Eclipse Documentary

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Documentary, WSIU Showcase College’s Eclipse Efforts

By Pete Rosenbery

As they continue to log and review the hundreds of hours of video shot chronicling events surrounding the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, H.D. Motyl and Mark Stoffel believe they are on to something magical.

More than two months after the first total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous United States since 1918 powered its way across the region, Motyl and Stoffel are now reliving the emotional connection as they piece together footage for a university documentary. In previewing a rough three-minute clip, Motyl, interim chair of the Department of Radio, Television, and Digital Media, and Stoffel, a digital media systems specialist and instructor, said they felt a rush of emotions return.

During the actual eclipse, Motyl focused on the stadium crowd while Stoffel was videoing eclipse co-chair Bob Baer and his telescope.

“For me, it was like experiencing it again but really for the first time, because I wasn’t looking up,” said Motyl. “It was only when the cloud moved out toward the end and they started cheering, I was out by the steps of the Arena … when I looked up and saw (the eclipse). Seeing the footage was very emotional. That’s where anybody who was there will really make the connection.”

About10 student-involved camera crews helped chronicle events leading up to an event that filled Saluki Stadium and served as a focal point for national and international media. Filming started in late spring and includes interviews with Mat Kaplan of Planetary Radio and David Baron, historian, author and self-professed umbraphile -- or eclipse chaser. Topics range from a discussion on how ancient cultures viewed eclipses to eclipse-related merchandise, from soda cans and bakery goods to cookies and postal stamps.

The goal is for the one-hour documentary to be complete by the spring 2018 semester, which begins Jan. 16, with a possible special screening during the Big Muddy Film Festival in February.

Producing the documentary was “a natural project” for the college, said Deborah Tudor, interim dean. A documentary was the first thing Tudor said she thought of when talking to Scott Ishman, an eclipse committee co-chair and acting interim dean of the College of Science.

“Our faculty, students and staff worked together on a large-scale project, one that will showcase the college, the university and the region,” Tudor said.  “The documentary let us explore not only the cosmic event and the science around it, but to link that aspect with people’s responses to the event. During totality, it was no longer possible to think of the solar system or galaxy as ‘out there.’. What happens in space affects us here on the ground, and a documentary is a tremendous venue to explore those complex responses.”

A central theme in the film is what happens in the 13 hours and 23 minutes between sunrise and sunset on Aug. 21. The eclipse duration was 2 hours and 55 minutes, with eclipse totality at 2 minutes and 24 seconds. The experience of late-arriving clouds -- only to pull apart at the end of totality -- adds to the documentary experience, Stoffel said.

“One thing you couldn’t foresee, none of us, was the emotional aspect of the eclipse,” Stoffel said. “We were all in it. Even though there was a partial obstruction. The amount of power and emotion -- I just had goosebumps all the way through it. More attention will be paid to how it affected people. We conducted a lot of interviews with people who alluded to this quite extensively.”

Footage also includes interviews with reporters and visitors from Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Canada. An astronomy club from Algeria came to SIU specifically for the eclipse, Motyl said. Since most of the documentary footage takes place on campus, Motyl and Stoffel will also utilize NASA’s high-resolution eclipse video.

Baer, a specialist with the Department of Physics, showed the three-minute preview at the final meeting of the St. Louis Eclipse Task Force at the St. Louis Science Center’s McDonnell Planetarium on Sept. 13. The clip, he said, is “pretty exciting because it captures just a little bit of what it felt like to be part of Eclipse Day at the stadium.” He also had plans to show the clip at the NASA Science Mission Directorate meeting in Leesburg, Va., in November as part of a discussion on Eclipse 2017 events.

“I really liked to see that they were able to get some video of the crowd chanting for the cloud to move and the smiles on everyone's faces at seeing the diamond rings and totality,” Baer said. “They are telling a very important story here about a unique event that we hosted as a campus. Despite heavy media coverage of the event, I think Mark and H.D.'s work is likely to capture the story in a way that has not been done yet, letting those who were there see it from a different perspective, and telling the rest of the world what an incredible and historic event this was. As far as I've heard so far, we had the largest and what I consider the best-programmed group observation of this type in the nation. There were a lot of other observations going on, but nothing quite like what we did at SIU.”

Tudor noted that in addition to the documentary work, WSIU staff and students also worked on the five-hour live production of the “NASA Edge Total Solar Eclipse Megacast” uplinked from Carbondale to the world. WSIU also hosted “Planetary Radio Live” from Shryock Auditorium with Kaplan and a team of scientists who engaged in a panel discussion on Aug. 20, the night before the eclipse.

“Eclipse Day was a wonderful, exciting time for the college and the university,” she said.