Science

Clara Is a Story of Exoplanets, Existential Longing—and Real Science

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If you are an astronomer—or, at least, someone interested in the search for alien life—this year’s hottest film may be Clara, a Canadian indie feature that premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Written and directed by 23-year-old cinema wunderkind Akash Sherman, the film follows a troubled astronomer, Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams), who forms an unlikely partnership with a bohemian artist, Clara (Troian Bellisario), while hunting for Earth-like exoplanets.

Clara was largely under the public radar until this August, when a YouTube trailer laden with lush visual effects and teasing science-savvy plot points sparked a sensation among astronomers on social media. As revealed by the trailer, the film’s story revolves around Isaac and Clara’s use of publicly available data from NASA’s very real Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to make a potentially transformative discovery. Although entirely fictitious, that discovery’s details have surprisingly robust real-world roots—namely a Clara-inspired academic paper published in Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society by the film’s science advisors, Canadian astrophysicists John Moores and Doug Welch.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say the film’s final act is a figurative and literal demonstration of the big ideas at the core of modern searches for extraterrestrial life and intelligence. To watch Clara for yourself, stay tuned: The film will have its U.S. premiere at the Austin Film Festival on October 27, and more information about Clara’s nationwide release is coming soon.

Scientific American recently spoke with Clara’s writer and director, Akash Sherman, as well as science advisor Welch, a professor at McMaster University, about the film and its reality-based origins and inspirations.

[An edited transcript of the interview—and minor spoilers—follow.]

Akash, how do you prefer to summarize the story you’re telling in Clara? And what inspired you to make this film?
AS: Clara is a science-fiction drama, a high-concept human story about an astronomer, Isaac, who is looking for signs of life beyond Earth while his own life is falling apart around him. He meets an artist who shares his fascination for the cosmos, and together they begin a collaboration that leads them to a major scientific discovery. And they use real NASA instruments in this process, like TESS and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, because we are really in a new, exciting age of planet-hunting right now.

The story behind the story is that I was a 19-year-old film student in an art history class, and I had an epiphany that all the great artists throughout history who we were studying would probably be out creating something at my age, not sitting in a classroom. So after class I went for a walk and promised myself, “I’m gonna create something today. I’m gonna write a story.” I went back to my dorm and typed for about seven hours, and by the end of the day I had come up with the basic story that would become the film. I titled it Clara because the word means “clear” and “bright,” like a star—and it was about this search for life among the stars. I kept working on it, and eventually pitched it to [producer] Ari Lantos, who optioned it. We finished the film last year, when I was 22.

A lot of reactions to the trailer have focused on the quality of its visual effects. Could you tell me about how those were made?
AS: So, I started out my film career as visual effects artist, and all the shots you see in Clara are actually made by me. I wanted it that way, because I really wanted to show space honestly and in a way that would look familiar to people working in the field. Lots of big-budget Hollywood films don’t really do that. So all of those visual effects shots are infused with real elements from NASA—all the shots of planets transiting a sun come from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, all of the shots of nebulae come from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Doug, how did you get involved, and what sort of work did you do on the film?
DW: I’d like to say I was born to do this, but what actually happened is that Akash and Ari sent out an e-mail to Toronto-area physics and astronomy departments asking for help. So I wrote back expressing my interest, and soon after we had a meeting. Then I spent some time during preproduction with Akash and the principal actors, Patrick and Troian, talking through some of the scenes and explaining related science concepts—everything from Fermi’s paradox and the Drake equation to the mechanics of astronomical observing. I also gave some dialogue suggestions, and worked quite a bit with the art director, Karis Malszecki, to ensure some of the film’s visual elements were correct—sketches, screens and graphs that appear onscreen, for instance.

I should add that one of the reasons I wanted to get involved was how much real science was already in Akash’s script when I read it. It captures the excitement of revealing other planets and the potential for even identifying life elsewhere during our lifetime. The satellites are up there, we have plans for more, and the data we see in the film could be real someday. So it was clear to me that Akash understood a lot of the field and how it worked. You see this in small details, too, like when Isaac and Clara follow up on a certain astronomical target using remote observations with a telescope in Chile. I sort of gilded the lily in terms of helping to set things up to look like the characters were actually doing those observations, but it was already written into the plot.

Were there any points where you had to compromise on the science for the sake of the story?
DW: Well, my goal was to make the film’s scientific material feel real while keeping it as simple as possible—getting the points across quickly, and without extraneous details. Sometimes that means you have to shift things. Near the end, when the characters are going over graphs of a star’s light dimming from a transiting planet, there is a nice lump on the graph that draws the eye—an object or artifact that becomes a very important plot point. Well, John Moores and I had figured out how such an object would appear in actual data, and that’s part of what we ended up submitting as a paper. During the time we were developing this there was someone else, the astrophysicist Eric Gaidos, who also wrote a paper of a similar nature showing that our description was correct. But the shape of the modulation in a star’s light for an object of this kind would be so subtle that you would never notice it with the naked eye. So what we ended up showing on-screen was something much more obvious, basically a Jupiter-size planet crossing a sunspot.

Overall, what I loved about this experience was how subtle Akash and his colleagues were—they took my material, and they didn’t slam it in people’s faces. A lot of it only appears onscreen for a few seconds, when characters are writing things down or working through problems in a way that actually makes sense. That, to me, gives the film a pleasing air of authenticity. It’s very easy for science to be portrayed as some sort of golden shot out of the blue, where you are suddenly imbued with a correct answer to a problem. But it’s usually not like that at all—there’s hard work involved, and instead of instant gratification there is a long process of verification. Towards the end of the film, for instance, when the characters get recognition for their discovery—that comes after two years of verification where other scientists were busy checking everything out.

Given all the research behind this, are there any hidden details for astute viewers to find in the film as nods to some of the real-world source material underpinning the plot?
DW: I put some in there, but I’m not sure they all made it past the final cut! One of the things I included that an astronomer would recognize is something called IRAF, the Image Reduction and Analysis Facility, which is this fairly long-in-the-tooth software system. That’s being used onscreen at one point. Another is a target position being entered, with celestial coordinates that correspond to Wolf 359, a nearby dwarf star.

AS: I did put in one. It doesn’t come across visually but when Isaac visits a new, future SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] facility toward the end of the film, as he enters the building you can hear very softly on an intercom, “Paging Dr. Tarter, Jill Tarter.” That’s just a nod to her—a real scientist I really love. Oh, and in the score to the film the composer Jonathon Kawchuk converted sounds from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft into a synth, and those sounds are baked into a lot of the tracks.

Clearly, scientific accuracy was important for this particular film, but do you think it’s something filmmakers should strive for in general?
DW: Absolutely. I’d say that should be the case—and can you give people my phone number? [laughs] But seriously, a lot of the stories we tell each other have their roots in the very distant past—not many have roots in the now, or in the future. So I think there is a wonderful opportunity to mix in these things that are just coming over the horizon into our view and our ability to understand. We are finally approaching answers to things that have been mysteries for a very long time, and that’s fantastically exciting.

AS: I agree, and I think good science in film is incredibly important today. There is a real appetite for it. We are all immersed every day in news apps on our phones and screens. And let’s be honest—the news isn’t always that nice to listen to. But when we see announcements of a profound new scientific development, whether that’s the launch of a new telescope or the discovery of a potentially habitable planet, it can be uplifting. These are things that we as a human race can all agree on as amazing and inspiring—especially with astronomy. With Clara, I wanted to get the word out that, hey, we are actually looking for habitable planets around other stars right now—and maybe people who watch will then tune in to the next telescope launch or press conference announcing new results. It’s meant to be a celebration of science that brings audiences closer to that reality

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