I first met Kenji Williams ten years ago at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We talked about using digital planetariums (then a relatively new technology) for artistic as well as scientific expressions. Kenji is a classically-trained musician, composer, and filmmaker living on the East Coast. He was inspired by a conversation he had with NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who has spent more than a year in space onboard the International Space Station. Kenji asked Mike, "What is it that changed when you went to space?" Mike told him that he had a profound experience when he first saw our home planet out of the window on the ISS. He saw the Earth as a beautiful world not defined by any human-made borders, with a fragile biosphere that was protected by a thin atmosphere from the harshness of space. The experience for Mike, like for many other astronauts after flying into space, was transformative. After hearing this, Kenji wanted to bring this transformative experience to audiences on Earth.
At the time, the Gates Planetarium had been renovated and re-opened just a few years before in 2003. Planetarium Operations Manager Dan Neafus and I were interested in bringing innovative programming into the dome. We realized that we could use the powerful visualization capability of our planetarium to help fulfill Kenji's vision.
Kenji and I collaborated remotely through the fall and winter of 2006. He composed music that he would play live on his violin, accompanied by a backing track that streamed from his laptop. I helped design the visuals of orbiting the Earth, with occasional plunges down to see high resolution views of different surface locations. In February 2007, we premiered four Gaia Journeys concerts in the Gates Planetarium to sold-out crowds.
Fig. 1: Kenji Williams performs Gaia Journeys live in the Gates Planetarium in February 2007.
Since then, Kenji has performed many more times at DMNS. Gaia Journeys has evolved into Bella Gaia ("Beautiful Earth"), an even more spectacular version that incorporates not just simulated spaceflight around the Earth, but also showcases NASA data visualizing different physical systems on Earth, and highlights the various ways in which humanity is impacting our world.
Kenji and his team have been funded by a NASA grant to use Bella Gaia performances to teach earth science to school kids across the country. He developed a version of Bella Gaia that can be projected on a flat screen, and he has been traveling all over the world to perform it. (You can see videos of these and get more information at http://www.bellagaia.com/.)
However, the immersive planetarium dome is still the best way to experience Bella Gaia. With assistance from DMNS staff (including Dan Neafus, media producer Jess Wellington, planetarium tech Greg Mancari, volunteer coordinator Dave Blumenstock, and me), Kenji created a new dome movie version, which premiered last summer and has been winning awards at planetarium "fulldome" film festivals.
Fig. 2: Dan Neafus, Ka Chun Yu, and Kenji Williams in 2007.
Kenji is returning to the Gates Planetarium for two shows on Saturday, February 28. If you go, you can welcome him back to Denver where all of this began!