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“Spaceship Earth:” When the Story You’re Telling is True… and Also Science Fiction

“I assumed these images were staged for a science fiction film, but when I learned that this is in fact a real structure, and that its inventors and participants are alive, I was determined to tell their remarkable story.”

For those who were around in the early 1990s, the term “Biosphere 2” might conjure up memories of an unusual group of unusual people who gave press conferences in jumpsuits inspired by science fiction and lived inside a glass-enclosed dome as part of an ambitious-sounding experiment that quickly started going wrong.

“I assumed these images were staged for a science fiction film, but when I learned that this is in fact a real structure, and that its inventors and participants are alive, I was determined to tell their remarkable story,” says Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolf.

From “Spaceship Earth,” courtesy of NEON
From “Spaceship Earth,” courtesy of NEON

Soon after the auspicious beginning of their term of self-confinement, the Biosphere 2 became the subject of ridiculing editorials, late-night talk show jokes, and even the arc of several Cheers episodes. But, as Spaceship Earth, released to multiple VOD platforms through NEON, demonstrates, there was a lot more to the project and the people behind it than most of that media attention ever indicated.

“How could something so epic in its ambition and scope fade from collective memory?” he says. “These are the types of forgotten histories that inspire me as a filmmaker, and I was convinced that the prevailing narrative that Biosphere 2 was simply a ‘failure’ is wrong.”

The extremely ambitious project, Biosphere 2 (earth being the first biosphere), covered a three-acre structure containing all manner of man-made versions of natural phenomena (it had its own lake and forest) and was inspired by the work of architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth.”

The small group calling itself the Synergists (or Synergians) was led by charismatic polymath John Allen, who had started a group more than a decade earlier of hard-working, environmentally-concerned men and women who embarked on many projects, from creating experimental theatrical events through their “Theater of All Possibilities” to building their own fully-functional ocean-faring vessel, the Heraclitus.

While some saw them as a commune or cult, the members, several who granted interviews for the film explain it was definitely not a commune—they created some profitable businesses and saw themselves as definitely capitalist—and mostly not a cult, although some, including Allen himself, do acknowledge in the film that there may have been elements of the group that at times came close.

Wolf’s film contextualizes the Biosphere 2 project using an enormous trove of imagery the Synergists captured themselves (often recording events very professionally, from multiple angles and even with crane moves!); additional archive material; and interviews with a number of the actual participants.

Writing about the film, Charles Bramesco explains, “The eight-person crew sealed themselves in a self-sustaining geodesic dome located outside Tucson, Arizona, for a staggering two-year period from 1991 to 1993. Their goal? To create a closed system capable of fostering life on a long-term scale.

“Their project could have been the first step toward realizing the fantasy of an outer-space colony or, at the very least, a gold mine of fresh data shaking up scientific inquiry. However, a media firestorm, oxygen filtration issues, bug infestations, and the frailty of the human ego managed to complicate matters.” To read the full article, click here.

“The synergists had documented everything, from their earliest days at the ranch to the spectacular media takedown of Biosphere 2 on television,” Wolf recalls. “Combined with the video diaries of biospherian Roy Walford, we accumulated 600 hours of archival footage. While visiting the archive, one synergist Marie Harding explained to me, ‘We wanted to document what we were doing because it was history, it was important.’

“That sense of purpose and conviction inspired me because it’s the spirit of visionaries, who pursue unprecedented projects,” the director says. “Yet so often visionary endeavors are overlooked or discounted, and capitalism thwarts vanguard idealists. I set out to tell the story of these unconventional visionaries, warts and all, but I also recognized that this is a story much bigger than them. I wanted to make a film about the entire world—how we might live in it sustainably, and what imprint we might make during our lifetimes.”

“They had filmed an incredible volume of material from their life’s work, and we got to catalogue that collection, then mine it for insight on their vision,” Wolf tells Bramesco. “It’s unusual to have access to a story so byzantine in its complexity and just have every piece of it right in front of you.”

Read more: The Strange-But-True Story Behind Spaceship Earth, an Early Experiment in Quarantine

Wolf writes for Filmmaker about his memories of first learning about Biosphere 2 and the great challenges he and collaborators, particularly editor David Teague, faced in attempting to accurately represent the  whole episode. “Our film Spaceship Earth is comprised almost entirely of archival footage,” he says, “but we did a number of interviews in studios across the country.”

In addition to what the subjects actually said, Wolf notes that he wanted those portions to have some kind of visual cohesion since there is so much to the story and the people he spoke with each had their own point of view. “The most important object for this film is a modular erector set of geodesic rods that appears out of focus behind all of our interview subjects.

“Production designer William Davis designed this kit to be shipped and reassembled around the country, based on photographs I showed him from the interior of Biosphere 2—an enormous glass pyramid with a miniature replica of the planet—which is the subject of our film.” To read the full article, click here.

Also for Filmmaker, editor Teague discusses the approach to shaping all the footage together in their Avid system. “It could robustly handle the volume of footage we had and ScriptSync allowed us to find key words and ideas across Matt’s interviews and all the archival [material]. I edited a lot of the film remotely, and Avid made it easy to work back and forth with our team in the production office. We had an incredible team in the edit—Marley McDonald was the associate editor who did wonderful work roughing out scenes and finding moments of beauty and strangeness in the raw material, and our story producers Brian Becker and Annie Salsich courageously logged the material and were an invaluable resource in navigating fifty years’ worth of story, countless characters, and whatever questions I had while cutting.

“You always hope the film surprises you when you’re done,” the editor adds. “‘This isn’t a job of assembling something based on plans—it’s a job of experimenting, failure, and discovery. I learned so much in the process of making the film, from the footage itself, and especially from working with Matt.” To read the full article, click here.

Finding a structure for what is actually a much bigger story than just the events of Biosphere 2 took considerable trial and error; Wolf tells Hyperallergic, “It’s halfway through the film before you get inside. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I think so much of what’s interesting about Biosphere 2 is the ideas that led to it. I wanted to understand how this project was countercultural, even though it was certainly framed as a pop culture phenomenon in the context of ’90s television.

“But the group,” he continues, “were convinced of the historical significance of what they were doing, so they documented everything. And when I became aware of the complexity of all of their projects that led to Biosphere 2, [editor] David Teague and I decided to make that prehistory a substantial focus of the film.” To read the full interview, click here.

In another Filmmaker interview, the director talks about the herculean task of organizing everything. “We had a really robust team on this film, and that’s why it came together so quickly. We had two very talented story producers, Brian Becker and Annie Salsich, and a very talented young associate editor, Marley McDonald. They had to index the entire collection at Synergia ranch; they screened all the footage and organized it by subject and put searchable metadata on it. They put markers on every single character, created greatest hits. So there was a bigger support system for me to organize the corpus of material. Also, Impact Partners had come on immediately and it was just resourced appropriately to manage that volume of material.

“I’ve learned what it takes to really find depth in these enormous collections and to manage them without having an editor sit there for a year, screening everything in real time and pulling selects, which is not viable,” Wolf admits. “If you want to find material in archives that doesn’t just literally illustrate what’s being said but has a kind of metaphorical significance, you need a robust process to find that material. One shot in the film, which is one of my favorite shots is a wide shot of the group of synergists running a staircase to nowhere. It’s after they build the Heraclitis. What a meaningful and rich image! If you want to use archive to express ideas, you have to have real storytelling collaborators with the sensibility to something like that and grab it.”

Elaborating on the enormous editing process, Wolf tells Pat Mullen at POV magazine, “Teams created a kind of Dewey Decimal System and database of what existed based on the metadata that was available, whether written on the film canisters by the synergist Marie Harding or on the labels of video cassettes that we had access to.” Drawing from the metadata, Wolf says he and his team would select the materials to digitize and then begin to construct the story. “For this film, I had a robust team that was able to organize the material by topic, mark individual characters we were following, and pull the greatest hits from the body of footage.”

Mullen took notice of these filmmaking decisions, saying, the film, “transplants audiences into Biosphere 2 using an extensive range of archival material. It features 16mm footage shot by Biospherian. Marie Harding and video diaries by fellow researcher Roy Walford in addition to the array of Big Brother-style surveillance footage captured by cameras throughout the enclosure.”

Mullen goes on to report, “Wolf says the team didn’t shoot new footage at Biosphere 2, which remains operational through the University of Arizona, partly to avoid the drone footage that has become cliché in documentary. Moreover, additional footage simply isn’t necessary with the wealth of archival material that offers an immersive experience of the facility.”

Writing for our sister site, Chelsea Gohd notes the many different perspective that emerge through the film’s interviews: “Some of the team members who participated in the doc, which includes Allen himself, even agree that there may have been some cult-like tendencies with the group. However, they still all seem so passionate about the project itself, even to this day. What the documentary really shows is, despite the shortcomings of the experiment or its portrayal in the media, it was a group of people doing what they were passionate about—what they loved—even when things seemed to fall apart around them.

Read more: Spaceship Earth is a Radical Ride Through Science, Quarantine and So Much More

“The bond between the group is so solidified that many of the original synergists, including some of the biospherians, still live at the Synergy Ranch today,” Gohd continues. “And even while not all of them live there, most of them are still working on some kind of ecological or environmental projects. It was clear that, while the projects themselves might’ve been overly ambitious or even naive at times, these people were excited to do what they felt would change the world.” To read the full article, click here.

“While making this film, I never could have imagined that a pandemic would require the entire world to be quarantined,” Wolf says. “Like all of us today, the Biospherians lived confined inside, and they managed day to day life with limited resources, often under great interpersonal stress. But when they re-entered the world, they were forever transformed—no longer would they take anything for granted—not even a breath.

“In light of Covid-19, we are all living like biospherians, and we too will reenter a new world. The question is how will we be transformed? Now with a visceral sense of the fragility of our world, it’s on us to protect it.”