In 1492, a meteorite crashed into a field close to what is today the French town of Ensisheim, its ferocious descent visible and audible across the Rhineland and southwestern Switzerland. The stone was declared a wonder of God by advisers to the Habsburg ruler Maximillian, who saw it as a prophecy of military victory against the French. (He was right about the victory, as it turned out.)
The Ensisheim stone’s impact pales in significance, though, to the destruction wrought by an asteroid that crashed into what is now the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico 66 million years ago. It landed with such force that it extinguished an estimated three-quarters of all species on the planet, including all non-avian dinosaurs. And we continue to live in a cosmic shooting gallery, with an exceedingly low — but not zero! — risk that a large comet or asteroid could destroy the lives of millions of humans, and other life forms, in a single jolt.
Interesting stuff, right?
Sandbox Films thinks so, and is betting that almost everyone else will, too. An independent nonprofit film studio launched in 2020 by the Simons Foundation, the company has big plans to reinvent science documentary film so that audiences of all stripes will pack the houses and clamor for more … science.
The above stories of meteors are just a few of the juicy chronicles from Sandbox Films’ recent release, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds. Co-directed by legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog and by Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge, Fireball tells the story of how meteorite impacts have shaped civilizations throughout history, and continue to do so today.
Sandbox Films is an offshoot of Science Sandbox, a grantmaking program of the Simons Foundation begun in 2015, whose mission is to “unlock scientific thinking by engaging everyone with the process of science.” In 2018, program director Greg Boustead, in addition to administering Science Sandbox’s grants to outreach organizations, began experimenting with supporting science documentaries; a co-production with VICE Media led to the release of The Most Unknown on Netflix later that year. A couple more successful forays into support of independent filmmakers followed, and in 2020 Science Sandbox’s film grantmaking efforts led to the birth of mission-driven documentary film company Sandbox Films.
“We have evolved into a full-fledged production company,” says Boustead, now also founding director of Sandbox Films.
Sandbox Films seeks to nurture and launch top-grade science documentaries and is committed to supporting the science films — and the diverse voices — that people need to see and hear. The company makes grants to a few projects it identifies each year and later provides outright financing to bring projects to completion, usually in partnership with for-profit companies. Profit is not the central goal of Sandbox Films, but recouping equity from a project’s success allows that capital to be reinvested into the next film, perhaps an even more forward-thinking one.
Early on, Boustead recruited Emmy-nominated science documentary filmmaker Jessica Harrop to lead development, production and strategy. Together the duo are off to a tremendous start, forming collaborations with production partners and filmmakers around the world with an eye to telling artful and inclusive stories about science. Sandbox Films wants nothing less than to redefine science documentaries, making them accessible and meaningful to all kinds of audiences, not just those whose interest in science is already assured. In other words, Sandbox Films is fundamentally about engagement, and about inspiration.
The still small company is off to an extremely promising start. Their films have premiered at festivals around the world, including Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, TIFF and CPH:DOX. And they have been distributed by Netflix, Apple Original Films, Neon, the BBC and PBS. The critical reception for Fireball has been positive. Hollywood Reporter critic Sheri Linden called the film an “elegant fusion of science and awe.” Glenn Kenny, in The New York Times, proclaimed it “about as transportive as documentaries get.”
“Both filmmaking and science are fueled by awe in pursuit of the unknown, of the inarticulable — of something that is dormant inside of us and dormant inside the physical world,” says Herzog, who serves as founding adviser to the fledgling company. Herzog’s expression of what unites cinema and science — that linchpin of “the unknown” — is what gives films about science such striking potential to attract audiences across cultures, races, education levels and socioeconomic status.
Oppenheimer, an expert on volcanoes, pitched the idea that became Fireball to Herzog, who then discussed it with Boustead. The two quickly realized that it was right up Sandbox Films’ alley. Sandbox Films signed onto the project, providing partial financing and co-producing the documentary with Spring Films and Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. Later, Apple Original Films acquired the title and released it worldwide in fall 2020 on Apple TV+.
Herzog and Oppenheimer embarked on a filmmaking journey that spanned the globe. In less than 100 minutes, we visit a Day of the Dead procession in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the asteroid hit 66 million years ago; travel along the vast icy depths of Antarctica, where many meteorites’ remains are still undiscovered; and meet leaders and artists from indigenous communities in Australia, which have incorporated meteors and impact craters into their understanding of the cosmos and eternity. We also come along on expeditions to collect urban micrometeorites in Norway, observe NASA’s ongoing surveillance of the skies for threatening asteroids, and even stop by the pope’s summer residence to meet the man dubbed ‘the pope’s astronomer,’ whose thinking spans from the intimacy of the human soul to the immensity of the cosmos. By the film’s end, we have been to five continents.
The crew who traveled with Herzog, some of them half his age, were stunned by his stamina and drive and his passion for film. Boustead recalls that one night the crew was getting ready to sleep in the Australian desert, and they were short of tents. Herzog allocated the tents that were available to protecting the valuable camera equipment from sand gusts. After all, it’s great fun to sleep in the open air anyway!
Near the beginning of the film, Oppenheimer — Fireball’s host and co-director — meets Australian aboriginal artist Katie Darkie, whose vivid paintings reflect the ancestral meanings of the desert landscape. She lives near a kilometer-wide crater formed around 120,000 years ago by a battleship-sized asteroid, which vaporized almost completely upon impact. But this is the scientific version of events. “Some say it’s a star fell in there,” Darkie says. “But the ancestors and the old people were telling us it’s the rainbow serpent who fell in the crater. So that’s how we got three stories.”
“Meteorites have to do with mythologies in human cultures and strange beliefs and premonitions and, of course, deep questions,” Herzog says. “How is the universe formed? Could meteorites even carry the building blocks of life within them?”
These and related questions are, of course, the hefty ones that keep us all up at night: no science degree required. How did the universe begin? Why are we here? And why did this comet come? Is it a warning? A message from the divine? Sandbox Films is hoping to tap into exactly that universality to draw everyone in — closer to science and closer together — as we all wrestle with big questions that are ultimately … science. As science historian Simon Schaffer cannily observes in Fireball, “Meteorites have meaning, and the task of humanity is to interpret what that meaning is.”