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Lights, NASA, action

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When it comes to video storytelling, NASA archival footage can make for a special ingredient. Take it from Dan Jacobs, who has viewed more than 1,400 short films with that out-of-this-world b-roll spliced in.

The CineSpace film competition official, who also works as the international agreements lead for NASA’s Gateway program, has seen the space agency’s footage used in the documentary of a Puerto Rican woman who, despite being blind since childhood, went on to get a Ph.D. in astronomy and work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Then there is the true story of two homeless teenagers in Los Angeles who built a special telescope to show spectacular views of stars and planets to other people living on the streets.

And that’s just two of the documentaries. Don’t forget the comedies, animated films, music videos and many other genres that have used that footage, open and free for interested filmmakers to wade through, choose and use however they wish.

“It’s very cool,” Jacobs says during a telephone interview. “It’s very interesting to see the number of different types of films that people make. Some of them use the same imagery, but they’ll use it in completely different ways.”

On Saturday, April 13, Jacobs will present a reel showing footage from this year’s CineSpace competition finalists at the Ashland Independent Film Festival. Prior to that, he’ll give a free talk at 7 p.m. Thursday at the North Medford High School planetarium about NASA current events. The planetarium is limited to 88 people, teacher Robert Black says.

The CineSpace competition has been held annually since 2014. Jacobs came up with the idea and worked with NASA and the Houston Cinema & Arts Society to make it a reality. Entering a film in the competition comes with a couple of simple rules: no longer than 10 minutes, and at least 10% of it has to be composed of archival footage.

“It can be a film about anything of any genre,” Jacobs says. “We’ve had films submitted that were documentaries, that were music videos, narrative movies, inspirational kind of movies, educational. All types.”

A group of volunteers watches the initial batch of hundreds of films and narrows them down to about 100 entries. A separate group helps to whittle it down further and select anywhere from 13 to 16 finalists. Director Richard Linklater, whose resume includes “School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Boyhood,” does the final bit of distilling, picking the three best from the list of finalists. Those winners receive cash prizes, and NASA shows their winning films in other film festivals and museums.

“We had as many as 650 films submitted one year,” Jacobs says. “Last year, about 250. From 55 countries around the world.”

And Jacobs has watched every single entry.

There’s a veritable digital warehouse of footage waiting for participating filmmakers: views from inside and outside the International Space Station, rockets cutting through the sky, images from the Cassini probe that put Saturn on full, jewel-like display.

Just to name a few.

Jacobs had two main objectives when he came up with the idea: try to tap into a talent pool of new filmmakers and get more eyes on NASA’s archival footage and figure out new ways to use it.

“A lot of it, NASA folks haven’t seen for years, and we’ll never be able to go through it all,” Jacobs says.

And in the five years others have done some of the work, Jacobs says it’s come with surprising, inspiring results.

“To us, it’s just kind of amazing that we can just put out this call, and say, ‘Here’s some imagery, see what you can do with it,’ and they send us these wonderful little films and tributes to NASA, and discussions of just how much the idea of NASA means to them and their everyday lives, and how much they’re touched by what we do,” Jacobs says.

“Most people who work at NASA, we don’t think about that every day, and it’s great seeing that response.”

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.

Photo of Earth from the International Space Station.
A NASA official will be in Medford next week to talk at the North Medford High School planetarium and the Ashland Independent Film Festival.