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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s about inspiring people’: Astronomer spends months gathering visual elements for his films

The images are out of this world, but, for José Francisco Salgado, the music comes first. Salgado is an astronomer who creates films to accompany orchestral music. This weekend, he’ll present three of those films with the Spokane Symphony. Sharing the stage with him will be astronaut Anne McClain.

The program will feature “Un Bal,” a movement from Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”; “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy; and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” “It’s a beautiful presentation of things in the solar system,” Salgado said.

“We have Earth in one; we have our natural satellite, our moon; then we have the rest of the solar system.” Salgado will introduce the films during the concert as well as give a preconcert talk an hour before the performance. He’ll be joined by McClain for both, and he’s looking forward to hearing her stories about being in space.

Not every concert has an astronaut as part of the program, let alone a local astronaut, he said. “The fact that she’s going to be in town participating in these concerts is something not to be missed.”

“The Planets” was the first film Salgado created. Back in 2005, the Chicago Sinfonietta asked him to make a visual backdrop for the piece. At the time, he was working at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and was already combing science and visual arts.

He decided that creating a “mere slideshow” would be a distraction in the concert hall. Instead, he combined images and videos from NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as historical documents, to create a film that closely follows the character and tempo of the music.

“That way, when you’re in the hall, it’s no different than going to see a film and having a soundtrack that’s supporting what’s on screen,” he said.

Except here it’s the opposite. “We go to hear this incredible music but then on screen we see a film that has been edited to accompany and amend the music and enhance the concert experience,” he said.

That initial project was so successful that he eventually created KV 265, a nonprofit science and arts education organization. The group’s name comes from the catalog number for the Mozart piano piece that was used for the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

The version of “The Planets” that Spokane audiences will see is largely the same as 2005’s, but it’s been updated.

“Without changing the aesthetics of the piece, I have replaced images or animations with ones that are more current,” he said. For instance, the original “Mars” movement featured images and video from the first two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

After Curiosity landed, he replaced one video sequence and changed some of the still images. “That is a work that will be in constant change, but I would never start from scratch because I don’t want to lose the style and aesthetics that have been so expected.”

For “Clair de Lune,” Salgado traveled the word to capture time-lapse photography of the moon in different landscapes. “That one is to reinforce the fact that the moon is universal. It’s the same moon for everyone regardless of where you are in the world,” he said.

And for “Un Bal,” he created the movie “Around the Earth in 90 Minutes” using time-lapse photography shot by astronauts on the International Space Station. The title comes from the length of time it takes for the station to orbit the Earth.

For each of his Science and Symphony films, Salgado spends months or years gathering the visual elements. Then it’s another month or so of editing for a 30-minute movie.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. He molds the visuals to fit the piece. Sometimes that’s an emotional match, other times it’s more abstract, like the music feels like circular motion.

“It’s a matter of matching them and my objective is that at the end, for the person who doesn’t know the music, it’s almost like the music was composed for the film,” he said.

The idea is to let people see what space is really like, said Jeff vom Saal, executive director of the Spokane Symphony. He’s seen some of Salgado’s films before and said the visuals are completely integrated with the music. “It’s quite beautifully precise. It just enhances the overall experience,” he said.

For Salgado, the important thing is that he’s highlighting human scientific achievement. “This is not science fiction, this is not things we want to do in the future, things that we want to accomplish, but things that we have accomplished as space explorers,” he said.

But at the same time, “The films are not science documentaries, they have no narration,” he said. “It’s more about inspiring people to learn about what they see on screen.”