Into the Cosmos: Depicting The Life Of A Star in Virtual Reality

FISTFUL OF STARS is now available on WITHIN. Learn about its creators’ stories, production process, and inspiration below in an interview with creator Eliza McNitt.

Photo Credit: Intel

What are the key points of interest about this project?

FISTFUL OF STARS transports you to the Orion Nebula, 1,300 light years away. It’s an opportunity to see through the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope. At that distance, you’re actually looking into the deep past of the universe — essentially, peering back in time billions of years of ago. Hubble has discovered so many breathtaking things about the universe. That’s the magic of telescopes, and we sought to capture that in this experience.

Specifically, we chose to depict the birth, life, and death of a star in virtual reality; Orion was the perfect setting because it’s a spectacular stellar nursery. The life cycle of stars is one of the most important underpinnings of our universe. FISTFUL OF STARS aims to let you experience that — not as equations or theories you’d read in a book, but an actual depiction of the process.

What was the inspiration behind creating this project?

The main spark for FISTFUL OF STARS was the Hubble Cantata, which is an opera that tells the story of the telescope. The libretto, in particular, inspired me to create this piece.

But I’ve always been fascinated by science. My love for the cosmos was born in high school when I competed in the Intel Science Fair. I won a visit to CERN and toured the Large Hadron Collider, the largest science experiment in the history of the world. We even got to walk into the actual particle accelerator, where you normally can’t go, because they happened to be performing repairs.

The work being done at CERN — pushing human knowledge farther than it’s ever been before, into realms that are almost beyond imagining — inspired me to wonder about worlds beyond Earth.

How does your project push the boundaries of storytelling?

This project has had several iterations: first as a live opera in Prospect Park, which culminated in a shared, communal VR experience. Next as an experience at film festivals, where viewers witnessed this journey to the stars.

This virtual reality experience is special because the viewer enters the Orion Nebula, via the Hubble Telescope. We wanted you to feel like you were there, actually out in space floating inside the nebula. VR is the only medium that makes that possible.

What were some of the most creative challenges?

Working alongside an amazing team of collaborators from Jess Engel to The Endless Collective, our goal was to make people feel as if they are floating alongside stardust. Throughout, we worked to find a balance between science and art — to create a compelling visual experience that was also true to the science. The narrator, Dr. Mario Livio, and other scientists at the National Academy of Sciences, helped make this possible.

When you look at photographs from Hubble, the colors you see are not what it would be like to actually be there. It would be all white — just white light. Scientists use artistic interpretations to communicate data. So determining the right color and texture for the star and nebula in our experience was a huge challenge. Same goes for working out the shape of the nebula — turns out the texture is actually very similar to canyons on Earth.

What role does sound play in this project?

I always say that sound is a character in the story, taking you deeper into the cosmos. Terence Caulkins was our sound designer: he assembled an impressionistic soundscape of the events and materials inside the nebula. The moment when the star is being born is crucial: that bubbling sound creates the impression of being inside this vast cauldron of dust.

Is there any precise moment in this experience that you find most impactful or wonder-inspiring?

Most impactful: when Hubble approaches you and swallows you whole.

Most inspiring: watching the star be born. It’s a peaceful moment, and scientifically, that process is beautiful. We’re literally all made of stardust — the atoms in our bodies were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stellar cores. FISTFUL OF STARS shows you the reality of that. Virtual reality can connect humans to the cosmos and help us see our role — and how small we truly are — within the grand scheme of the universe.

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McNitt is a writer and director who explores the cosmic collision of science and art. From astronauts to astrophysicists, she works alongside scientists to tell stories about the human connection to the cosmos. Her films and VR experiences have appeared at festivals including SXSW, Hot Docs, Cannes NEXT, and AFI Fest. She’s a OneFifty creator and Alfred P. Sloan grant recipient. Her upcoming VR experience SPHERES executive produced by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel will make its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

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