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Behind the video: 'To Scale: The Solar System'

Ian Durkin
October 20, 2015 by Ian Durkin Staff

Remember dipping a french fry into a milkshake for the first time? Better judgement told you that it might be weird, but you just felt like it, so that fry took the plunge.

That’s sort of what Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh did. Except they were dipping into something on a more colossal scale. We’re talking “relative size of the solar system” big. Because, well, they built the world’s first to-scale solar system. And they did it just because they felt like it. 

Vimeo: I noticed that Carl Sagan is mentioned in your video’s “special thanks” section. Did you grow up watching Cosmos: A Personal Voyage? How did his work influence you and this project?

Wylie: Growing up, I’d certainly heard of Carl Sagan (my father loved to imitate his “billions and billions”), but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered his work for myself. It was, of course, hugely influential. Until then, I’d always encountered science as a dry compendium of facts meant to be diligently memorized, but Carl presented it as a grand and romantic story. Science was no longer formulas and equations, it was the extraordinary drama of all that is, or was, or ever will be. I was utterly entranced. Within a few months I’d read all his books, then those of other scientists — E.O. Wilson, Loren Eisley, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, Neil Tyson — as well as the works of the original pioneers [like] Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, [and] Darwin. Suddenly I was consumed by the desire to understand the universe and our place within it. For a while, it was hard for my friends to get me out of my apartment.

Looking back, I think those few months were much more than falling into a new interest. It was a profoundly transformative experience, one that radically altered my view of the world and gave me an entirely new perspective of everything I thought I knew. The desire to share this view with others was the firmament from which this project emerged.

I’m curious if you’ve seen “The Voyagers” by Penny Lane. It’s one of my favorites on Vimeo and I think you’d dig it.

I have, and it’s fantastic. May we all be so lucky as Carl and Ann.

Wouldn’t that be great? You seem to have a decent celestial knowledge considering you approached a project like this. Do you have a background in physics and astronomy?

Turns out I have no academic background in science. My degree is in writing and literature, which is a fancy way of saying I spent a lot of time learning how stories are told. Whatever celestial knowledge I have is entirely self-taught by way of the books I read.

It was a profoundly transformative experience, one that radically altered my view of the world and gave me an entirely new perspective of everything I thought I knew.”

Impressive. So, how long have you been kicking around this idea? Where did it come from and what did it take to get the wheels in motion?

The idea came to me one evening while I was watching the sunset. I was standing on the fire escape of my apartment building looking out over the city. The circle of the sun was hanging just above the horizon, and it suddenly occurred to me that a scale reproduction of the earth and sun would allow one to perfectly recreate what I was seeing. More than that, it would reveal the depth and dimension between our star and our planet that we otherwise [couldn’t] perceive. I then realized [that] if you built a scale model of the solar system with complete orbits, you could recreate an accurate view of our place in the cosmos. This is when [the] Black Rock Desert jumped to mind. I had been there before and knew it had the space needed for such a model.

The first hurdle of course was getting it on film — I had virtually no production skills or gear. This is where Alex came in. We had been co-workers a year or two prior, and I knew he had the expertise to pull this off. Fortunately for me, he was enthusiastic about the idea from the start. We spent a weekend doing some shot tests in Joshua Tree National Park, then a few weeks later [we] headed to Nevada.

How much math and planning did it take to plot out the orbits and build the models?

Mercifully, not all that much. There are solar system calculators out there that allow you to input a single parameter, such as the diameter of our earth marble, and they’ll compute all other necessary dimensions. The only problem was translating the digital model to reality. As soon as we started measuring out the inner orbits we realized how huge this model actually was, and how hard it was going to be to capture on film.  

Not only did the Black Rock Desert present itself with seven miles of space, but it also looked incredibly picturesque and allowed you to track the orbits with tire marks. Was finding the perfect location to shoot tricky?

As I mentioned, the location simply jumped to mind as the idea coalesced, so that part was easy. Had I not been to Black Rock Desert before, I very well may have scrapped the idea as impossible. Luckily I’d been there and seen how the lakebed surface could be disturbed to create lines and contrast. It’s a gorgeous landscape, so I assured myself that if all else failed we’d at least end up with pretty footage of a camping trip.

The hardest part was simply managing the enormity of the model. We had over a hundred miles of orbits to trace out, and not much daylight or manpower.”

You say in the film that you had 36 hours to do get everything done, so you clearly had to go into the shoot with a game plan. Did you guys do a practice run? Did you succeed on the first try?

The only practice we had was that weekend in Joshua Tree where we experimented with shooting time-lapses, which neither Alex nor I had much experience with. [In] Nevada, we had only a vague schedule of what we’d make and film each day. Moreover, I had considerably underestimated the magnitude of the project, so things quickly got away from us and the schedule was more or less was abandoned. We were constantly rushing to get all the shots we wanted, and by no means did we get them all. But we got enough to make it work.

I was curious how you guys created the orbits so perfectly with the cars. How did you ensure that you were driving at the precise angle?

We used GPS across three devices to give us the best possible tracking. In such an empty landscape the GPS was accurate to within about 10 feet, and when you’re tracing out an orbit 7 miles in diameter, 10 feet is good enough. Turns out this discrepancy is actually a fair representation of reality as the real orbital paths of the planets vary considerably.

Once the orbits were established, how exactly did you move the planets and capture the movement to achieve that effect? Were they attached to cars? Moved by hand? Those were some of my favorite shots.

I actually walked the inner orbits holding an LED towards the mountain where Alex was shooting the time-lapse. Meanwhile, my friends Ramsey and Shane drove the outer orbits (without headlights) while holding their LED out the window. The result was a lot of tired arms and cold fingers.

What was the hardest part of building the solar system to scale, moving it in orbit, and then capturing it?

The hardest part was simply managing the enormity of the model. We had over a hundred miles of orbits to trace out, and not much daylight or manpower. Moreover, Alex was our only cameraman, and he could only be in one place at a time.

Whenever I encountered something I wish I’d done better — recording audio, getting certain shots, production prep, speaking on camera — I’d add a quick one-line note to the list.”

Your film has already taught almost two million people something new about our solar system. Did you have a specific goal in mind with creating this film and releasing it to the world online?

My goal from the beginning was to reveal the disparity between our notions of the solar system and the reality of the solar system. No one escapes the 4th grade without learning of the planets and their arrangement, but this understanding is often so purely conceptual — it omits the solar system’s extraordinary size and proportion. I thought if the film showed this as I well as I thought it could, it’d be appreciated online by people who love science and space. What I didn’t realize is how much it would be appreciated by people, period. It seems to have struck a chord that transcends nationality, age, education, and worldview, and for reasons I can’t really articulate, this fills me with hope.

Did you learn anything new through the production and the project in general?

When I first began editing footage, I started a list entitled “Lessons Learned.”  Whenever I encountered something I wish I’d done better — recording audio, getting certain shots, production prep, speaking on camera — I’d add a quick one-line note to the list. That list is now on its fourth page. While maintaining a giant ledger of your failures isn’t fun, I believe it to be an absolutely crucial exercise. Those failures are the best guide you’ll ever have to becoming better at what you do.

A choice selection of mine: good audio is often more important than good picture. Storyboard shots so you know exactly what you’ll need to get them. If [shooting] outdoors, be conscious of daylight, because when it’s gone you’re done. Solicit critical feedback — anonymously if possible, so your reviewers are free to be brutally honest.

I’m going to adopt your list technique. Sounds useful. Do you have any projects of this nature in the works?  

Yes! When I thought of recreating the solar system to scale, I realized the concept could be iterated across other facets of nature, from the micro (atoms, molecules, cells, proteins) to the macro (nearby stars, the constellations, exoplanets, galaxies). We’ve received an overwhelming amount of support and interest to make a full To Scale: series, and we’re working hard to bring that to life. Right now I’ve got several other episodes fleshed out, and I think we can make them pretty special. We shall see!

Thanks, Wylie!

Launch into our full Behind the Video series to hear how our favorite videos are made, in the words of their creators.


Joel Jones

Absolutely amazing when you put it all in perspective! We are but a small blip in the middle of a vast open space. AMAZING!
And, when I look at "us" from this perspective, it makes me wonder why there is so much anger, bitterness and strife in our world.
Great job putting this together!!!!!

Ravindra Badgujar

Very nice! This gives us the idea how small we actually are when put in the real scale, which we haven't seen before probably because its too small to see on that scale.:)

I love astronomy and this work is an inspiration for me. editing and music is also very well done very nice presentation overall.

Lucky Joestar

If you did the Sun in red giant phase, which it will get to in five billion years, it would probably have to be a large dome building.

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