Finding Her Space

IT TAKES EIGHT AND A HALF MINUTES TO TRAVEL INTO SPACE; THREE DAYS TO REACH THE MOON; AND SEVEN MONTHS TO DROP ANCHOR ON MARS. No human has ever touched the red planet, but if Elon Musk has his way, we could do so next year via his BFR spaceship, with inflatable housing and pizza joints to follow next decade.

Beyond Mars we cannot hope to go any time soon. Therefore we must content ourselves to imagine, with Hollywood and David Bowie as our guides, what it’s like to cavort among astral bodies many light years away. We do have help from the Hubble Space Telescope. Though it’s only about 340 miles overhead, the Hubble can “see” roughly 14 billion light years into deep space, which also means fourteen billion years into the past. Closer to home, Hubble has captured arresting images of the Orion Nebula, a stellar birthing ground that Earthlings can observe as a very faint smudge in the sword hanging from Orion’s belt. Through Hubble’s eye, though, we see the nebula as a sort of giant space blossom made of gas and dust—yellows, roses, greens, blues—with mists of stars and planets hovering in it. Alas, the Orion Nebula is 1,400 light years away (the light we see took 1,400 years to reach us), meaning that none of us will ever go there.

But on August 6, 2016, about 6,000 people did visit that lovely cosmic neighborhood, in a manner of speaking. They gathered at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn for the premiere of composer Paola Prestini’s Hubble Cantata, an hourlong piece that is accompanied—for the finale—by a first-of-its-kind virtual reality film called Fistful of Stars, written and directed by Greenwich native Eliza McNitt. Using Hubble’s images as a starting point, Eliza and her team launch us into space, first floating alongside the Hubble—from which we can turn at will to see the great bright curve of the Earth behind us—then merging with the Hubble’s lens and propelling us into the nebula itself.

“And inside the Orion Nebula, you ride on the backs of stars,” Eliza says. There, viewers witness the birth, life and death of a star, an eons-long process that ends when the star explodes into a supernova. “So it’s a very simple story, and yet it was very hard to make.” The challenge lay in extrapolating, from still images, a you-are-there total immersion in deep space with an appropriate sense of awe. By all accounts Eliza succeeded wildly. Sarah Larson, who attended the Brooklyn premiere for The New Yorker, wrote, “It astounded me, this feeling of floating above Earth, and tears began to emerge from my cardboard goggles.”

It’s a warm spring day in the East Village, and Eliza is sitting on a bench outside Ninth Street Espresso; suitably, Bowie’s Low is playing on continuous loop, and the music floats out of the coffee shop and mingles with sirens, horns and other sounds of the city. Eliza lives in Manhattan now; she’s twenty-six years old with shoulder-length blonde hair (which she absently twirls on an index finger as she talks) and broad, sculpted cheekbones. She might have been a Hollywood actress, having excelled in short films; but ever since she learned to grow radishes on a wet paper towel at Whitby School, the science geek within her has been irrepressible.

Eliza’s great subject is space. Early this year she followed Fistful of Stars with Spheres: Songs of Spacetime, the first release in an ambitious three-part Virtual Reality (VR) series inspired by the discovery that space is, in a sense, awash in sound. We’ll get back to that. As for plot: “In Songs of Spacetime, you embody a star,” Eliza says, “and you’re sucked inside a black hole where you then become the black hole.”

It’s hard to overstate how daring the film is. Black holes are the strangest, most mysterious entities in the universe, and talking about them—never mind visually representing them—can make you feel like you’ve blown a circuit in the brain. “If you’re a star and you fall inside a black hole, you’ll be spaghettified,” Eliza observes with a sardonic chuckle. “That’s the scientific term for the process where you’re ripped into millions of pieces as you go toward ‘the singularity,’ which is a point where space and time no longer apply, where physics as we know it does not exist.”

A black hole forms when a massive star—far more massive than our sun—dies and its core collapses in on itself, creating a gravitational vortex so ferocious that not even light can escape it. In Spheres: Songs of Spacetime, you, as both a literal star and the metaphorical star of the experience (VR folk call their films “experiences”), approach the whirlpool-like surface of the black hole, known as the “event horizon.” From this vantage point you see the star’s light weave gorgeously round the black hole, defining its spherical immensity, and then you fall through the event horizon—the point of no return—toward the singularity. Here’s something to try to wrap your head around: The singularity, deep within the black hole, is far, far smaller than a grain of sand, but possesses the density of many suns; it’s theoretically of infinite density, making absolute chaos of our physics. It may be that time and space end here. The imaginative among us posit things like wormholes, or doors that open to another dimension.

Eliza made the film in consultation with top astrophysicists, the better to translate what is known into a coherent artistic vision. Indeed, it’s her mission to unlock the art inherent in science and the science inherent in art. The two should swim in tandem, she believes. “That’s one of the big problems with the way we think about science and art—they’re taught separately and not together,” Eliza says. “I think science is an art, and vice versa.”

Nobody has seen or will ever see inside a black hole; so what did the scientists tell her? “My favorite moment of collaborating with them was, after they gave us all sorts of scientific information about what that journey would be like, they finally turned to me and said, ‘Just make it strange.’ So that’s what we did. We made it very strange.”

How so? Well, physics tells us that if you could survive a tumble into a black hole, you would behold something mind-blowing. “You’d see the entirety of the universe compressed into a bubble,” Eliza says, arching her brow with amusement. “But you would also be stretched into a million pieces.”

From The Bee-ginning
Eliza grew up on Steamboat Road, the daughter of Audrey Appleby, a dance educator, and Jim McNitt, an aerial marine photographer. “I spent my childhood sailing in Greenwich—sailing was in our blood,” she says. “I was also a very curious kid. One Christmas I got a microscope, and I’d go fishing and cut fish in half, and take out their organs and their scales and look at them under my microscope. I was fascinated by how things worked.”

But her true scientific awakening began (like another signal event) with the eating of an apple. This was back when she attended Greenwich High School. Her grandfather watched Eliza prepare to sink her teeth into the apple and said, “Did you wash that?” Now 101 years old, he had been a chemical engineer at MIT who taught Army officers how to defend against nerve gas attacks. His brief instruction to Eliza about the dangers of pesticides aroused her curiosity; soon she learned that honeybees, the chief pollinators of the apple crop, had recently begun vanishing at an alarming rate. “And I started thinking about how pesticides made their way through the pollination pathway of honeybees, from the apple crop all the way back to the hive,” Eliza says. “That’s what ignited the research that I then embarked on for the next two years of high school.”

In 2009, her senior year, she won a first-place award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair; her subject was honeybee colony collapse disorder (CCD), first identified in 2006 and since tied to the pesticide Imidacloprid, a widely used replacement for DDT. Her research was sobering: A third of the human diet derives from pollinated foods, and most of the pollinating is done by honeybees. A world without honeybees would threaten our existence, but not before escalating food prices led to riots in the streets.

“The fragility of what we have here—that is one of the biggest themes in all my work,” Eliza says now. But after she won the Intel science fair, she realized that even the most vital science news of the day did not travel far. “Outside of this community that I’d been engaging with at science fairs, not many people even knew what CCD stood for, or that honeybees were vanishing.”

Providentially, her GHS friend Charles Greene announced that he wanted to make a documentary film and was casting about for a subject. Eliza all but pounced: “We have to do it on colony collapse disorder!” Together they parlayed her research into the short film Requiem for the Honeybee, which won first place in C-SPAN’s national student documentary film contest. This in turn got her featured in these pages as a Teen to Watch (September 2009), and in O, The Oprah Magazine (May 2011) as one of four “teen geniuses” (the designation makes her laugh, chiefly because she’s lousy at math) whose science projects “blew us away.”

Requiem for the Honeybee also ignited her passion for telling stories on film. At NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the short films Eliza made showed unusual narrative skill and compositional beauty. Violet (2012) concerns a young woman about to undergo chemotherapy; she dyes her lovely blonde hair purple, a color she hates, so she won’t mind losing it so much. The Ninth Train (2012) tells of two sisters aboard a Kindertransport—a train full of children escaping to England—intercepted by the Nazis. Without Fire (2013) is about an asthmatic Navajo woman and her young daughter, who, using a pickup truck radiator and a bunch of soda cans, construct a solar heater for their desolate home.

This last film derives from a fellow Oprah teen genius and science fair savant named Garrett Yazzie; he’s a Navajo from Arizona who really did build a solar heater out of so-called junk. His story so entranced Eliza that she arranged to see Garrett and his family on the reservation. And her script so entranced the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that it awarded her $25,000 to make the film. Without Fire features Misty Upham, a Native American actress who starred in the acclaimed Frozen River (2008, produced by Greenwich resident Charles Cohen) and had just finished filming August: Osage County with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Sam Shepard.

“I got an amazing casting director who knew all the local Navajo actresses, but I kept saying I want someone like Misty Upham,” Eliza recalls. “And she said, ‘Well, why don’t we just reach out to her?’” The actress loved the script. “So here I was, twenty years old, working with Misty Upham.” (Upham died the following year, aged thirty-two, after an apparent fall into a ravine.)

At this stage, Eliza might have left science behind in favor of filmmaking. There seemed no practical way to combine the two as an ongoing project. But what kind of filmmaker would she be? She gravitated toward films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—films classifiable as magnetic but confounding. “The first movie that I had to watch more than once was Mulholland Drive. I was enthralled by the mystery of the film—I couldn’t decipher what it meant, and I spent years trying to piece it together.” Space movies? She loved Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and also the “brooding, glacially paced” (New York Times) film Solaris—“not the remake [by Steven Soderbergh], but the original by [Andrei] Tarkovksy. Just a beautiful and complex story about space.”

But how did she get to space as a filmmaker?

“It’s funny how everything goes back to the Intel science fair when I was seventeen,” Eliza says. “My award was to go visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN”—the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland—where particles are smashed together at mad velocities, simulating reactions that occurred just after the Big Bang.

“At CERN they’re searching for clues to understand the deep mysteries of the universe. It was at this moment, when I was walking inside the particle accelerator, that I began to wonder what else lay out there in the universe, beyond this world that we live on.”

In 2015 Eliza made her first space film, a short called Artemis Falls, in which an astronaut played by Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave, The Big Short) flies, or attempts to fly, the first solo mission to the moon. In 2017 she made the documentary Dot of Light about three female astronauts—a lovely consideration of what a stunning thing it is for humans to pierce the dome of the sky and enter space and then look back. Astronaut Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan tells us she saw clouds of dust billowing over the Sahara Desert in Africa and fine tendrils of that dust stretching all the way to Brazil. Anousheh Ansari tells us how, while grinning ear to ear, she watched a teardrop roll out of her eye and float right in front of her.

Back To The Future
As a theme, space is far from exhausted for Eliza. So, what’s next? Filmmakers are famously coy about projects in the works, and in this respect Eliza holds true to form. “I’m going to make a sci-fi feature film,” she says tantalizingly, and leaves it there.

In January Spheres: Songs of Spacetime created a stir at the Sundance Film Festival. One reason: After Fistful of Stars, Eliza had become something of a celebrity in the VR world, giving her access to the top strata of film talent. An executive producer of Spheres is Darren Aronofsky, founder of Protozoa Pictures and maker of such stylishly unnerving films as Pi, Black Swan and The Wrestler; and the narrator—the voice of the cosmos—is the brilliant actor Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty and Interstellar.

Then there’s the film itself, which achieves the nearly impossible feat of bringing a black hole up-close and personal. “When you fall into the heart of a black hole, it’s very disorienting,” Eliza says, describing a pivotal moment in the film. So discovered Robert Redford, Sundance’s founder. As he drifted toward the event horizon and began to fall through, well, the film legend kind of crumpled to the floor, right there in Utah. Headlines ensued. “But he was like, ‘Get me a chair, I want to finish it.’ So we sat him down and he watched the whole thing, and then he ripped off the headset and said, ‘I want to talk to you about black holes,’” Eliza says. “And so we had a wonderful discussion about science and art.”

Spheres: Songs of Spacetime proved to be a game changer for VR commerce. As the buzz crescendoed at Sundance, CityLights, a virtual reality financing and distributing venture, bought the three-part series for “seven figures,” a festival first for virtual reality. “This is a historic moment for the VR industry,” Jess Engel, a Spheres producer and friend of Eliza’s, said at the time of the sale. “It signifies that a viable storytelling medium has emerged.”

The second release, Spheres: Pale Blue Dot, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, takes a wider cosmological view. The voice of Patti Smith, perfectly cast as mother of the universe, “takes us on a journey from the Big Bang all the way forward in time to Earth,” Eliza says. “And so the experience begins in silence, because first there was the Big Bang, and then came sound 400,000 years later. And Patti traces the history of sound in the universe down to the strangest sound of all—which is the human voice.”

Spatially, the film begins somewhere out in the darkness on the edge of the universe and travels to our own pale blue dot—and how strange to think that every epic, every dynasty, every love story, every birth and death, every joy and sorrow, has played out on that fleck of cosmic dust. Are there other, equally busy grains of space? Consider that in our galaxy, there are billions of other solar systems; beyond the Milky Way are billions of other galaxies; and beyond our universe, some theorize, are billions of other universes.

The final episode of Spheres, titled Course of the Cosmos, is in production now. Where Songs of Spacetime focuses on black holes and Pale Blue Dot on the history of sound in the universe, Course stays rather local—our own solar system. “It tells the story of the songs of the solar system,” Eliza says. Songs? Does the universe sing? (Though Course of the Cosmos is last to be made, Eliza considers it first in the sequence, given the relative youth of the solar system; to that end, it will be narrated by a girl.)

This brings us back to the music theme—the theme that binds the series together. We’ve all heard of “the music of the spheres,” but until recently we did not take that ancient notion literally; the “music” concerned the orderly dance of stars, planets and moons. And space is silent, right? “As I was finishing Fistful of Stars, I discovered that space is actually full of music,” Eliza says. One startling “space music” revelation came in 2015, when scientists used special lasers to detect gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime—caused by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. (Gravitational waves had been postulated but never proved up to that point.) “Space is full of frequencies that we can detect and translate into sounds that our ears can hear,” Eliza says. “And all the frequencies of the universe would compose an orchestra that is larger than we can imagine.”

So, after taking the measure of our smallness, has Eliza come to see us as insignificant? Hardly. In a profound sense, when we look at the night sky, we are gazing into an infinite mirror. “The atoms in our bodies were forged in nuclear furnaces at the heart of previous stellar generations,” the astrophysicist Mario Livio explains in Fistful of Stars. “We literally are stardust.” Eliza adds, “So when we look up at the sky, we are looking at our brothers and sisters from thousands of years ago. Billions of years ago. We are so small in the grand scheme of things, yet the power of humanity is that we are the ones who are discovering everything that’s out there.”

Eliza’s short films and Spheres previews are available on Vimeo, YouTube and elizamcnitt.com.

Update: Eliza’s three-part series SPHERES will have its world premiere on August 29 at the 75th annual Venice Film Festival.

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