October 25, 2012
Friday, October 26: Boo at the Zoo
Put on your cat ears and whiskers for a fun night of trick-or-treating among your critter friends at the Zoo. The grounds will be transformed into a spooky (not too spooky, don’t worry) wonderland and visitors will have special chances to meet with animal keepers and even some of their animals. Boo at the Zoo is one of the best Halloween events in all of D.C. and will be a sure draw for all the ballerinas, firefighters and superheroes wandering the streets Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each kid will get a special tote bag to fill with goodies from 30 trick-or-treat stations. Filling your Halloween bag has never been easier. $20 for FONZ members, $30 for non-members. Get tickets here. 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Repeats Saturday and Sunday. National Zoo.
Saturday, October 27: Dinner and a Movie
In this global age, geography can seem like a secondary feature of daily life. Nothing dispels that myth quicker than a visit to remote Russian peninsula. That’s precisely where you’ll be Friday night when you take in the 2011 documentary, The Tundra Book: A Tale of Vukvukai, the Little Rock. The film follows the story of a reindeer herder who lives along the Bering Strait as a member of the indigenous Chukchi community. Set against the harsh realities of the tundra, the film provides a glimpse into a unique way of life. The movie will be preceded by a short film and guests are invited to dine from the American Indian Museum’s award-winning a la carte Mitsitam restaurant. Free, food is extra. 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. American Indian Museum.
Sunday, October 28: Craft2Wear Show
Fans of the spring show have been anxiously awaiting another installment of the Smithsonian’s special Craft2Wear event. Wait no more, it’s here at last. Crafted works from 40 carefully selected artists will be on display Sunday at the Trunk Show. You’ll be able to purchase handmade jewelry, clothing and other accessories (just in time for the holiday season). Organized by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the event will help the organization support education, outreach, and research projects within the Smithsonian Institution. $5, tickets available at the door. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. National Building Museum.
October 19, 2012
The Monarch butterfly makes one of the longest migrations on Earth, and it does with pinpoint accuracy despite never having flown the route before. Beginning in August every year, the North American Monarch populations head south for the winter–the only butterfly species to do so. By the time of the first frosts in late October, the butterflies that began their journey east of the Rocky Mountains have safely gathered in the mountains of Mexico. Come spring, the next generation of butterflies will make the return trip.
It’s a spectacular journey of more than 2,000 miles made by insects weighing less than a penny each. And now it’s been captured on 3-D film with the October release of Flight of the Butterflies at the Smithsonian’s IMAX theaters.
“The monarch symbolizes the beauty and fragility of nature but also embodies the strength and resilience needed for survival,” wrote the British film director and co-writer Mike Slee. In order to capture the tremendous journey, Slee and his team filmed for a total of two years. They were able to use the work of scientist Fred Urquhart, who spent almost 40 years trying to understand the Monarch butterfly’s migration and locate its secret winter sanctuary. Beginning with his childhood interest in the migration, the film follows the start of his research in 1937 to his discovery in Mexico.
Catalina Aguado was part of the initial team that discovered the mountainous winter retreat location with Urquhart in 1975. Aguado, along with her husband Kenneth Brugger, got involved in the project after answering Urquhart’s newspaper ad seeking volunteers in Mexico. Now Aguado, who is the only living member of that team, was able to help the documentary crew tell the story of the butterflies’ journey and her own part in discovering its mysteries.
The cinematics are nothing short of breathtaking. Even Slee found himself in awe of what he was capturing. “What you see, you can’t imagine nature ever being like this,” Slee told NPR. “Trees that are draped — that are made, almost, of butterflies. It’s got a surreal, supernatural feeling to it. It sends a sort of tingle up your spine when you see it in 3-D.”
“The whole project was pioneering natural history filmmaking,” wrote Slee, who has worked on more than 50 film projects, including David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Living Planet series. Slee said it was a challenge to take so much motion and activity and adapt it to 3-D film. The team also used medical imaging techniques to get a new look at the insect’s early development. “Seeing the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly using micro CT scans and MRI scans from inside the chrysalis had never been before and it was mind-blowing.”
Even after enduring long days of inclement weather and filming from a 70-foot crane, the team still viewed the final product with a sense of wonder. Aguado told NPR, “I can say wonderful, fantastic and glorious — and whatever other words, but I cannot describe the feeling. It was magical.”
Below, scenes from the feature film:
October 18, 2012
Friday, October 19: Music of the Stars
Though sound waves cannot travel through the vacuum that is outer space, that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t moved to music while studying the skies. Ask astrophysicist Katrien Kolenberg from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Along with other researchers, Kolenberg participated in the 2008 Dance Your PhD event where participants presented their theses as interpretive dance. Not quite sure how a paper titled, “A spectroscopic study of the Blazhko effect in the pulsating star RR Lyrae” would look in motion?
Kolenberg will be at the African Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibit, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” to discuss constellations. Free. 4 p.m. African Art Museum.
Saturday, October 20: Gettysburg
Based on Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Shaara, Gettysburg is a lengthy look at one of the most storied battles in American history. At 254 minutes, the film seeks to explore both the human side of the battle and the tactical story behind the Union victory. Before the screening, Noah Trudeau, a Civil War historian and former NPR commentator on film and music, will lead a discussion about the film and the events it portrays. Get the inside scoop about what the Hollywood film gets right and then enjoy the epic production. Free. 1 p.m. to 6:25 p.m. American History Museum Warners Bros. Theater.
Sunday, October 21 Día de los Muertos
Celebrate (a little bit early) the popular Mexican holiday that honors deceased friends and family. Held on November 1st, Day of the Dead is a modern mix of Aztec traditions and the Catholic holiday All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. Visitors to the American Indian Museum can learn more about the roots of this holiday and partake in festive activities, including painting a special mural, decorating plaster skulls and making paper marigolds as symbols of the day. And because it’s a holiday all about family, be sure to bring the whole gang for a day of celebration. Free. 10:30 a.m. American Indian Museum.
October 4, 2012
Friday, October 5 Mrs. Judo
At 99 years old, judo master Keiko Fukuda still keeps a busy schedule, teaching three times a week at her San Francisco dojo. Fukuda holds the highest ranking possible in judo and is the last living student of the sport’s founder, Kanō Jigorō. The new documentary Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful tells Fukuda’s unique story. The film explores the roots of judo while also chronicling the life of this living legend. The screening is preceded by Two Seconds after Laughter. Free. 7 p.m. Freer Gallery.
No one ever told Peter Cheimets not to stare at the sun. Or if someone did, he definitely didn’t listen. The senior project engineer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory spends his days working at the cutting edge of solar observation. This year, after 30 years of development, special telescopes capable of observing the sun were finally perfected. Ushering in a new era of observation, Cheimets will discuss what made this moment possible and some of the early results from his research. Free, but tickets are required. Tickets available 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the IMAX Theater Box Offices. 5:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. Air and Space Museum. For more information, call 202-633-2398 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, October 7 Masterworks of Three Centuries 2012-2013 Concert Series
The Smithsonian Associates celebrates the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society’s 36th season. Though the event promises to be an eclectic mix of classics and lesser-known works, don’t be intimidated. The Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, Kenneth Slowik, will give a pre-concert talk that digs into the music on tap and explores the biographies behind the featured composers, including Beethoven, Faure and Chausson. It’s the perfect start to a new season. $28 general admission, $22 members. Purchase tickets here. 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. American History Museum, Hall of Musical Instruments.
August 31, 2012
When inventor Thomas Edison first began toying with the idea of improving upon moving image technology, he filed a note with the patents office in 1888, expressing his intent. He wrote that he hoped to invent a device that would, “do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.” When he finally invented (with considerable help from his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) and patented his single-camera device 115 years ago today, August 31, 1897, Edison was well on his way to launching the American film industry and even predicting America’s fascination with cats doing things on film (above).
Though Edison had received a visit from one of the early pioneers of moving pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, he turned down the opportunity to work with him, according to the Library of Congress and research from historians Charles Musser, David Robinson and Eileen Bowser. Sure, Muybridge had developed a way to use multiple cameras to capture a series of movements and then project is as a choppy but recognizable motion. But Edison didn’t think there was much potential in the multi-camera approach. Instead he labored (well, supervised others laboring) for three years to invent a single camera, the Kinetograph and single-user viewing device, the Kinetoscope, to record and view moving image in 1892.
Other than being a talented inventor, Edison also had the resources to attract other great talent, including Dickson, who moved his entire family from France to Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Smithsonian curator Ryan Lintelman explained in a 2010 podcast, “By the 1880s Edison became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park” because these inventions that he was coming up with were so transformative that it was as if magic was involved.”
It wasn’t long after the kinetoscope’s invention that he began producing movies under his own studio, nicknamed the Black Maria because the structure that housed it resembled a police patrol car. Ever the businessman, Edison oversaw the production of star-studded shorts to help popularize his invention, including films with Annie Oakley, acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Spanish dancer Carmencita. His subjects tended toward the sexy or the strong, proving the adage that sex sells. But one short titled The Boxing Cats (Professor Welton’s) also shows Edison’s ability to predict the insatiable market for watching cats do things, like fight each other in a tiny boxing ring.
“These first films they made for audiences were just short, simple subjects like women dancing or body builders flexing or a man sneezing or a famous couple kissing, and these early films have been called “the cinema of attractions” because they were shown as sort of these amazing glimpses of new technology rather then narrative plays on film,” explained Lintelman.
Unfortunately, the earliest surviving film from his studio is a little less titillating than the late 19th century equivalent of Brangelina kissing. Titled Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, or Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the film simply shows an employee hamming it up for the camera with a dramatized sneeze.
But if a man sneezes and no one hears it, is it really a sneeze? That was the dilemma Edison tried to solve as competitors began eating into his profits. In an attempt to synch sound and image, Edison added piped-in music via a phonograph to accompany the film. But the sound and image remained separate and often out of step, making it a less than enticing solution. Meanwhile, the allure of projected films that could finally entertain more than one person at a time called to businessmen in the industry. Another inventor, Thomas Armat, beat Edison to the punch. But Edison negotiated and bought the invention, changing its name from the Phantoscope to the Vitascope.
Filming news events, performances and tourism videos proved a profitable mix. But when audiences began to tire of the novelty, Edison turned to fiction-filmmaker Edwin S. Porter to create entertaining movies to be featured in the new storefront theaters known as nickelodeons.
As the popularity of these diverting films took off, Edison scrambled to own as much of the market as possible and protect his many related patents. After squaring off with a resistant competitor, Edison eventually negotiated a deal in 1908, according to the Library of Congress, that joined his company with Biograph and established a monopoly. His rise to the top, however, was short lived. Better technologies and more intriguing narratives were coming out of competing studios and though Edison continued to try to synch sound and image, his solutions were still imperfect. In 1918, Edison sold the studio and retired from his film career.
Though Hollywood is now synonymous with movie stars and big-name producers, it was actually Edison’s Black Maria in West Orange–the world’s first movie studio–that started the American film industry. Lintelman joked in his 2010 interview, “Most people can’t think of a place farther from Hollywood than New Jersey, right?” But Lintelman continued, “The American film industry was concentrated in that New Jersey, New York area from the 1890s until the 1920s. That’s when Hollywood became the movie capital of the world. Prior to that time, the most important factors were to be close to those manufacturing centers and investors in the markets. ”
Writing in an email, Lintelman, says, however, that he finds more similarities between online video culture than with Hollywood’s feature-length films. “It was a direct and democratic form of visual expression.” Viewers simply had to offer up their nickel to enjoy a brief diversion. Without audio or dialogue, the silent films could reach anyone, regardless of language. Though the subject matter could include spectacular news events or travel shots, most dealt with the daily experiences of man. “The filmmakers found humor in technological changes, transportation innovation, shifting demographics and social mores and the experience of city life,” writes Lintelman.
And viewers watched voraciously. After enjoying a kinetoscope film, people would mingle in the parlor space, discussing their favorites. With a variety of quick options in one place, viewers could create their own movie lineup and experience. “When you think about it,” Lintelman adds, “this is how we use the internet to view visual content today!”