“I must have more shots of the military!”

I’ve been editing a section of A Life’s Work that relies on some archival footage, so I’ve been searching and watching and thinking and searching and watching and cutting. A new post about archival footage coming soon, but here’s one I wrote back in 2009. Think of it as Archival Part I.

[The title of this post if from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.]

Edward D. Wood, Junior
Edward D. Wood, Junior

I share with Ed Wood a fondness for stock footage. There, I hope, the similarities end. In fact, I don’t even like to call it stock footage. I prefer to call it “archival.”

I think it goes back to when I was in high school and my history teacher included some AV as part of a lesson on the Great Depression: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Here was a voice singing about poverty and desperation, traveling over time and space, and punching me in the gut in 1978.

And that’s how I like to use archival. It’s evident in the SETI clip and the redwoods clip. That footage of redwoods being felled (from The Redwood Saga) looked a lot differently to people in 1940 when those images were first seen than it does to people now. Then it was a sign of progress: those trees were being used to build an America that was economically growing. Watching it now it seems like a mass execution. With the Soleri clip I posted I didn’t do that, not exactly. There I wanted to show Frank Lloyd Wright’s L A R G E presence; interviews you see or read with Soleri invariably begin with an introduction that includes his apprenticeship with Wright, and in Dome House you see Wright everywhere, except, as Soleri points out, in the table.  (In another Soleri section I use archival extensively to show the passing of time.)

I also have a feeling that when I’m using archival and home movies I’m working with found objects and incorporating them into a bigger canvas. I’m repurposing, in a sense, and I like that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about archival these days because I’m about to edit some new footage–the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project sections of the sample. These sections will add about eight minutes to the sample, which will bring it in at 35 minutes. It is now beginning to look more like a film than a sample.

But how to use it to advance Robert Darden and the BGMRP’s stories, and of course A Life’s Work as a whole? What footage do I choose? Where do I place it? How much? If I use gospel performance footage, what performer(s), which song(s), from when during the golden age? Big questions. Some of them have obvious answers, others don’t.

But finding answers to those questions is an exciting part of the process, and I’m grateful that I’ll have a chunk of time to examine those questions.

More on that chunk of time in the next post.

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.)

Where Are the Experts?

Dear Filmmaker,

Are you interviewing experts who are critical of your subjects’ work? If yes, who? If no, why not?



This is an excellent question. I am not interviewing experts. I decided early on that though the projects are important, no question, in many ways they are beside the point. The real story of A Life’s Work is the human urge to do something lasting, to contribute to something larger than ones’ self. Introducing talking heads who extoll the theories of Paolo Soleri, or critics of SETI, for example, detracts from that story and puts the focus of the film on the nuts and bolts of the project. The film then becomes more journalistic, and I’m not interested in that at all.

Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV)

That being said, I hope to include footage of a certain senator who was instrumental in eliminating SETI from the federal budget back in the early 90s (SETI was under the aegis of NASA), forcing them to regroup and seek funding from the private sector. This is a major event in the SETI story, and tells us a lot about the tenacity of Jill Tarter and her colleagues.

Thanks for the question.

If you have a question for the filmmaker, just leave it as a comment. If I use your question, I’ll send you an origami animal of some kind.

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.)









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 …



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




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

Gender bias in the 1950s

[This post originally appeared on October 16, 2009.  The clip in this post is one of my favorite sections of the work in progress. The post is also a fave because of the comments it generated. I love the virtual exchange between artist Jane Deschner and scientist Jill Tarter. I would be thrilled if the comments continued on this post, and that’s the real reason I’m reposting it.] 

Here’s a clip from the sample of Jill Tarter, Director of SETI Research, The SETI Institute. I hope you enjoy it.


My favorite part of this clip is the edit that happens about 1:43 in.

Miss Jenkins:
… you need to know more than just how to run a house or an apartment. You need to know why as well as how.

Cut to

Jill Tarter:
All of this counseling …

The expression on her face–it’s as if she were watching Miss Jenkins dole out that advice–it’s so telling.

How did I find Why Study Home Economics, this educational film made by Lawrence, Kansas’ Centron Productions? (Was this directed by Herk Harvey, director of the cult horror classic Carnival of Souls, who worked for Centron for 25 years?)

Before I get to how I found it, you need to read the unedited transcript from that section of the interview.

Why do you want to take calculus, you’re just going to grow up and have babies. You want to take shop, no you have to take home economics. Oh, you’ve already taken home economics, well I guess you can take shop. All of this… this counseling that was so aimed at making you do what was expected and the norm rather than going off and being an engineer…

You may notice that the clip and the transcript differ. That’s not a big deal, that’s what editing a documentary is all about. But notice what we cut:

You want to take shop, no you have to take home economics. Oh, you’ve already taken home economics, well I guess you can take shop.

In that sentence Tarter tells us about the prevalent attitude of the time.

From the start I’ve always thought there was a place for educational films in A Life’s Work. When Cabot and I were editing, we thought a good place to insert some of it might be here.

I had discovered the Internet Archive when I was searching for stock footage quite a while ago. I went to the site (and I encourage you to do so, too; it’s an amazing site, more interesting and entertaining than YouTube) and I searched “home economics” because those words were planted in my mind by Tarter in the complete interview.

I found Why Study Home Economics and downloaded it. When we watched it, we realized we struck a little gold. That little bit of educational film shows and tells us the attitude of the time. Tarter’s sentence became unnecessary. It is, I think, an efficient, effective, powerful, and amusing edit.

But I would never have dreamed I’d find archival footage that cut in so well with her statement and expression. Never. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Did you like the clip?

Edited by Cabot Philbrick. Cinematography by Andy Bowley and Thomas M. Harting, CSC.

Special thanks to everyone at SETI, especially Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, Frank Drake, Karen Randall, Cynthia Phillips, Rocco Mancinelli, Chris Neller; Susie Jorgensen and Rick Forster at Hat Creek Radio Observatory; U.S. Park Ranger Steve Zachary; and the students in SETI’s 2008 Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Astrobiology. More on the students in a future post.

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.