Eliza McNitt | Atomic Collaborations At The Periphery Of The Known

Dancing with the universe as a being alive

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The incidence of art might be framed as a consequence of collaboration: a painting can be posed as a product of collaboration between its canvas; its painter; its paint. As the scale of medium balloons, as do the quantity of collaborators: great films might be divided into a series of collaborations, unfolding ad infinitum, between directors and audience and subject and the particular ways in which a slice of light fell at a particular moment of a singular day, between synapses and signifiers, between the past and the future. Great art, like the makeup of the world around it, is a product of atomic collaborations– and, as filmmaker Eliza McNitt has stated time and time again – art and science might be approached as one and the same.

McNitt has spent her career embroiled in those sticky trappings that bind science to art. While still an adolescent, McNitt received national acclaim for her award-winning Requiem for the Honeybee, a documentary summarizing her research on Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder. Since, she’s written and directed a number of projects, most notably “Without Fire,a short for which she received the ​​Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Production Grant; "Fistful of Stars,” a five minute virtual reality experience that allowed users to experience the cosmos up close by way of photos taken from the Hubble telescope, with narration by astrophysicist Mario Liovio and scored by composer Paola Pristini; and, most recently, SPHERES, another immersive outer-space VR journey narrated by a star-studded cast…(ha). Having already collaborated closely with preeminent scientists as well as some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry (Millie Bobby Brown! Jessica Chastain! Ari Handel! Darren Aronofsky!) McNitt seems to have mastered the art of collaboration, synthesizing realms which for much of recent history have been posed as diametrically opposed to one another.

Now, McNitt seeks to explore a different kind of collaboration, one that draws from the magnificent, terrifying voids of the universe: in her newest VR project “Astra,” voiced by actor Taylour-Paige, which premiered at SXSW last week, and Black Hole, McNitt's feature film currently in development, Eliza McNitt asks herself to collaborate with the great unknown:  “I’m drawn to the telling of personal stories,” she tells me. “[I want to] explore the dark infinite of the cosmos and its connection to the human soul. I want to talk about how grief is as infinite as the universe”.

Eliza McNitt talks about this great and complex thread– that which weaves the soul, the universe, the realm of the real and the toolish artifice of VR, without pretension. Speaking squarely, matter-of-factly, she traverses the uncertain terrain upon which death and the cosmos are housed with a precise sort of grace. McNitt is a filmmaker. She’s a scientist of uncertainty. a glad collaborator with the unknown: “In order to access the depths of your imagination,” she tells me, “you have to give up your imagination completely.”

Where are you speaking from today?

I am speaking from Planet Earth. I'm in my home. 

Can you walk us through Astra, and how it’s similar and different to past projects?

I'll actually go back to you and talk a bit about my first project. They blend into one another. The last time I was at South by Southwest was with my virtual reality experience called SPHERES

SPHERES was this exploration of the music of the cosmos. And in SPHERES, I really hid myself behind a grand image of the universe, but following the recent loss of my dad, I’m drawn to the telling of personal stories. [I want to] explore the dark infinite of the cosmos and its connection to the human soul. I want to talk about how grief is as infinite as the universe. 

That’s how Astra was born, and Astra is a cosmic ghost story. It's about grappling with loss through the search for life in the universe. In the experience, you find the lost belongings of your mother, who was a scientist, and as you listen to recordings of these tapes she left behind. Your living room–or whatever space you're in– let's say your living room–  transforms into a spaceship and you embark on a journey to planets and their dark moons. I'm excited about ASTRA because it is a departure from my work before this, taking a much more personal and vulnerable exploration of  being human. 

You've talked about how science and art should be approached in the same way, but many tout the idea that great art is generated from a personal perspective. How do you negotiate the two?

Astra [and my other projects] do begin from a scientific perspective. I like to do things I call curiosity missions, inspired by Brian Grazer's idea of curiosity meetings. I love to go to NASA JPL and meet scientists, and talk to people there and observe what they're working on. At JPL, they have this beautiful division that connects art and science, and I'm just so inspired by the work that they do. There [is] a sign on the wall there in beautiful, embossed black type that says, seeking impossible worlds.  I want that on my tombstone. It's just such a beautiful idea, kind of like a challenge for me with every new project: what are the impossible new worlds that we could seek through this? 

And so being human was something I deeply wanted to bring into this new experience. Instead of being disembodied and floating through the cosmos, I wanted you to  feel like you are a human character on a quest to uncover something deeper about another human. 

What’s it like creating these kinds of worlds via the VR medium? What’s the difference between Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality?

Technology evolves so quickly. Just to give you an example: when I began SPHERES, there was a headset that was released, and by the time we finished, the headset was obsolete. That's how quickly it evolves. Mixed reality is the combination of augmented and virtual reality. So, for example, I'm standing in my living room, but there's a spaceship in there too, and it's like mixing your world and a virtual world. VR is the fully immersive version of being completely transported to another space. 

You have been creating, you've been creating VR for a long time, but you’re also a filmmaker. What space does each medium occupy in your creative life? Is VR a young person’s game?

Virtual Reality storytelling exploded at this moment at NEW INC—the NEW MUSEUM’S incubator in New York—where there was a really rich community of filmmakers exploring storytelling through immersive mediums.

I was really fortunate to be sucked into that world at this cross of art and science and technology and get to experiment.  I feel like this is the playground– VR and immersive mediums is a playground now that filmmakers have to take risks and explore and get weird and find their voice.

[VR] has allowed me to find my voice as a storyteller in a space where taking risks is encouraged. I feel that the immersive world has really guided me towards understanding who I am as a storyteller. I've always been a filmmaker, and I've just been drawn to this medium because it is the place to play and to be able to build worlds and that's been so inspiring about it.

Also– the unknown of it all. I will say this much– like what is so cool about being in the position that I'm in, having started before headsets were ever released to now, the moment where it's, you know, this incredible tool– VR is now transitioning into a filmmaking tool that people are using in virtual production pipelines to tell stories and build worlds. In Mandalorian and Star Wars, it's a tool that they use to build the world. Yargos Lanthimos used [it] to film Poor Things. So you're seeing more of how the  medium is translating into traditional filmmaking and cinema, and that translates to where I'm heading. My dream is to make movies.

How do you personally describe yourself as a storyteller and as a filmmaker– what is interesting to you now? 

I began with a deep fascination with science. It has evolved into an obsession with sci-fi and grounded science fiction stories.

I think the kind of person or the kind of filmmaker I am is: I want to tell human stories about the cosmos with depth and heart. One of my big dreams after SPHERES was to go to the Sundance Labs.  Getting accepted into the directing and writing lab program [provided] this incredible space to get to be weird, explore, try things, and really hone [my] voice and [my] tone– [my] script and [my] story.

It seems like your films gravitate towards space. What qualities of the unknown universe make the subject interesting?

The mystery and the terror of it, of course,  but behind all of that, there is a beauty. That's what I love about exploring life on planets and moons. I love to approach these otherwise very scary ideas about space with heart, and to breathe humanity into these ideas about space that could feel really cold and scientific and clinical, but actually like to make them feel relatable and human.

After going through this journey of losing my father, I discovered on the other side of death, there was beauty.  

Through their studies of the cosmos, a lot of people have found that they understand consciousness in a different way. Do you feel that’s happened to you?

I've worked with a lot of astronauts and they all express the transformation they experience upon seeing the earth from above. It's called the overview effect. That's what space gives us, the ability to zoom out and look back at ourselves. Just giving us the sense that we are a pale blue dot. 

You studied Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder. Do you see a through line between honeybee hives and humanity, zoomed far out?

There are two things I think are so fascinating about honeybees that relate to humanity. One, it is a matriarchal society. The worker bees are all female and they are all the ones who run the hive. I'm so drawn to these stories about the dynamics between mothers and daughters. 

The other thing I find that's so cosmic about honeybees is that when they find a flower, they create a dance in order to communicate with each other about the location of that flower. And It's just, I feel like that's very, that's, there's something very cosmic to me about that– the ways that honeybees dance with the universe in order to communicate. I hope to be able to do that through the stories I tell.

Do you ever scare yourself in the midst of your creative process?

Boy, do I have a story for you. While writing my feature, one of my mentors was Jane Campion. I got to spend hours with her talking about storytelling. For Power of the Dog,  she embraced a process called Creative Dream Work where you enter the story through your subconscious and you work with a dream coach.  She recommended that I go and explore this technique. I did this session of creative dream work where you basically fall asleep and you ask yourself for a dream. In the sessions, I envisioned all of these hallucinations of black holes. I was asking my subconscious to enter these black holes.   It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I had headaches for weeks.

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Eliza McNitt, Astra, People, Annie Bush