My coolest assignment to date: a film about the first doll in space, inspired by a 6-year-old girl

Paris, France — December 15, 2015

I’m in my film editing suite, with my two laptops sitting side-by-side. As it has been the case over the past two weeks, one screen is permanently set on NASA TV. In less than an hour, British astronaut Tim Peake will start his journey on board the Soyuz rocket towards the International Space Station. My heart is beating fast. I’m thinking of a girl in Canada, of a doll waiting for Tim Peake on the ISS, and of kids and parents all around the world… Tim’s mission has the potential to inspire so many people. And I am delighted beyond words to have a teeny tiny part in an initiative related to this. You can call it: the coolest, most inspiring freelance film assignment I’ve ever had.

This is how it all began:

My Good Luck Charm

Dublin, Ireland — June 2015

I’m in the green room of the Bord Gais Theatre, waiting for my turn to go on stage to present at the conference InspireFest. I’m here with my colleague Elian Carsenat, to speak about our project Gender Gap Grader, a platform empowering companies and organisations with tools to measure the gender gap. I’m slightly nervous, as our talk is sandwiched in between two legends of the tech world: video game developer Brianna Wu and ReCode executive editor Kara Swisher. I try to distract myself to pass the time. A lovely staff member working for InspireFest has just handed me a speaker’s bag full of goodies. I peek inside and I see her: School Days Lottie. I remember hearing about them a while ago: dolls that look like real girls, whose mission is to inspire and empower kids. This easily sets Lotties apart from the most famous dolls on the market, who look like adult women with unattainable bodies and are often so focused on appearances and consumerism. I am all too familiar with this, as I have just spent the past seven years making a documentary about the globalization of beauty, which includes a lengthy section on the sexualization of young girls. Audience members of all ages invariably gasp when they see the extent of the problem laid out in my film. So, you can imagine my delight when I spot the Lottie doll. I take her out of her box and I smile when I see that in the goodie bag there is also a Lottie superhero costume as an extra accessory. I immediately change her into it. Now I have a good luck charm for my presentation.

Two days later, I am back in Paris, ready to start another work week. I take my Super Lottie, snap a selfie with her and tweet the following message:

https://twitter.com/_elena/status/612981284114157568

… and then, I place Lottie in the position she still holds today: in between my two computer monitors, in a typical Amy Cuddy power pose, with her arms stretched out towards the sky, smiling at me behind her glittery superhero mask.

Two things happen following that tweet:

First, I get an email from my mom, telling me: “Elena, you are an adult woman, what are you doing at your age posing with a doll and posting the photo on the Internet?”**

Second, I receive multiple positive messages from Lottie’s official Twitter account:

https://twitter.com/Lottie_dolls/status/612990366019637249

Our correspondence eventually migrates to email and we agree to keep in touch and see if we can find ways to collaborate in the future.

** As a side note, my mom is the sweetest, kindest woman I know, and upon explaining the story of Lottie dolls and their mission, she is reassured and supportive. Fast-forward to now, and she is incredibly proud of everything that has happened. You’ll just have to be a little patient to find out, too.

The Phone Call

Paris, France — August 2015
Out of the blue, I receive an email from Ian Harkin, the co-founder and managing director of Arklu — Lottie’s parent company. Would I be interested in speaking on the phone about an opportunity? But of course.

The following day, Ian tells me that he has seen my various websites and film work and says I would be the ideal person to take on a project: make a short documentary about the first doll in space. One of their dolls — Stargazer Lottie — is scheduled to travel to the International Space Station later in the year. Of course, I’m in!

Abigail

I start to research the story of how Stargazer Lottie came to be and I find out about Abigail, the extraordinary 6 year old Canadian girl who inspired her creation. Abigail is incredibly passionate about space and all things astronomy related. I read the blog post about her on Lottie’s website and try to get ahold of as many news reports as possible, in order to create a tentative outline and a list of shots and interview questions for the documentary. I find her story incredibly inspiring: Abigail actively collaborated with Lucie Follett and the Arklu team, influencing the design of Lottie, the packaging and its contents. Each box comes with a small set of cards with the planets and a poster of the most influential women in astronomy. It’s truly remarkable.

Then something else starts to happen: I am so inspired by Abigail’s curiosity, brilliance and wit, that I start reading more about astronomy and space exploration. I buy the book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who is Abigail’s hero. And then I start watching space documentaries and NASA TV… I realize that this freelance assignment is making my life so much richer, allowing me to recapture a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity.

Filming

On a balmy October morning, I find myself at the European Space Agency’s Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk (The Netherlands) for their annual Open Day, where thousands of visitors are allowed to tour the sprawling site, meet astronauts and inspect flight equipment up close. I’m there to film interviews for the video and to meet Lottie’s co-founders Ian Harkin and Lucie Follett for the first time. I am star struck as I meet French astronaut Claudie Haigneré, the first European woman to travel to ISS. She has had an incredible career so far: from doctor to astronaut to Minister during Chirac’s presidency (and she’s featured in Stargazer Lottie’s poster of the 10 most influential women in astronomy).

The same day, half a world away, my super talented colleague Riley Morton drives up to Canada to film Abigail and her mother Zoe. I’ve given him a list of shots and interview questions for both. The result is stellar.

And then, I take Lottie with me wherever I go. In mid-October, I attend the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society and I have a chance to introduce Stargazer Lottie to Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman in space, and to space entrepreneurs Kellie Gerardi and Laetitia Garriott. Everyone loves Lottie.

https://twitter.com/_elena/status/654700776363724800
https://twitter.com/_elena/status/654702872169328641

I spend the rest of the month parsing through all the film footage, transcribing interviews, organizing shot types, and animating photos in AfterEffects. The most daunting aspect of any filmmaking project is to do justice to a story without diluting its significance. Films often go through many stages of metamorphosis, from outline, to script, to the day of filming and the final edited product. Abigail’s story has so much potential to inspire: I just hope I can rise to the occasion.

When I finish editing the video, producing a 4 1/2 minute story, something becomes glaringly obvious: there is a piece missing to the story. I yearn to see Abigail reacting to the launch of Stargazer Lottie on board the Cygnus spacecraft. For that, I enlist the help of her mother Zoe. Smartphones these days are capable of incredible things, especially while filming in natural light. So, I instruct Zoe on the best way to film Abigail with her iPhone, framing the edge of the computer as her daughter watches the liftoff.

There are several launch attempts for Cygnus, with multiple delays and postponements due to poor weather conditions. I sit on my bed, late at night, watching NASA TV with bated breath and exchanging emails with the Lottie team in the UK and Ireland and with Zoe in Canada. It’s an amazing feeling to be in this together, connected and reacting live while being in four different countries.

On December 6th, Cygnus has a “flawless, textbook perfect” liftoff towards ISS, carrying 7,700 lb of cargo (and “our” Stargazer Lottie!). She will be the first doll in space, waiting for the arrival of British astronaut Tim Peake a few days later. He has spoken about his mission saying,

“The legacy I hope is that this will inspire a new generation to look at science, to look at space, as an exciting career path, and to make choices that push them in that direction.”

It’s wonderful to know that Stargazer Lottie will be in his hands and will be shown to kids and adults all around the world.

Zoe sends me footage of Abigail reacting to the Cygnus launch (adorable, dressed in a NASA T-shirt and with her Lottie dolls next to her), and when I put it at the end of the video sequence, I am nearly brought to tears. Intercutting it with the voice of the countdown and the images of Cygnus blasting off into space is such a powerful, moving moment. I watch the sequence dozens of times, to get the rhythm just right and it pulls at my heartstrings every single time.

I have had to keep mum about this for months and finally, with enormous pride and delight, I can share the story of Abigail and Stargazer Lottie.

I hope you’ll be as inspired as I am, and that you will follow her adventures in space: #LottieInSpace.

Without further ado, here’s the video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3I0ChExz-w

If you find this video compelling, please share it with your friends and loved ones. I am hoping that the video will grab the attention of Abigail’s hero Chris Hadfield and that, who knows, maybe he’ll set up a meeting with her. All fingers crossed!


About the author:

Elena Rossini is an Italian filmmaker, photographer and multimedia producer. Notable projects include The Illusionists (a documentary about the globalization of beauty), No Country for Young Women (a platform with over 120 interviews of women about their professional lives) and Gender Gap Grader (a website empowering companies and NGOs with tools to measure the gender gap). Elena frequently speaks at conferences around the world — most recently Women of the World in London, the 3% Conference in San Francisco, InspireFest in Dublin, Art Night Venezia, and APIDays in Paris and Berlin. Find out more: www.elenarossini.com