Overview is a fantastic movie that explores the rather undervalued phenomenon that is the planet Earth. Alone in a sea of nothing, with seemingly lifeless neighbors, we are truly aboard an Ark, whose health is tantamount in the survival of the human race. Taking it’s name from the idea of the ‘Overview Effect’ – the experience astronauts undergo when journeying in space and seeing the Earth from the outside, this film should be watched by everyone, if for no other reason than to give them a new perspective. Read the interview to find out more about the project from the awesome Planetary Collective:
How did the movie Overview come together? Who’s idea was it, how long has the planning and execution taken?
About thirteen years ago the editor (Steve Kennedy) and I (Guy Reid – the Director) read a book called The Awakening Earth (now published as The Global Brain) by an English physicist called Peter Russell. The book explores a number of fascinating ideas – the Earth as a single dynamic system, the notion of humanity as being part of an emerging ‘global brain’, and the importance of our ‘worldview’ in how we understand our reality, among others. It had a profound effect on us, and ever since reading it we’ve dreamt of bringing those ideas into a film. The seed planted back then, when we were only fifteen years old, gradually evolved into the feature film we’re shooting at the moment, Continuum.
One of the central ideas presented in Peter Russell’s book is the ‘Overview Effect’ – the experience astronauts undergo when journeying in space and seeing the Earth from the outside. When we first started writing and planning Continuum we decided to open the film with an exploration of the Overview Effect, but during the course of developing the idea, we realized it merited its own short film, and so we decided to make Overview. We wrote a treatment, got in touch with Frank White (who wrote a book length study on the Overview Effect, and came up with the term itself) who has been beyond generous from the very beginning, and wrote to NASA to secure some interviews with some actual astronauts.
From the moment of conception to the release will be about 15 months, but actually the production was planned, and interviews shot (including a trip to NASA in Houston) within three months. The post-production has been elongated by doing it alongside pre-production and production of our feature documentary, which has taken us around the world shooting and editing for the last 9 months.
“Once a photograph from Earth, taken from outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
FRED HOYLE 1948.
Can you tell us about that quote? What were the circumstances under which is was said? Why did you choose that quote to begin the film?
The most important thing about the circumstances of that quote is that Fred Hoyle, an English astronomer, said it in 1948, nine years before Sputnik 1 was launched and the space race began, and about twenty years before an image of the whole Earth, ‘taken from outside’, was publicly available.
We [at Planetary Collective] were all born in the eighties, and have grown up in a world saturated by images of the planet – in books and magazines, and as logos, icons and symbols. It’s even the standard wallpaper for our iPhones, and exists in interactive forms in technologies like Google Earth. So it’s easy for us to forget that it wasn’t really that long ago we humans could only guess what our own home planet looked like from the outside. In 1966, Steward Brand (co-founder of the Whole Earth Catalog) was campaigning for an image of the Earth from space, handing out buttons asking, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” It was a big deal to a lot of people – a turning point in history that is often overlooked. It was as if we, as a planet and a species, had not yet managed to look at ourselves in the mirror yet, or never seen a photo of our own face.
Some of the biggest ideas in the history of humanity have been those that have enabled a broadening of our horizons, and expanded our sense of who we are – navigation and trade, evolution, telecommunications and the internet are all examples – and also those that have unified and equalized humanity, like gender rights, civil rights and human rights.
I think what Fred Hoyle was anticipating in 1948 was that both of these things would occur once we had an image of the planet – we would have a new, more expanded sense of our identity, and that it would serve to unify us in a powerful new way.
Archibald MacLeish, also speaking ahead of the space era in 1943, spoke about the “airman’s earth,” which he anticipated would be “an equal earth which all men occupy as equals.” So before the first satellite had even been launched, there was this idea that something life-changing was going to happen once we saw our planet from the outside.
What’s fascinating is the suggestion that such a powerful idea could come from something so simple as an image. Most movements and ideas throughout all history have been associated with iconic images of one kind or another, but the suggestion that a powerful, history-altering idea could be born from an image itself is a provocative statement. Though obviously it’s not the image itself, but the idea that lies behind and within the image. The whole Earth is a symbol and visual correlate of unity – a unity that cuts across all definitions of class, gender, race and even species, and which has profound implications for how we understand each other, our home planet, and the cosmos we’re part of. And even though it didn’t exactly bring instant world peace, you could say that Fred Hoyle’s prediction was borne out by the way the image of the whole Earth became such a powerful symbol for the environmental movement in the 60s and 70s. Some have even said there may not have been an Environmental Protection Agency or the clean air and water acts without those images of the Earth.
We started the film with that quote because it’s easy to forget all of this, and take it for granted.
The ‘Blue Marble’ image of earth is incredibly iconic, within the film it is at one point referred to as the image of the century, but the size, the scope and the passiveness of that photo can be dissociating. Do you think Overview, the time lapse from the ISS flying over Earth, the footage of astronauts in space above an Earth so great, will move people in a deeper way? What do you think it says about humans that being faced with such insignificance calls forth humility and reverence for the world we inhabit?
There is definitely something both dissociating and connecting about these images of Earth at a distance. On the one hand, there is so much that is immediately apparent from looking at such an image: the roundness of the planet, the overwhelming abundance of water in relation to landmass, the essential unity of Earth as being one thing, and quite simply the incredible beauty of it. And yet, as I said, we are saturated with such images, and after decades of use, their power has been somewhat exhausted. The power of a colour photo of the Earth for someone in the 1960s was probably far greater than it is for people these days, who are used to HD moving images in their homes, and epic 3D cinematic experiences at incredible resolutions.
That said, the recent timelapses astronauts have been shooting from the ISS have been having a profound effect on viewers, and they’ve been getting millions of views online – so current technologies are still keeping the experience alive for new generations of people. We certainly hope that the combination of some of this amazing footage with the stories of the astronauts, along with the beautiful original score by the Human Suits, will help people see the planet in a way they might not have before.
I think it’s incredibly important that humans are able to experience awe, wonder and reverence for the Earth, and that these feelings can be provoked by seeing images of the planet we inhabit. There is a Zen saying, “Not knowing is most intimate,” that could apply here. We are so often caught up in our own, usually quite narrow, conception of the world around us and our relationships, and for obvious, survival reasons tend to assume and act like we have a grasp on the world. Seeing an image of the planet that shows its vastness can suddenly bring us into contact with how small we are as individuals in the scheme of things, and how little we really know. In those brief gaps before our conceptual, intellectual mind tries to wrestle some understanding on to the experience, we can feel intimacy with the simple awesomeness of it. I think there is probably always a freshness and clarity to that, which is why, as David Beaver points out in Overview, ‘earthgazing’ – staring down at the Earth – is one of the favourite past-times of those who travel in space.
What do you hope to achieve with Overview? Consciousness? Cognizance? Presence? What emotion or idea do you hope to impart on your viewers?
I think the primary thing we’re aiming to achieve is a sense of reconnection to the Earth on a deep level. Some of the motivation behind that is obviously that we are in the midst of various interconnected crises, not the least of which is the ecological crisis. On some level we hope to encourage people to take better care of the planet, not by issuing warnings or expounding upon the chaos and destruction (though those approaches can certainly be useful), but by trying to open people up to the beauty and fragility of the planet. One of the astronaut interviewees in the film, Ron Garan, has a humanitarian organization called ‘Fragile Oasis’, and I think that name captures both elements perfectly – on the one hand, the richness and uniqueness of Earth as an oasis in the vastness of space, and the other hand the preciousness and frailty of this dynamic system we’re part of. I think if people can leave the film not just understanding those two ideas, but feeling them, and connecting with them on a personal rather than abstract level, we will have achieved what we set out to do.
What did you learn about your own conceptions of the planet, of how interconnected we are and how did your perception of the Earth and humanity change throughout the filming and editing of this movie? What have you learned about yourself and others?
In researching the original accounts of astronauts while in pre-production, one of the main features of the experience that came up is of seeing the Earth ‘without boundaries’ between human nations. From a philosophical point of view, and in relation to the feeling we wanted to convey, this is a perfect idea. What took us by surprise in the interviews was some of the astronauts saying that, though they had also anticipated that feature of the experience, they had found the opposite to be true – there are actual human-created borders and boundaries visible from space: lines demarcated by erosion or deforestation, and also the border between India and Pakistan, which is visible because it is so highly illuminated and policed (link at end of document). In a way, it doesn’t really undermine the original statements of the astronauts, because the unity they’re speaking of runs deeper than those things, but it was an important reminder to bear in mind the harsh realities that accompany those deeper insights. The environmentalist Bill McKibben said to us (in an interview for our feature film) that we must remember that those old photos of the Earth from space aren’t current; they’re like old yearbook photos from the 70s. If we look at the face of the Earth now, in comparison to, for example, the ‘Blue Marble’ photo from 1972, we can see marked differences – the icecaps have melted more, there are less forests, more desert, inland lakes have dried up etc. So as well as being a reminder to keep the film current, and present, that idea also served as a powerful reminder of our interdependence on a planetary scale, the way our actions as a species are affecting the wellbeing of the entire Earth.
As editor of the film, Steve collected as many moving images of the Earth as he could possibly get his hands on, including ordering a massive box of tapes from NASA, and one thing he told me is that no matter how many times he watched the footage during editing, he never tired of seeing it. I had the same experience and I think it is down to the fact that our planet is endlessly beautiful, even through the limited medium of film.
And one gratifying thing we’ve learned from screening the film privately, during various stages of editing over the last few months, is how moved people are by it. Although that’s obviously our intention, it’s also always surprising. Our greatest fear was that, by trying to explain the idea of the Overview Effect, we would end up with a film that was too intellectual or conceptual. More than a reflection of the film itself though, I think this is an indication that pretty much everyone can be moved by seeing and reconnecting with the Earth.
The astronauts have been afforded an amazing privilege, not that they didn’t work for or earn it, in being allowed to view the Earth from space. Try as they might, photographs, posters and videos just don’t do justice to real experience. How would the average person, without the ability to fly into space, seek a similar experience?
I think there are three parts to this answer. Though perhaps the first thing to say is that unless (or perhaps until) our technology reaches the point where we can completely fool our human senses, there is no way to have exactly the ‘overview effect’ experience without being there, above the Earth or far away from it, in person. Except perhaps by learning to lucid dream.
However, Frank White talks about what he calls ‘overview analogues’ – these are things that approximate the experience to varying degrees. For example, activities like mountain-climbing, hot-air ballooning and even foreign travel are all capable of providing us with experiences that shock us out of our habitual understanding of the world and broaden our perspective. If you consider the primary aspect of the Overview Effect to be the perception of the Earth itself from the outside, then obviously none of those things can really compare, nothing can. But when you consider the main outcomes of the experience being the sudden broadening of our perspective, an expansion of our worldview, then this can happen in any number of ways. Sometimes people have ‘peak experiences’ that have a similar effect when they’re doing nothing more profound than making a cup of tea.
The second thing is that audio-visual and simulation technologies are improving all the time, and there are a number of people specifically working towards bringing this experience to the average person. I have personally been in contact with two of them. Anna Hill at Space Synapse is developing individual pods that immerse one in a simulation of the experience, while David Beaver (one of the interviewees in the film) and Doug Trumbull (visual effects genius famed for his work on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) are working on a large-scale, hemispherical ‘hyper-cinema’ which can screen an ‘Overview Effect Experience’ at 4k resolution and 120 frames per second. I think most people have people had profound experiences of one kind or another in the darkened limbo of a cinema, and it’s probably fair to say these experiences may be deepened in the future by emerging technologies (though one could also argue the opposite for certain kinds of cinematic experience).
The final thing to mention is that ‘space tourism’ is going to grow massively within our lifetimes. Right now it’s obviously prohibitively expensive – the privilege of those with a spare $200,000 disposable income willing to spend it on 15 minutes of spaceflight. Within the next few decades, the experience will hopefully become available to more and more people, and I’ve heard the intention is ultimately to make a ticket the price of a small family car (though this still puts it well out of reach for most people). There’s obviously a legitimate environmental concern with an increase in space tourism, in terms of carbon emissions, so I think we also have to hope that the technology becomes cleaner and greener than it is at the moment – perhaps moving in the direction of a company like zero2infinity, who offer a balloon ride to the edge of space that is not only zero-emissions, but gives you a couple of hours worth of ‘earthgazing’ as opposed to 15 minutes.
Russell Schweickart, astronaut on Apollo 9, said when he was drifting above the Earth that he felt himself as a ‘sensing element’ of humanity. It may not be that we are all able to have this exact experience, but from the perspective that we are all one species, one planet, perhaps it is enough that we can send messengers up there who can come back and tell the rest of humanity about the experience. Almost all the astronauts are humble about their abilities in this respect, and many of them advocate sending up poets, artists, philosophers, and other kinds of skilled communicators who can come back and express the experience in different ways. Personally I think some of the astronauts’ descriptions are amazing, but the advent of space tourism is definitely going to bring a whole new wave of explanations and representations of the Earth and the space experience. Better visual technologies and social media will hopefully bring those of us who can’t journey into space closer and closer to the experience in the future.
A particularly powerful moment towards the end was captured by the quote: “what we need to come to is a realization that it’s not just fixing an economic or a political system but a basic world view, a basic understanding of who we are that’s at stake”. Documentaries can be incredibly moving, as much or more so than real movies for the fact that they address real problems with real footage. Much of the time that emotion is fleeting, as we leave the theater we return to regular life and the problems of the documentary no longer feel so immediate as they were moments before. It seems a lot of the time people fail to follow up with what they have discovered from a documentary because the documentarians themselves, while taking the time to discuss the issue, don’t set aside the time to propose a solution that the average person can participate in. What would you tell someone who watched this movie, agreed with the sentiment and then thought: How can I help?
This film was always intended as an invitation.
On one level it’s an invitation to our feature film Continuum, which will be released in Fall 2013. Continuum takes the ideas in Overview, such as the Earth as a single system, the importance of our worldview, and the crises facing our planet, and expands upon them with a broader set of voices – a poet, a physicist, an expert in biomimicry, ecologists, activists, Tibetan lamas etc. – to tell the story of where we’ve come from, where we’re at, and where we’re going. You can only tell so much of the story in 20 minutes, so we’ll be taking all these ideas much further in the feature film.
Overview is also an invitation to reconsider the way we think about our home planet, and the environmental crisis we’re facing, and to think about the solutions we can implement to improve life here. But I think we know many of these solutions by heart by now, even though we may not implement them, and what it really comes down to is basic mindfulness about how we act in the world – how we eat, how we consume energy and resources like water, how we treat other species, how we earn and spend money and so on. On the microsite for the film, we feature links to some key organizations to look to for ideas, including those connected to people in the film like Fragile Oasis, Unity Node and the Overview Institute. It’s definitely an important question, and one we’re eager to try and point anyone who might ask it in the right direction if we can.