Meet the Director Bringing Black Holes to Sundance in Virtual Reality

Meet the Director Bringing Black Holes to Sundance in Virtual Reality

Explore the depths of a black hole in virtual reality at Sundance 2018.

Explore the depths of a black hole in virtual reality at Sundance 2018.

Text: Kellylouise Delaney

“You’re going to fall into a black hole.” is all  Eliza McNitt leaves me with, moments before I step into her newest virtual reality experience, “Songs of Spacetime.” She assures me that I won’t become too disoriented, but the prospect still sounds scary. And that’s because nobody knows what a black hole is really like––which is exactly what moved the 26-year-old writer and director to study and reimagine them in V.R. But the prolific filmmaker hasn’t just created an educational experience of the planetarium ilk for Oculus Rift––“Songs of Spacetime” allows users to examine the innards of a black hole firsthand, from its sights to its soundscape.

Without much of a grasp on the celestial entities, McNitt explains, the 2017 detection of gravitational waves reverberating from space to Earth due to the collision of two black holes has greatly expanded our capacity to understand them: “Suddenly our perspective has shifted from just looking out into the stars, to instead listening to their songs as a means to uncover deeper knowledge,” she says, “We still cannot see inside of a black hole, but through gravitational waves we can learn so much more about them.” By listening to those waves, and collaborating with a team of elite composers and sound designers––Craig Henighan, Kyle Dixon, and Michael Stein, who all worked on Stranger Things––the director conceived a composition of the universe that is both delicate and calamitous. Which totally suits the journey of swallowing stars and singing in space.

The expedition into the heart of a black hole feels more like slipping into a liberated space than falling into vastness. For its duration, users are lifted out of a world where mass missile threat texts are sent and rescinded, and where world leaders hold Fake News Awards––a welcome respite. But “Songs of Spacetime” doesn’t aim to make us feel small and insignificant––the obvious angle in most discussions of how we relate to the universe. Instead, it insists that we are in constant conversation with the cosmos––and McNitt invites us to add our songs to the soundscape.

Read our conversation about music, connection, and the cosmos, below.

Tell me about “Songs of Spacetime.”

This experience explores the idea that space is not silent and in fact, it is full of sound. For thousands of years we’ve looked to the stars to find our place in the universe, but for the first time, we listen to its music. You start off the experience witnessing the birth of a star and it invites you in, and it’s the vibrant pink world inside of a nebula, and then as you enter the star it ages over a million years and suddenly dies in a violent supernova. And at that point the experience takes a turn to a chaotic area of the universe where a black hole is created. In order to progress through the experience, you must be swallowed whole and you must go to the darkest corners of this black hole in order to find your way out.

How did you reimagine the sounds of space?

We wanted to make it as surreal and otherworldly as possible. Craig Henighan has this innate ability to craft unexpected sounds that twist your expectations. I sent him a library of sounds from space––the sound of Saturn’s rings, the sound of Earth, electromagnetic waves from Earth, and he used that as inspiration.The sounds we hear in the experience are artistic interpretations of the actual sounds of space, but we also do incorporate those sounds into our mix. The sound of gravitational waves inspired the final sequence of our piece, where you get to create this ripple in the fabric of spacetime.

Why did you choose virtual reality as a medium for this project?

I think virtual reality is the only medium that would make you feel as if you’re truly connecting with a gravitational wave, because it is such an abstract concept.

What went into the process of visualizing the inside of a black hole?

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was visualizing the invisible universe. There are these worlds that we can’t see. There are only theories and Stephen Hawking’s website to explain to us the possibilities of what it might be like to fall inside of a black hole. In crafting the experience I worked alongside the National Academy of Sciences and Dr. Richard Messner to understand what it might look and feel like if you were a star being violently ripped to shreds as you fell towards the heart of a black hole.

What did you find?

When you look at a black hole from the outside there is an event horizon which is a boundary that separates the black hole from the rest of the universe, but when you pass that boundary you can see the universe as a bubble, as if you were seeing all of time in front of you vanishing. Once you pass that threshold, there is no escape. So you can’t see into a black hole, but you can see out. That’s just one of the inexplicable mysteries about these strange, beautiful creatures that lay out there in the darkest depths of the universe.

That’s a really spooky reminder of our mortality––the idea of not being able to go back.

There are so many parallels between black holes and humans and our life here on Earth. In a black hole, time only goes forward. It’s very similar to what we experience on Earth––we are propelled forward through time with no means to go backwards. There’s so much chaos in the universe and yet there is this order and these strange parallels that connect us to the fabric of the universe.

That connection comes through in a really simple way during your simulation, where the soundwaves respond to the user’s voice. What does that call and response from the universe imply?

This is more philosophical than theoretical, but even humans create a gravitational wave which is infinitesimally smaller than the wave a black hole would create. But it shows that like black holes, human beings are made of matter. And as we propel through the universe, we too are writing our imprint on the fabric of spacetime. I think that humanity’s imprint is the song of Earth… It shows that humans do have a place in the cosmos. We do transform the world around us.

What else do we know about the human connection to the cosmos?

In the experience we talk about how the atoms of our bodies were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars, therefore it’s true that we are literally made of stardust. The death of super-massive stars is also what creates black holes. There is a connection between humans, stars, black holes and the fabric of the universe because this is the world from which we came.

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