Sunday, May 19, 2024

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

 

By Robin Caudell (Press-Republican)

Director Douglass Stewart has never witnessed a total eclipse, and he gets a rare chance to do just that the day after the free screening of his film “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future Documentary Film and Talk Back” at Plattsburgh State.

The event will be held on April 7 at 1:30 p.m. in Yokum 200 with post-film exhibit viewing, “The Father of Space Art: Chesley Knight Bonestell” at the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Myers Fine Arts Building.

 

TEEN SPIRIT

The making of “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future” haunted Stewart all his life.

“Because as a teenager I saw Chesley’s paintings on magazines and book covers. Certainly his book, ‘Conquest of Space’ had a big impact on me,” he said.

Stewart has a 30-plus year history in the entertainment industry – Academy Awards, SAG, Emmy Awards, etc.

“I’ve been doing a lot of tributes and small documentaries to highlight careers of people winning awards,” he said.

“It has always been tugging at my consciousness like what about Chesley Bonestell? I always thought that somebody had already done a film on Chesley. He’s such a fascinating character. When I got the time to actually research this project, because I just decided, you know what, I want to be one of those people that goes up to get an award not someone who just makes films about those people.”

In the course of Stewart’s research, he came across Ron Miller.

“He’s America’s premier space artist,” he said.

“A space artist is someone who uses their imagination to paint what it looks like out in space and on other planets and stars. Chesley Bonestell himself was the father of space art.”

Stewart asked Miller if anyone was doing a film on Bonestell.

“He said no,” he said.

“Has anyone done a film? No. He said, ‘You should do one, and I will help you.’ So that was the beginning of a great friendship and collaboration. Nobody had done a film and nobody was doing a film. Making of the film was a great detective hunt because there was a lot of stuff about Chesley, wonderful books by Ron Miller and another gentleman named Melvin Schuetz.”

Miller and Schuetz became co-producers of the film due to their expertise and networks.

“All the wonderful people that they connected with me to help tell the story of this fascinating gentleman,” Stewart said.

“The film took three and a half years to make. I started in 2014. The first shooting I did was in 2015, and the film was finished in 2018. The first festival it was entered into was the Newport Beach Film Festival. It won the Audience Award for the best film in the category of architecture and design. Then it went on to win other awards. The film is actually on the International Space Station today. It’s in the library for the crew to watch.”

 

COMET TRAILS

Bonestell died in 1986, so Stewart went on the hunt for any interviews, any footage he could find of him.

“It wasn’t much,” he said.

“But I did come across my first interview that I found of him which was in a film called ‘The Fantasy Film World of George Pal.’ A producer named Arnold Leibovit had interviewed Chesley and also Ray Bradbury. I was able to make an arrangement where I could use that footage. Uncovering other little bits of film that featured Chesley was both fascinating and heart-breaking process because I was led to people that I was told ‘oh, they have interviews with Chesley on audio.’ When I got a hold of them, they go ‘I did, but my ex-wife got them as part of a settlement.’ I’m really proud and actually amazed at the wonderful audio and video interviews and footage that we half of Chesley himself in the film. I’m grateful to the people that supplied that.”

 

STAR POWER

Bonestell’s relevance in the 21st century is the power of art.

“Art is what really launched the space program because Chesley’s paintings were about the moon and Saturn,” he said.

“Those were first published in Life Magazine in 1944 at a time when we were winding down from World War II and people were weary of the constant battles and the horrors that were going on and America was looking for a new frontier to explore. and along came Chesley with some help from Wernher von Braun and Willie Ley. First Chesley’s paintings were published in Life and that caught America’s attention and provided a sense of inspiration and hope.”

The artist’s painting, “Saturn As Seen From Titan,” is dubbed “the painting that launched a thousand careers.

“It’s a stunning, powerful, powerful image,” he said.

“That’s what got young people interested in a career in something new called aerospace and space exploration. So when William Shatner says, ‘Space is the final frontier,’ you now understand, as I came to understand, the meaning of that phrase. We as Americans really like to explore. That’s really how our country came about, through exploring and looking for new frontiers. Space has been dubbed, the final frontier.”

Stewart said people should view the film because of Bonestell’s incredible, stellar career.

“Where else do you find a man whose career as an artist and architect included projects Chrysler Building, the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said.

“He wasn’t responsible for all of that, but he lent his touches to it and help those projects move along and become the signature landmarks that they are. Then he went to Hollywood and became one of the highest-paid special effects matte painters. The thing that just absolutely floored me was discovering Chesley had painted Xanadu Castle in Citizen Kane. The big edifice that Charles Foster Kane built to himself. Then his career further beyond that, Chesley as a space artist and all the inspiring paintings and renderings that he created.”

Examples include “The War of the Worlds” and “Destination Moon.”

“It’s just an astounding career that I feel would be hard pressed to come up with somebody that’s involved with such amazing projects,” he said.

After previous screenings, audience members have asked, “How come I never heard of this man before?”

“One of the reasons is Chesley was not a tub thumper,” Stewart said.

“He was not a grandstander. He did not have a big publicity machine. There was no social media in those days, other than the printed press and radio and TV. He never pursued that. He just loved painting. He was too busy doing that.”

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