IN SATURN'S RINGS is a new large-format film from Stephen van Vuuren that celebrates the Cassini-Huygens space mission's arrival on Saturn through the use of 7.5 million photographs taken during the mission. It is an immersive, hypnotic 45-minute experience, set partly to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, and the film inspires a sense of wonder that is something to behold. In the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke with van Vuuren about the influence of Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) on the project, his ambitions for IN SATURN'S RINGS, the genesis of the project, his thoughts on the level of public interest in modern space exploration, and how he came to hire LeVar Burton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) to narrate the film.
You partly dedicated the film to Stanley Kubrick because of your love for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY . When did you first see the film, and what kind of impact did it have on you?
From reading about it in Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980), as a kid I wanted to be the first astronaut to land on Saturn's moon, Titan. As I got older I realised that wasn't going to happen. Around the time I first saw 2001, I had recently emigrated to the United States and I was 17 and lost, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was catching up on a lot of movies I hadn't seen. In the public library, one of the films I pulled out and watched was 2001. I had never realised that there were people who made movies and I had never seen a 'serious' film before. I had only seen popcorn movies like STAR WARS (1977). I now realised that you could make films about things that you were passionately interested in. After seeing 2001 I realised ''I don't have to be an astronaut. I could be a filmmaker. '' But there's a more specific reason why I dedicated the film to Stanley Kubrick. When he was making 2001, which was set on Jupiter, he originally wanted to set it on Saturn because he felt that due to the beauty of the rings it was the most cinematic of the planets. His team had imagery of Saturn which was taken from a spacecraft, but it was very poor. After working for a while, the visual effects people felt that they wouldn't be able to pull off Saturn, so they went with Jupiter instead. I felt it very fitting to dedicate the film to him as he would have loved the images used in my movie.
Did you also want to make a film that was as immersive and experiential as 2001?
Absolutely. Kubrick once said ''A film is - or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. '' That approach was very formative to me.
When you first began making short films were they in the vein of science fiction or 2001?
Yes and no. I made a lot of bad films while I was trying various things and trying to get my legs a little bit. It was later on when I started to realise that film was primarily a visual medium. It was a challenge on IN SATURN'S RINGS as our approach was quite un-Kubrick in a way. It's pretty much a found footage film. We were limited with what we had. We couldn't decide to pan right for a certain amount of time, for example, if we wanted. It was difficult to put footage together. It wasn't really an editing process. It was more just trying to get enough footage to make a film.
Were the photographs that you used in the film freely available, or did you have to go through NASA?
The vast majority are public domain photographs that came down from spacecrafts or telescopes. The rest are from volunteers who have processed photographs and then donated them to the film. Licencing 7.5 million photographs would have been an impossibility. The film, from my standpoint, kind of belongs to all of us because apart from the time-lapse photography that we used, all of the images were really just sitting there. Some of them had been seen only by certain scientists but most of them hadn't been seen by anybody.
How long did it take you to get through all the photographs?
It was March 2011 when I posted a clip of Saturn from an earlier version of the film online, and it went viral. That brought the project a lot of attention and got me connected with a lot of people who were passionate about processing space images and we ended up with about fifty volunteers who then split up into teams to work through the images and create the mass of multi planes that were used for the film.
If NASA had photographed Saturn around the time of the release of 2001, do you think the public interest would have been higher?
I think so. One of the things that lit my fire to make the film was that Cassini's arrival was so under the radar from the media standpoint. At the time, not even C-SPAN carried NASA's feed live. This was all pre-YouTube and social media. People just had no idea what was happening, period, and I think around the time of the 2001 film, people would have been more aware that the mission was underway to begin with. NASA has been struggling with unmanned space missions. They have done better with some, like the last Mars Rover where they were able to make a human connection with it. That was one of the reasons why I decided to make the film – the concept was that if we used real photographs and set the film on large screens, audiences would be able to feel like they were there. It's a different experience when Saturn is eight storeys high and filling your entire field of view. We wouldn't have been able to do this back in the Apollo days, but the actual Cassini mission would have gotten far more media coverage. People have this struggle to connect to space exploration that doesn't have a human component. With an astronaut there, we have a vicarious feeling that we are there too. If I were designing spacecraft missions, they'd all have live streaming cameras on them. Although that's very difficult to do engineering-wise, I think it would be worth all the hassle because it is important to have the support of the public. Carl Sagan was a big fan of always having manned space exploration. The famous photo of the pale blue dot representing Earth did not come from a mission or science design but a human pushing hard to make that shot happen.
I came out of the film feeling sad that people don't look up to the skies anymore – they'd rather look at their phones.
That feeling was there at the beginning of the film for me but it got much stronger as we went on, especially when we were shooting the smaller time-lapse stuff in North Carolina with volunteers. One of the volunteers made a statement that stunned me but I have since heard again: ''I have never seen the Milky Way with my own two eyes before''. With all the pollution we have, it's not always easy to see the Milky Way, but at the location we were at, even when it was not fully dark it was easy to see, and once it got dark, people would start to look up and say things such as ''It looks like we are in space!'' Which esssentially we are! I run into people who are well-educated who don't realise that you can see the moon during the day. I think there's a huge disconnect right now.
We have made our worlds a lot smaller.
Yes. If I could amass enough technology to cause a global power failure for three days, without causing a lot of havoc, I would! Perhaps people would realise the great things that are above their heads every night.
As you kind of touch upon in the film, if we looked at the stars more and pondered on our place in the universe, it might make us think twice about causing harm to our fellow Man.
We've become more disconnected to the point where nature has become like a park, an endless vast thing that extends far beyond a forest of trees and stretches into infinity.
Can you talk about the two different versions of the film that preceded IN SATURN'S RINGS and you decided not to release?
Those films were basically failures because I was trying to capture all the things we have been talking about and they were before I had the idea of doing this multi-plane animation and really putting people there. They were stylised pieces with dialogue. I was going to project all the different flights and flash images based on Saturn behind them. I just felt I hadn't captured the feeling I wanted, and that I needed something more like 2001. The idea of how to do it didn't really hit me until I was in the car and Adagio for Strings came up on random play on my CD player. I suddenly had this vision of a visceral, flying through space, music-driven film. This was 2006, and it crystallised the notion of ''Let's start over again.'' Failure is just a necessary part of the journey.
During the time you've spent making the film, how has your vision for the film evolved and changed?
The core vision is basically what I intended to from the very beginning. The changes were basically in the aspect of the found footage – ''This is what we have, and this is all we can do with it.'' That really determined what kind of film we could make. But they were only really revisions and adjustments, not fundamental changes. The only big evolution had to do with the use of narration. The first draft of the film had a lot of narration and then at one point, we had no narration at all. If we had been able to pull off having no narration at all, that would have been awesome. As we went on, it became clear to me, whilst listening to commentary on BARRY LYNDON (1975) where Kubrick is quoted as saying narration can be a great troubleshooting tool, that we did in fact need a sparse narration to help guide the audience and help them understand what they were looking at. We will release what I call the 'pure version', or kind of an alternate, director's cut, which will have no narration. I think it will be great for those who have already seen the film to be able to expereince it as a pure, music-driven film as well.
How did you come to choose LeVar Burton to do the narration?
When I decided I wanted a narrator a couple of years ago, I decided I wanted a narrator who was very skilled at reading and had a background primarily as an actor, so that they could bring out the nuances I wanted. I had seen films almost ruined by a poor choice of narrator. I felt I needed someone with a global science fiction appeal, and someone frankly, that our fundraised production could afford. After looking at about a hundred different possibilities, Levar Burton was at the top of the list.
Part two of the interview.
Part two of the interview.
The website for IN SATURN'S RINGS where details about the film and the screening dates and venues can be found.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.