Jill Tarter Retires, Sort Of.

Yesterday the SETI Institute grabbed some headlines with the announcement that Jill Tarter is retiring as the Director of the Center for SETI Research. Naturally, I thought, time to break out the camera and head to Mountainview. Production of A Life’s Work is not over!

But beyond the headline there is this:

“For many years working at the SETI Institute I’ve worn two hats: the Bernard Oliver chair, and the Director of the Center for SETI Research,” said Tarter, who was a prototype for the character Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s novel and film Contact. “My colleague Dr. Gerry Harp will step into the directorship role to continue our strong tradition of excellent research, freeing me up to focus on finding stable funding for it. I want to make the endowment of SETI research a success, so that my colleagues now, and in the future, can focus on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for all of us.”

When I interviewed Tarter she spoke very passionately about securing an endowment for SETI. Here’s a very, very, very hastily edited clip wherein Tarter addresses the joy of SETI research and the need for SETI funding. I couldn’t resist adding that little bit at the end. I really enjoyed Tarter’s sense of humor.


So, should I be rushing out to interview Tarter on this latest development? The short answer is no. You can read the long answer in this post: Is Production Really Over?

If you’re interested in SETI updates, why not visit the A Life’s Work Facebook page and like it. I post plenty of links to SETI news, as well as lots of other interesting things related to the subject of the film.

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.

What Frustrates the Filmmaker? Too Many Goodies

In the previous post (Using the Accident), I quoted a passage from an interview I did with Jill Tarter for A Life’s Work. It’s a gem, if you ask me. The problem is, I’m not sure it fits in the film.

Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute with REI students.
And that’s very frustrating. I have a surfeit of good material. I’m not complaining, this is better than the alternative, but sometimes I wish A Life’s Work were a big fat encyclopedia that I could throw all manner of stuff in. But I can’t, I have constraints.  The film should keep the focus on the subjects, the film mustn’t deviate too far away from its main theme, the film should be under 100 minutes (that’s just me), etc.

So, what to do with all that great material? Well, that’s why there’s this here blog.

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 Extracriticum.com]

Eyes on the Screen, Ass in the Chair

I thought of this post the other day. It seems as relevant now as it was then, so I thought I’d repost it.

I had spent the previous days working on a grant proposal, and now that that was done and out, I was ready to sit down and think about editing A Life’s Work again. But I was having one of those days. I slept later than I wanted, dawdled a bit more than usual, and so by the time I sat down in front of the monitor my head wasn’t in it. I was frustrated. I started to employ my usual procrastination techniques: more coffee, perusing notebooks, guitar playing, but somewhere in the middle of my rendition of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” I put the guitar down and decided I needed to plow ahead.

This chair belongs in the Observer Room at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory. Please don't remove it.

So I started looking at the SETI sequence I had been struggling with the week before, re-watched related footage, reread the transcript, and started shuffling things around. Then I re-watched more footage, stuff seemingly unrelated to the sequence I was working on and then the a-ha moment: a solution to a problem was found, and joy upon joy, one that visually reinforced a major theme. (There’s really no point in writing about it in detail; perhaps I’ll put up the sequence and explicate it as I did with the recent Soleri clip.)

And after that rush, it re-occurred to me: if I want to get something done, I need to keep my eyes on the screen and my ass in the chair.

That’s obvious, right? But sometimes I need reminding of the obvious.

Do You Open Doors? A Clip

Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here’s a clip of Jill Tarter speaking about Frank Drake, who conducted the first SETI experiment in 1960, thereby opening the door for future generations of SETI scientists.


Thanks to the mighty fine poet Susan Elbe for bringing the Emerson quote to my attention. Want to read another Emerson quote?

Jill Tarter and Sputnik: A Clip

Last week I dropped a teaser about Sputnik’s impact on Jill Tarter, Director, Center for SETI Research, SETI Institute. (What’s the Filmmaker Reading?) In the clip below, Tarter reveals when she discovered her passion for science, the effect Sputnik had on her education, and more.


Sputnik caused a seismic shift in educational priorities in this country. But I think many smaller events occur that cause subtler shifts, societal and personal. The effects of these events may be recognized only in retrospect, some may not be recognized at all.

Do you have a similar story?

What’s the Filmmaker Reading? A Book About DARPA

The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs by Michael Belfiore, a book loaned to me by filmmaker and friend Daria Price.

In the book, Belfiore discusses the birth of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military, but technologies that have effected civilian life in a big way. GPS? The Internet? Thank DARPA. Here’s how DARPA came into being.

Sputnik 1

It’s fall, 1957 and Eisenhower is president. The Soviet Union has launched the first satellite into orbit, Sputnik, and there is concern about a science, technology, and missile gap between the USA and the USSR. Eisenhower meets with his Science Advisory Committee.

Was the United States devoting sufficient resources to science and technology development to keep its edge? Or would it steadily lose ground in the face of relentless progress by Soviet scientists born into a culture that treated science and engineering as a “kind of social passion.” That kind of passion for problem-solving was “missing in American life,” committee chairman Isidor Rabit lamented. “When I was growing up, all the boys wanted to play first base. Now most of them seem content to sit in the bleachers.”

Eisenhower wasn’t so sure about that… Eisenhower told the committee that he’d do what he could to inspire the nation’s young people to get excited about science and technology. “The people,” he said, “were alarmed and thinking about science and education,” and that should be enough, with just gentle prodding, to keep kids inspired all on their own.

There was one kid who was inspired to be an engineer before Sputnik beeped its way around the planet, Jill Tarter. But the little Soviet satellite would also play a big part in her future. More on that here.

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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

SETIstars: SETI Institute Using Crowdfunding

Yesterday’s post about SETI was in the works since last week. Soon after it went live, I found out about SETIstars, the SETI Institute’s effort to raise $200,000 so they can get the Allen Telescope Array out of hibernation and back online. And soon after that I was contacted by SETI’s PR firm, who requested some of A Life’s Work footage of the ATA in case some press outlet is looking for moving images. I was happy to provide it, for the folks at SETI who have been so generous to me.

I like the crowdfunding idea, and I think this could be a good way for SETI to get the ATA up and running again. But I think what really needs to happen is something bigger. What needs to happen is a shift from, you guessed it, short-term to long-term thinking. SETI is engaged in an activity that is pushing the limits of today’s technology.

Think of the 1960s space program. The space race, whatever its sinister basis, resulted in an innovation explosion (it had nothing to do with that weather balloon that crashed in Roswell, really). People who are in the position to fund endeavors like SETI (governments, corporations, the SuperRich) would do well, by their constituents, shareholders and legacy, to think not in terms of quarters or fiscal years, but in terms of decades and centuries.

It’s simple: not supporting ventures like SETI, the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, Arcosanti, and Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is detrimental to our future.

Okay, stepping off the soapbox now.

Here’s an article in Wired about SETIstars.

Is Production Really Over?

Documentary filmmakers frequently encounter a dilemma: how do you know when to say, “production is over.”

You can always shoot more, especially now with video. For Grey Gardens, a film I reference frequently, the Maysles shot more than 70 hours of footage over the course of six weeks. That’s film, not video. And film stock and processing was very expensive back in 1973. It still is. Today, 70 hours of footage would be considered a paltry amount for a 90-minute film.

But expense and shooting ratio aside, the bigger question is, how do you know when you’ve shot all there is to shoot? With a documentary like Spellbound there is a built-in ending. The spelling bee competition. The winner is exalted. The losers cry. Epilogue.
With a film like The King of Kong, though there is a contest to see who can score the most points, there is always the potential for a new record once you’ve yelled, “That’s a wrap.” (This is in fact the case with the chase for the Donkey Kong high score.)

With A Life’s Work I can always shoot more. Stuff always happens. The ATA goes into hibernation, for example. Or the Champion Tree Project changes its name to Archangel Ancient Tree Archive and sets out on a new expedition. Or a new duct is being constructed at Arcosanti that will capture the heat from the greenhouse and passively bring it up a building on the mesa. Or the Black Gospel Restoration Project is sent a piece of vinyl on a label no has heard of before.

And then I look at footage and I think, wouldn’t it be great to have footage of Copemish, Michigan in the spring? Wouldn’t it be great to shoot the Milarchs amidst blooming trees?

But I must remind myself that A Life’s Work is not about documenting the progress of these projects. That would be futile and quite beside the point of the film. The opposite of the point, really.

So I can declare that  production is over because I have the footage I want and the interviewees say things that propel the narrative. I don’t need to shoot latest developments.

But then again, wouldn’t it be nice if …

I’m sure there will be more on this topic as the edit progresses, as I come across sequences that could use a shot of ____ to really make it perfect.