Starlight [originally published 3/13/09, West Hawaii Today]

Posted: October 10, 2010 in Published Articles
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Friday, March 13, 2009 9:06 AM HST

What do seas of rolling clouds, barren volcanic landscapes and the Horsehead nebula have to do with Hawaii, a place known more for its pristine white and black sand beaches, near perfect year-round weather and aloha spirit?

Everything, if your name is Jean-Charles Cuillandre.

As staff astronomer of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Cuillandre wants to show you just how important it is to recognize that Hawaii is special not only because of its boundless tropical beauty but also because of its proximity to the heavens.

In his newly released film, “Hawaiian Starlight,” Cuillandre showcases not only his skill as an astronomer and cinematographer, but the unrelenting patience required to create a movie, which took more than seven years to produce, from more than 60,000 still shots.

Audience Award winner for Experimental Film at the 2008 Maui Film Festival, his movie defies a specific genre but by no means does it alienate any of its audience. On the contrary, the images that he has captured and managed to convey are not only breathtaking and mind blowing, but educational as well. The 45-minute movie is more of an experience, than a spectacle.

“Make no mistake, my intention was not to create a slideshow. I want to share with people the beauty of the universe,” said Cuillandre.

A native of Brittany, France, the young Cuillandre spent his early years marveling at the splendor of the night skies before deciding that his calling was to be an astronomer. Inspired by Jacques Cousteau, Cuillandre felt about the stars the way that Cousteau did the seas. Fresh after receiving his doctorate in astronomy from the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, he received the opportunity of his dreams while searching for post-graduate work — a chance to work at the CFH telescope at the top of Mauna Kea.

He immediately fell in love with his new home.

Click Photo to Enlarge

Left: West Ridge on Mauna Kea. Right: Horsehead Nebula. – Photos By Coelum And Jean-Charles Cuillandre | CFHT/Special To West Hawaii Today

“I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do if I didn’t live in Waimea,” he said.

The idea behind the film came to him after spending many hours scouring the night skies from the 3.6-meter CFH telescope, which was also the first international collaborative effort on Mauna Kea. Instead of creating essentially what would be considered a slide show from the images that he and his colleagues had painstakingly gleaned from the heavens, he decided to impart with the viewer a perspective that only a handful of astronomers and astrophysicists were blessed with experiencing, life above the clouds.

For most people that go about their daily lives below the cloud line, the observatories appear like ominous white specks to the naked eye.

The movie opens with the clouds churning across the barren volcanic landscape with the urgency and fluidity of water, as cars zip up and down the mountain like a trail of frenzied ants. He captures an almost human side of the observatories as they seem to come to life, moving with a precision and beauty that belies their initial appearance. Quite like sleeping giants, they guard secrets that only a few people will ever witness first hand.

Next gorgeous, almost three-dimensional pictures of nebulae and galaxy clusters tantalize the mind with such vivid clarity as to appear fake or touched up.

Click Photo to Enlarge

Top: Orion Nebula. Bottom Right: eil Nebula. Bottom Left: Jean-Charles Cuillandre, a staff astronomer of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea, released “Hawaiian Starlight,” a video showcasing the beauty of the universe. – Roland Pacheco | Special To WHT

“Nothing you see in this film has been altered or enhanced in any way, digitally or otherwise,” Cuillandre said.

Cascading star fields, eclipses and shooting stars add to the intoxicating splendor of the film, which caused more than one audience member to vocalize their amazement.

The soundtrack for the film, taken from the popular video game Halo, adds to the overall feeling that what you are seeing is indeed something very special and other worldly.

Technology obviously plays a crucial role in such a monumental endeavor and according to Cuillandre, it was only because of recent technological advances that he has been able to create such an elaborate show. For example, the digital camera used in the CFH telescope to capture images thousands of light years away, has a staggering 340-megapixel resolution while the active lens area maintains a size comparable to a small suitcase. Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to capture as much detail as it is today.

Cuillandre, also an electronics engineer, created some of the apparatus required to undertake filming such sequences as the clouds blowing across the mountaintops and the sun rising and setting, which could take up to eight hours or more of shooting at a time. He also wrote the code used for processing the data images obtained by the camera, which helped him achieve the overall look and feel that he sought.

“The visuals were absolutely incredible. I really, really enjoyed the show,” said Wayde Harvey, who stood in line to get his DVD signed by Cuillandre.

Although Cuillandre was pleased with the response that viewers have had over the past seven years of prescreening and production, he assured that this film is by no means his coda.

“The project is not over,” he said. “Such work is never really finished.”

A good thing since several audience members were anxious to see what he would come up with next.

“Hawaiian Starlight” is a film that was made to be enjoyed by all ages, by scientists and nonscientists alike; the DVD itself is packed with features that are informational and would not be out of place in the classroom. For more information on “Hawaiian Starlight,” images taken by the CFH telescope or would like to purchase a DVD, visit http://www.cfht.hawaii.edu/dvd.

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