Scannain had the distinct pleasure of talking with Irish director Emer Reynolds ahead of the special preview screening of her new documentary The Farthest at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on Sunday, February 26th.
Is it humankind’s greatest achievement? 12 billion miles away a tiny spaceship is leaving our solar system and entering the void of deep space. It is the first human-made object ever to do so. Slowly dying within its heart is a plutonium generator that will beat for perhaps another decade before the lights on Voyager finally go out. But this little craft will travel on for millions of years, carrying a Golden Record bearing recordings and images of life on Earth. In all likelihood, Voyager will outlive humanity and all our creations. It could be the only thing to mark our existence. Perhaps someday an alien will find it and wonder.
In this powerful, poetic and cinematic feature documentary, The Farthest celebrates these magnificent machines, the men and women who built them and the vision that propelled them further than anyone could ever have hoped. Launched from a fractious planet, these pioneers sail on serenely in the darkness – an enduring testament to the ingenuity of humankind and the untapped limits of the human imagination.
One of the things that The Farthest does brilliantly is that it manages to inform audiences in a way that avoids being too technical for people unfamiliar with the story, and at the same time engages those that are. “That was really one of the challenges with it. To try and make it something that would appeal to people who knew about Voyager and space in general, and to try capture those people who just want to go along for the ride of the great story that it was.”
The Voyager program was launched in 1977, after Gary Flandro, an aerospace engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, discovered that the outer planets of our solar system would align in such a way as to allow a spacecraft to leapfrog from one to the next with the minimum of effort. “The idea started in the 1960’s. That was when they started doing the initial calculations where they thought that it might be a conceivable fly-by. One that won’t be available now for another 130 years. I just think of the bravery and the madness of the people that said ‘Hey, we’re not going to do one planet, we’re going to do four! And skip, hop, and jump out all the way.'”
A striking thing about the space exploration of the 60s and 70s was that it was that, for the scientists that worked on it, it was purely done to expand our knowledge as a species. “The generosity of it, the altruism of it was staggering. They did get a lot of flack, they all spoke in the interviews about people saying to them that NASA wasted public funds. And they were going ‘We’re not spending it in space. We’re spending it here on Earth, on space related projects.’ And then there’s all that space-related technology brings to human advancement, to the economy. It’s immense.”
America today is a very different country to America of the 60s and 70s. “It’s kind of frightening today to think of it now in history, with Trump and all that anti-science instinct that’s creeping in.”
Reynolds has had a long interest and love of science, so making a documentary about space seemed natural. “I have a massive love of Voyager and of space all my life, and I found in my producer and equally massive love. So we started looking, and we found that there was no feature or cinematic documentary made about Voyager. There had been TV stuff made, but nothing on this sort of scale. We started exploring and writing it. We found a real hunger for it as soon as we started sending it out. We got loads of support from funders very, very quickly.”
The last time mainstream audiences would have heard about the Voyager program was in 2012, when Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause to become the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. The timing of this was almost perfect for the documentary. “That’s a really nice part of the story. We were talking about other projects that we were exploring, and Voyager was one of them. And then after we had a big meeting…the very next day I open the Sunday paper and NASA had just announced that Voyager had reached interstellar space. It was just like ‘Bing!’, it was one of those moments where you go, actually this is the moment you can tell this story. Because it’s just done something that mankind has never done before. It’s an extraordinary achievement that this little craft had left our solar system. It was a lovely confluence of our idea and a moment in time. And then our two producers John [Murray] and Clare [Stronge] went out and started talking to NASA and JPL, and they were really on board with us making the film. And onboard with the concept of the film. That it was going to be a big human story, a big human adventure, and to tell the story to a wide audience, and not be just jargon and nitty-gritty science. That we were going to suck in the big adventure.”
A thing that strikes you about The Farthest is that the interviewees, now speaking some 40 years after the event, are still relatively young. “For a lot of them, it was their first job out of college. They were young bucks trying to make a name for themselves in planetary science and space exploration. One of the reasons that they speak so beautifully in the film is that it is almost like their first girlfriend or boyfriend. They have that feeling of real attachment to Voyager. And when they meet each other…because they’re all on different projects, like Cassini, and they’re all spread out all over the place…and when they meet it’s all like ‘Have you heard about Voyager? What’s Voyager up to now? Any more news?’ We went on a massive whistlestop research trip, it was 12 cities in 8 days, and we did research interviews with scores of scientists and engineers. We tried to draw out the great storytellers, and I think we achieved that.”
Carl Sagan, one of the men most responsible for popularising science in the US through his books and the Cosmos TV series, was a big part of the Voyager program. His son Nick, also an author, lent his voice at age 6 to the Golden Record that accompanied the two Voyager probes into space. He speaks fondly in The Farthest of his father’s work and of his own contribution. “He’s a real deep thinker, and he hasn’t fallen far from his father’s tree, so has that turn of phrase. He talks bout the longing, and how there’s a little piece of him out there in space travelling for al time. It’s a little piece of magic. His interview was extraordinary. One of the things the film is for is to use the Voyager story as a springboard into those cosmic questions, the fundamental questions that we all ask when we look up at the sky. ‘Why are we here? What’s it all for? What’s out there? Are we alone? Is there anything after this?’ and he was willing to jump into that stream. He was telling stories of being a child and his father having Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein over and sitting there having the chats with them. Carl Sagan is well-known now, but at the time he was a working scientist. He was a member of the imagining team, and Brad Smith, the imaging team leader, told a very funny story about how as Voyager flew ever outwards and was finding more and more success it was through the 80s when Carl Sagan was gaining in his own popularity. And he used to have to kind of rap Carl Sagan on the knuckles and say ‘You’re still on this team. You need to send in your results on time!'”
With so many interviewees and so much time to cover the edit for The Farthest was hard going. “We could have filled 10 films with the stories. We could have done a whole film just on the Golden Record, or on Jupiter, on each planet. And not just the discoveries or the dry science, the brilliant anecdotes, the brilliant stories about all the contributors remembering discovering moons and the like. We had so much material. We had 118 hours of video interviews, and million of archival materials, the original footage, and Voyager’s photos. So for myself and the editor Tony Cranstoun it was very intense and quite long trying to distill the essence of the story, and not get driven into telling quite a straight story. I wanted to keep the room to go off on these little detours into ‘What is space? What’s out there? How many stars exactly?’ Both for them and for our audiences it’s the personal stories. The contributors are giving up their own human experience of what it was like to dream this up out of nothing and to fly it, and for it to achieve so much. And all of their feelings towards it and what it did for them in their lives, and the feeling that they have of still being connected to it. And then for the audience to know that science isn’t cold and reserved facts, that it’s full of love and adventure and achievement, and dreams and ambitions. I have a massive and deep love of space since I was a child so I was very keen to express that…that childlike wonder.”
As well as the Golden Record, Voyager itself is a time capsule of its generation. “Voyager will be out there orbiting the Milky Way for hundreds of millions of years. Long after we’ve all frizzled out. With its 70s music and the technology that we could do. The ability to show a map as to where we are in the universe. To demonstrate that we understood complex physics and science at that time. As one of the contributors says ‘The Golden Record is certainly the message, but the craft itself is a message too.’ It has complex scientific instruments that are capable of measuring complex ideas. When we launched Voyager there was a body of thought that the heliosphere (the bubble-like region of space dominated by the Sun) ended just outside Jupiter, but we didn’t know. Voyager was going out there to find out something deeply profound about the influence of our sun on the universe. There’s so much that we know now that we didn’t know then when Voyager was leaving. We’re able to update the Voyager story with what we know now, but that’s because of Voyager. Voyager wrote the textbook, Voyager found this stuff out.”
Instrumental to this cinematic portrayal of the Voyager story is the use of breathtaking CGI. “It was part of the desire to really communicate the adventure. To really bring the audience into the experience of what it was like to fly out there. And to see and experience that. I thought that CGI would be a real, direct way of parachuting you into that immersive experience of seeing through Voyager’s eyes. We know that we were going to showcase Voyager’s actual encounters and photographs, but they are black-and-white and there was just something really cinematic about rendering it. With all the planets we stay with Voyager’s vision of it until we got there, and then we opened it out with the CGI. So that suddenly you felt that ‘Oh yeah the size of it!’ All of the CGI was done by an Irish guy, Ian Kenny, on his own in his studio in Monkstown. It was a massive undertaking. It took a lot of time. The science of it, the rendering of it. But it’s really cinematic and beautiful.”
The Farthest plays the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on Sunday, February 26th.