Looking up

Local filmmakers produce PBS documentary, 400 Years of the Telescope

IN THE STARS <br> From Galileo’s early prototypes to the Gemini giant at the top of a dormant volcano in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the telescope has come a long way over the centuries.

From Galileo’s early prototypes to the Gemini giant at the top of a dormant volcano in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the telescope has come a long way over the centuries.

Photo By pbs

The majority of the human population has been disconnected from the greater environment—the universe. The Earth is just a small part of a bigger environment, and lights steal that from us. … One of the worst pollutions is light pollution.

—Kris Koenig, filmmaker and observatory director

Upon entering the foyer of filmmaker Kris Koenig’s Interstellar Studios in north Chico, one is greeted by two shiny, golden Emmy statues proudly displayed inside a glass case.

Koenig and production assistant Anita Ingrao (formerly Berkow) received the Emmys for a 10-hour 2005 PBS telecourse titled Astronomy Observations and Theories that they created along with local videographer Peter Berkow, widely known for his work on PBS’ Sierra Center Stage music series filmed at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Big Room.

Koenig and Ingrao are also director and curator, respectively, of the Chico Community Observatory in Upper Bidwell Park, and this year they have another clear winner on their hands with the recently completed, visually stunning, hour-long documentary 400 Years of the Telescope: A Journey of Science, Technology and Thought, which they began work on in November 2006. 400 Years of the Telescope features interviews with leading astronomy experts and mesmerizing time-lapse photography of the cosmos from high-altitude observatories around the world. It airs nationally on PBS this month in celebration of 2009’s being the International Year of Astronomy. The film debuts locally on PBS affiliate KIXE on Friday (April 10).

“I can tell you where we didn’t go,” began the bright-eyed Koenig, when asked where he and his crew traveled to film 400 Years. “We didn’t go to China, Russia or India.”

They did go to Florence, Italy, and Cambridge, England, where they filmed historical re-enactment segments on Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton. They went to Holland, where they interviewed Dr. Albert Van Helden, the world’s leading expert on the early telescope. They went to Chile, where legal coca-leaf-chewing helped avoid altitude sickness at 17,000 feet (“You have to when you get up there, so you don’t get a headache,” offered Ingrao. “You feel so much better when you chew the coca leaves”). They traveled to Hawaii, and even closer to home visited California’s Lick and Palomar observatories.

<br /> Kris Koenig, director of Interstellar Studios and Chico Community Observatory.

Photo By pbs

Other stops included the European Southern Observatory in Munich, Germany; Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands, where the world’s largest telescope is currently being built; and the South African Astronomical Observatory, in Sutherland, four hours from Cape Town and “the home of the best lamb shank in the world,” as Koenig and Ingrao both smilingly agreed.

Koenig recounted that in the small town of Coonabarabran, known as the Astronomy Capital of Australia, he found “some of the darkest skies in the world.”

“It’s almost pitch-black there, because of the lack of city lights and population,” he said, clearly pleased. “But not quite as dark as South Africa.”

Both Koenig and Ingrao are quick to point out that 400 Years—which chronicles the development of the telescope from its beginnings with Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo in 1609 through its four-century evolution—is the creative product of many talented people, including fellow Interstellar Studios producer Dan Koehler, prolific Hollywood film editor Kimberly Generous White, and the London Symphony, which provided the lush soundtrack, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, for the film.

Ingrao was unequivocally enamored of her role in the production of the documentary, despite hardships.

“You couldn’t get your coffee when you wanted it, and some places just had powdered Nescafé,” she said. “And sleeping in cold, moldy dorms at observatories and being crammed into the back of a car with all that equipment—it wasn’t luxury, it was work. … But this is the most professional thing that I’ve ever worked on. I learned so much.”