As the movie played on the screen, sound artists provided a live score. Photo courtesy of Malia Haines-Stewart / The Block Museum

Sometimes simplicity is all you need to create an immersive travel experience through the cosmos. In The Block cinema Thursday night, sound artists Stephen Moore, Communications associate professor of instruction, and Scott Smallwood performed a live original score to a screening of OUR HEAVENLY BODIES for a sold-out audience.

The movie was directed by Hanns Walter Kornblum, who created a work that uses a variety of models and effects for a wondrous (and sometimes frightening) experience. The movie takes the audience through the history of our planet, exploring the solar system and what lies beyond the “fixed stars.”

The models were the same kinds of visuals seen in the Star Wars original trilogy, with miniature models making up the galaxy. Because of how meticulous and detailed the sets and animations were, I forgot that this movie was almost 100 years old.

Guiding the audience throughout this journey was Rives Collins, a Northwestern Professor of Theatre, whose voice rose with wonder or darkened dramatically while reading the English translations of the German texts.

While OUR HEAVENLY BODIES is a silent film, Moore and Smallwood made an original soundtrack for the screening. Multilayered sounds resonated to embody the grand, yet horrifying, nature of space and its objects.

There were times when the sound's personality was akin to an ASMR experience, like when water was gently trickling down as the movie explained how the moon affected the tides. Other times the score accosted the ears hauntingly, as when the movie imagined an Earth that lost gravity. The theater hummed with a deep and feel-it-in-your-chest sensation similar to the soundtrack of movies like Blade Runner 2049.

Because the soundtrack was performed live, there were times when the two sound artists improvised on what they wanted to make. According to Smallwood, about 90% of the sounds were created by objects the two found at thrift and vintage stores. The other 10% was based on film observations.

During a Q&A after the screening, Moore picked up a large, brass-textured bowl that had small indents on the bottom. He said the object is full of different worlds. Coincidentally, most of the objects used were spherical like the round heavenly bodies.

Most of how Moore and Smallwood constructed the soundtrack was through intuition, but they used the seven act structure of the film to have “seven flavors or seven worlds.”

“We both have so much experience crafting sounds that those [sounds] are built into our psyche,” Smallwood said.

Opening the event was University of Chicago Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Katherine Buse, who said that artists help scientists imagine planets as places, or what's known as speculative planetology. This allows us to understand the epistemology, or how we know what we know, about planets in a new way.

“Scientific stories are always about who we are and how we see ourselves,” she said.

OUR HEAVENLY BODIES was made as a “kulturfilm,” which meant “to promote education and uplift.” Dr. Buse asked us to pose the question: What does imagining planets do for us?

“We need imagination to teach us about planets,” Dr. Buse said. “Filmmakers use techniques to show processes and phenomena never done before.”

She likened the telescope to special effects because they’re doing what the human eye can’t do.

Themes of art, imagination, and science were not by accident. OUR HEAVENLY BODIES was screened in conjunction with The Block’s current exhibit The Hearts Knowledge: Science and Empathy with Dario Robleto.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the existential dread when you're reminded of how small we are. But despite all of the models, animations and clever cinematography, director Kornblumm ends OUR HEAVENLY BODIES with a scene of humans tilling dirt on farmland.

An audience member spoke towards the end of the event, saying that “We’ve seen all of the heavens and lofty things, and one of the final images is of dirt. Fertile dirt. That gives me hope.”

Thumbnail courtesy of Malia Haines-Stewart / The Block Museum.