New Documentary “400 Years of the Telescope” Now Airing

A new 60-minute documentary created especially for the International Year of Astronomy is now airing on PBS stations in the US. “400 Years of the Telescope: a journey of science, technology and thought” is a remarkable voyage through space and time, filled with stunning, high-definition footage showing not only images from space taken by observatories around the world, but also the remote and beautiful locations where our eyes on the Universe – our magnificent telescopes – sit. It also provides a tour through the evolution of telescopes since Galileo’s first astronomical observations, and how the telescope has changed our perceptions of the cosmos and ourselves. The documentary also includes interviews with scientists who helped develop the observatories, and those who have made incredible discoveries with them. Narration by astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson and a beautiful original score of music complete this wonderful documentary that you won’t want to miss. Check here for airing times on your local station. This video is also available for purchase.

But the documentary doesn’t end with airing on television. This is a multi-faceted production including extensive web content and planetarium shows. Universe Today had the chance to talk with the writer/director/producer of the project, Kris Koenig of Interstellar Studios. To find out more about this entire project, enjoy our interview, below, and make sure you watch the trailer for the show, above.

Universe Today: This sounds like a wonderful project. Can you tell us more about everything that is involved with “400 Years of the Telescope?”

Kris Koenig: This is a multi-faceted production, beginning with a high-definition documentary for PBS. We’re also creating a full dome planetarium show (Two Small Pieces of Glass) that will also be stepped down to all the different formats for different planetarium domes. We’ve been filming with a 4K camera, which means the production will be able to transition to an IMAX. So there’s an IMAX program, a public television documentary, and a planetarium program. In addition to that, we are partnering with PBS affiliates around the country through a grant through the National Science Foundation that will allow us to coordinate with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific to do events throughout the year based on the initial and subsequent broadcasts of the show. We’ll be encouraging people to go to the science centers and planetariums to watch the planetarium show, and then when they step outside, there to meet them will be local astronomers with telescopes.

What we’re doing is exactly the goals of IYA, which is to educate, and encourage people to go out and have a telescopic experience. That’s what we hope to achieve with that production.

Also, we knew from the beginning that we wanted a lot of web content. We conducted over 70 hours of interviews, which of course, we couldn’t include them all in the documentary. So of those 70 hours of interviews will be available on the internet, and totally downloadable and searchable by key terms. The transcript can be downloaded; there will be footage people can watch. The footage can also be downloaded and students can create their own documentaries. So this whole project can spawn a bunch of documentaries that can be used for school projects or shown locally. So we’re trying to outreach to the arts as well as into science.

(Teachers and students –Check out this link for additional educational activities.)

UT: How long have you been working on this project?

Kris Koenig.  Credit:  400 Years of the Telescope
Kris Koenig. Credit: 400 Years of the Telescope

Koenig: In 2005, we had just finished production of a ten-hour telecourse for PBS, for which we received two Emmy’s (Astronomy Observations and Theories, distributed by Coast Learning). I was visiting with Debbie Goodwin from Keck Observatory and she asked me, “What are you doing for IYA?” I said, “IY what?” We had actually started work on another production, which we hope we can get back to. But by the end of that week we had formed our advisory board, and initially coordinated things with a PBS station. By March we had our first launch meeting where all the advisers came together and discussed what the program should be like, what should we focus on and what should we avoid. We drafted a treatment to PBS and got a letter of encouragement back and we started the production. We brought together our planetarium partners because Peter Michaud at the Gemini telescope called me after he heard about the project and proposed joining forces to develop the content for a planetarium show. We started shooting in August of 2007.

UT: Traveling around the world to capture this must have been incredible! What stands out in your mind in creating this documentary?

Koenig: I think the thing that capped the whole project happened very early on. We were in the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, and had just finished taping Galileo’s telescope. The people there, Georgio Strano and Paolo Galluzzi who came in as partners in the project agreed to pull out the telescope — which never happens; this telescope always stays in the case. They dusted it off and we shot it with every angle we could. As Georgio was going to put it back in the case, he turned to me and asked, “Would you like to look through it?” So we all got to look through it. That was a very emotional moment. I still tear up, just talking about it.
400 Years_banner. Credit: 400 Years of the Telescope
Then we shot our reenactments of Galileo in his home, and one of scenes you see is in his cellar where he recanted. Stefano Lecci, who is our actor, is the staff actor for the museum. Even though we held a city wide Galileo search, he walked in early in the morning and said, “Why are you doing a contest? I’m the guy.” And I thought, well, we’ll see. At the end of the day, I said, “You’re right. Why did we hold a contest?” He’s a great guy, and he knows the recantation by heart, and he did it in Italian. That was another very moving moment. He’s both the old and young Galileo. We had a great makeup artist. We shot old Galileo first, then middle aged Galileo, then the younger. Each time, the transition was remarkable.

We did a reenactment at Middleburg, with Copernicus, reenactments with Hans Lipperhey in Holland, and Christina Huygens. Old castles that date back the 1300’s are a very cool environment to shoot in! We had a lot of fun in Cambridge, shooting reenactments of Isaac Newton on campus, and we have him in the river, too. We have expert on Newton speaking and we pan the camera and there’s Newton rowing a punt.

Another memorable moment was being up at Mauna Kea shooting time lapse video. The laser at the Keck Telescope came on and we captured that, and we now have in our footage for our production. It was totally unplanned. It must have been 15 degrees below zero, but I just stood there. Normally I start the camera and leave, but I just stood there and watched it because it was just an amazing sight. There are always great things like that. You go out and you plan, and you know the shots you want of dome openings and telescopes turning and you want to shoot every telescope you can, but sometimes the unplanned things end up the best.

The WM Keck Telescope. Credit: APOD
The WM Keck Telescope. Credit: APOD

We ran 6 hours of tape through a camera a day. Just as astronomy is weather dependent, so too is shooting, and the light has to be there. We had some exceptional days for lighting, which created some very pretty shots.

Once, we were in a meeting with our senior reviewer at PBS, we were talking about timetables and technical issues, but they said, “We have to stop and tell you that the footage is exceptionally pretty.” I think that’s only because of the crew. Our Associate Producer Anita Ingrao and the Director of Photographer Scott Stender were phenomenal. I’ve been around observatories my whole life; I love them, and I can look at something and say, ‘that’s the shot,’ but putting someone else in there and having them see what I was seeing isn’t always the easiest thing to do. But they put faith in what I was seeing.

UT: How many people worked on the project?

Koenig: It depends on what day it is! We had a phenomenal crew. We have animators at the University of California at Chico, animators at Mirage 3 D, New Edge Studios in Atlanta, and more animators to create the planetarium shows. Anita and Scott and I mentioned did the production team in the field, Krista Shelby is an intern, and excellent audio operator. We have an excellent board of advisers that are all leaders and experts in their fields, as well as great individuals and supporters. Neil de Grasse Tyson is the narrator and we were very happy when joined the team. I think we’ve got everyone we could possibly have on the team. It’s a great project.

Everyone in the company is an astronomer or have a passion for astronomy. That’s one thing that makes us unique in this production. Everybody is into it, they understand the importance of it and have the spirit to go behind that. I think that’s what’s going to make our production stand out. We know that there are other folks doing productions for the International Year of Astronomy, but I think what will be the point of difference is that we look at the subject as astronomers and want to communicate it properly.

Click here for a list of credits for 400 Years of the Telescope.

Official website: 400 Years of the Telescope

5 Replies to “New Documentary “400 Years of the Telescope” Now Airing”

  1. It appears that neither of the two(2 !) PBS stations in Tampa plan to show this program. I guess this is not too surprising since they also passed on the ‘George Ellery Hale-Mt Palomar’ special heavily promoted recently. Guess it’s just too hi-falutin for us Florida folk.

  2. It’s great to watch the promo videos just to see how astrophysics is done in the 21st century.

  3. This looks like it will be a great show. I think I might buy the video since I don’t have any TV reception. Or maybe it will be available on iTunes? Have to check that out.

    By the way, there is no University of California at Chico. It’s California State University, Chico.

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