venn diagram that represents this case, they are not intersecting. Not even close.

I’ve encountered this before with all of the subjects, because they all are doing things the media finds worth reporting. And I’ve written about it regarding Robert Darden, whose appearance on Fresh Air brought him to my attention.

Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

Coincidentally, I received an email from Darden yesterday. In it he wrote that he enjoyed listening to Tarter on Fresh Air.  In a certain way, this surprised me, too, because in my film-addled brain, these two have been talking to each other for a long time now.

See, I’ve been working with these people for a while now. When I interviewed one, I had the other interviews in the back of my mind. When I’m editing, I’m always thinking about how what one is saying relates to something the others said. They are, in a way, conversing with each other in this film. And sometimes I get so into their exchanges that I think these people have actually met each other and discussed their work with each other.

Of course, they haven’t. But in A Life’s Work, they do.


SETIcon II: Guest Blogger Danielle Futselaar Takes Us Inside

(Last week guest blogger Danielle Futselaar told us about how she came to be the graphic designer for the SETI Institute’s SETIcon II. I’m delighted that she took the time to write about her experience at the conference and share some photos. Take it away, Danielle!) 

 I’m completely exhausted! All the impressions, and meeting all those great people overwhelming me with attention, but let me start at the beginning.

Greetings from SETI

Friday evening I stumbled in at the Hyatt Hotel after a BBQ with friends, so I was a tad late for the opening party. After I had settled into my room, I went down to the lobby where I met so, so many people from the SETI Institute; Karen Randall, Edna DeVore, Franck Marchis (finally 🙂 ), and many, many more. And seeing my work 8000 km away from home and meeting these great people made it real and worthwhile. Everything I had been working for, for those many months finally had meaning and purpose; this had been the moment I had been working so hard for.

SETIcon II: THE Event

Saturday and Sunday were incredible days. I mean, there was so much going on. I could have sat in the lobby for hours, watching the diverse group of people walk by, a melting pot of attendees, astronomers, scientists, writers, actors, etc., that alone was such a joy for me. But listening to the panels (some were so crowded that people had to stand in the hallway) was fun and very intellectually stimulating.

The Gala Dinner honoring Jill Tarter was amazing and I was speechless as I watched her receive the drawing the SETI Institute asked me make. She’s a very sweet and humane woman, someone truly worthy of admiration. Another highlight was the interview Andrew Fraknoi conducted with Frank Drake during Sunday’s lunch.

Personally, all of my illustrations sold in the auction and you can imagine how happy that made me. But when it came time for my first-ever panel discussion, about “Artists Imagining Exoplanets: Getting it Right” (in English!! I’m Dutch), I was brain-melting and armpit-gushing nervous! Somehow I managed to get through it, though I’m not sure how. Afterwards, I received many thanks for all the work I had done. It all was overwhelming and beautiful.

How About Some Photos?

Tuesday morning I joined the SETIcon II committee for a debriefing about the conference. We discussed the pros and cons, and this is what I believe: this was only the second SETIcon, but this is a growing event. The SETI Institute proves itself again and again as pioneers of bringing science to the public, and here’s another instance of that. This event will continue to grow and become more extraordinary. If you’re at all interested in astronomy or this big question—is there life somewhere in the universe besides earth–I really encourage you to attend the next SETIcon, because one really must EXPERIENCE it, it’s pretty mindblowing!


I am grateful that I could be a part of this whole experience, and I hope I can continue my association with the SETI Institute, because I made some really great new friends and met some really nice people. But no matter what happens next, this is a memory I will take with me for the rest of my life.



Here’s a recent Facebook status I lifted with Danielle’s permission

OK, I am going to have to tell this… This morning I was at the “aftermath” SETIcon II meeting at the SETI Institute. When I said my goodbye at the end of the meeting (being the second after Seth to leave the meeting) I got applause from all of the committee… Of course I hope that was not for leaving the meeting (joke 😉 ), but for what I have done for them… I left with pride and hope to keep on being involved, one way or another….

(Danielle Futselaar 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.)









On the Shoulders of SETI Giants: A Clip

This weekend is SETIcon, and A Life’s Work’s little tribute to SETI continues with this clip of Jill Tarter. Here she speaks about Frank Drake (included in the clip below), who conducted the first SETI experiment in 1960.  Drake , Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi, Barney Oliver–these and others trail-blazed the field, allowing future generations of SETI scientists, such as Tarter and her colleague Seth Shostak, to carry on with the research.


Behind the Scenes at SETI

We were there to interview Tarter, and A Life’s Work isn’t the kind of documentary that asks other folks for sound bites about the main subject. I was concerned we might insult him by asking to just film him and not interview him. But he was very accommodating and gracious. He asked us what we wanted to shoot and we decided on him at his desk, writing something. We weren’t going to zoom in on what he was writing, so anything would do.

“I’ll write the Drake Equation. How’s that? If I can remember it.” Cinematographer Andy Bowley and I laughed heartily. So we shot about five minutes of him at his desk, writing the Drake Equation over and over on a sheet of paper.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now I wish I had that sheet of paper. What a keepsake that would have been!

And Lastly…

Have a great SETIcon, all of you who will be attending and presenting. If all goes well, I’ll have a guest blogger sharing her impressions of the event.

 See also:

The Shot That Got Away