Montana State University

MSU grads become filmmakers to the stars ... literally

September 22, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News


Liz Smith, center, and Stefanie Misztal, right, both former students from MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, confer on a NASA filmmking project as Jesse Achtenberg, left, gets the jib ready. Photo courtesy of Liz Smith.   High-Res Available

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Many filmmakers work with the stars, but in the case of a growing number of Montana State University film students the reference has a literal meaning.

Seven graduates or former students in MSU's Science and Natural History filmmaking program students are working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

"In recent years, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has been particularly interested in producers with strong science and writing backgrounds, and all MSU Science and Natural History Filmmaking graduate students have that," says Sarah DeWitt, who graduated with her M.F.A. in 2006 and is NASA's lead producer for Earth Science multimedia and special events.

DeWitt was the first MSU film grad to make the Montana-Maryland leap. Since her arrival at Goddard six years ago, she has been joined by Liz Smith, a 2007 graduate, Stefanie Misztal, who will finish her degree this year, Maria Frostic, also a 2007 graduate, and student Andy Freeberg, who is still working on his thesis. This summer Ryan Fitzgibbons, a 2007 graduate, and student Jefferson Beck, also still working on his thesis, joined the team.

Smith, who recently left Goddard to take a job with the Waitt Institute for Discovery in San Diego, said while the large number of MSU grads in Goddard's media departments is unusual, it is also understandable.

"I would definitely attribute the abundance of MFA students and alumni at Goddard to the quality level and professionalism of our students and to the unique set of talents and interests that they bring with them," said Smith. "I think the science and film combination background is only going to become more highly sought after as time goes on."

At Goddard, DeWitt has done everything from producing live interviews with Larry King, to a high-definition production on the IMAX screen at the National Air and Space Museum, to hosting a 50-person Bollywood cast and crew from India. She has specialized in the topic of climate change and is an expert at helping scientists translate complicated work into meaningful information for the public. Currently, DeWitt is working with the producers of the highly praised "Planet Earth" on "Frozen Planet," which will showcase the Earth's polar regions.

"The MSU program has helped my work tremendously," DeWitt said. "The skill of storytelling, in particular, has proved invaluable in the work that I do supporting the agency's Earth Science program. Plus, the program taught me how to work with scientists who want to communicate their work with nuance, care and accuracy, while still engaging the audience. "

Smith also said that DeWitt's talent and professionalism set the stage for NASA's production team to want more MFA students from MSU. "I was lucky to follow in her footsteps," she said.

Smith, who had an undergraduate degree in astronomy before coming to MSU, said among the highpoints of her time at NASA was the opportunity to work with John Mather, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Physics. Mather used the COBE satellite to directly measure the remnants of the Big Bang for the first time, setting the stage for the field of cosmology, one of Smith's scientific interests. Smith also produced a short promotional film for NASA called Destination Earth, working with Misztal, Freeberg, and DeWitt. The film received the Best of Category in Advertising, Promo and PSA award at the 2008 International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula.

At Waitt, Smith will travel the world to work with some of the top researchers in archaeology and underwater exploration. Smith says that her new position at Waitt came because of her MSU background.

"The Waitt Institute went to the (MSU) MFA program specifically looking to hire an alumnus because of the quality and reputation of our work as well as the theory behind the instruction and bridging the science-film gap," Smith said. She said plans are already in the works to collaborate with MSU students and alumni on several upcoming Waitt expeditions.

Other MSU MFA students at Goddard include Misztal, a producer and editor who post-produced and edited a vodcast series for Goddard's most recent space mission, the Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), that launched June 11.

Frostic works on a Goddard Earth Science and Technology fellowship at the University of Maryland, which includes a post as a research associate/faculty member in which she supervises four non-faculty members of the Goddard media team. She is currently producing multimedia content for the Glory mission, an upcoming Earth science mission that will investigate various climate forces, including the role of aerosols and total solar irradiance in climate change.

Freeberg, who has worked at Goddard for two years, produced the first-ever NASA Goddard Film Festival, which debuted June 19. It was shown in high-definition on the IMAX screen at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is also a producer for the Landsat mission.

Fitzgibbons and Beck will produce videos for NASA-TV and NASA.gov on topics ranging from gamma ray bursts to climate change. They will help continue NASA's launch into new media, including vodcasts, streaming video, mobile video and interactive Web content. The work of the MSU Goddard team can be found on iTunes, YouTube, and at http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/multimedia/

For more stories about MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, see:

http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=6208

http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=6055

http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=4901

http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=5561

Dinah Schuster (406) 994-4405, dschuster@montana.edu