Zero Gravity is a feature documentary by Thomas Verrette that follows a diverse group of middle-school students from San Jose, CA, who compete in a nationwide tournament to code satellites aboard the International Space Station.
Seen through the wondrous eyes of three young students and their first-time coach, they each take an intimate and personal journey to space as their team grows from amateur coders to representing California in the ISS Finals Tournament — the culmination of a summer-long adventure that sees their incredible accomplishment performed by astronauts in orbit.
The competition in Zero Gravity is called Zero Robotics and is run by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory in collaboration with NASA and CASIS, and their goal is to utilize the International Space Station for student experiments in zero gravity in support of real-world problems facing space scientists today. The mission in the film is to create a GPS system around Mars for future exploration of the red planet — an incredibly timely subject with the recent Perseverance and Ingenuity Mars missions currently taking place.
The SPHERES satellites that are programmed by the teams in the ISS Finals were inspired by Star Wars: A New Hope, and had been active for 10 years before being retired in 2019. Zero Robotics was inspired by retired astronaut Greg Chamitoff and implemented by the MIT SPHERES Team under the leadership of Alvar Saenz-Otero (both of whom are featured in the film), with critical contributors Jacob Katz and Swati Mohan, who was the Operations Lead on the NASA Mars 2020 Mission which successfully landed the Mars Perseverance Rover in February 2021.
The film will be screened on Friday, September 24, 2021 at the New Jersey Film Festival. You can see it in the festival’s beautiful movie theater on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick or screen it at home as the Fall festival is a hybrid and offers both options. The film festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary, runs Fridays and Sundays through October 10th.
All the films during the festival will be available virtually via Video on Demand for 24 hours on their show date. Each ticket or Festival Pass purchased is good for the live and virtual screenings. The live screenings will be held in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ beginning at 7:00pm for each program on their show date. Ticket buyers will also have special access to Filmmaker Introductions and Q+A Sessions for many of the films.
New Jersey Stage spoke with Thomas Verrette to learn more about the film, which is one of our favorites of the Fall 2021 festival.
After watching the film, I looked over your bio and noticed you had worked on several projects involving soccer. I found that interesting because seeing the competition geared around getting young children coding reminded me of the way soccer academies are teaching young athletes these days. Expert training while very young.
Yeah, I definitely thought through that a little bit as I was putting it together. The similarities and the competition - I thought using that as a spine helps provide the context and the urgency of the whole thing. It was definitely something that occurred to me that I tried to embrace.
When I saw the film about goaltenders and the Phenoms projects I wondered if that was on your mind.
That was a project that was a huge part of my life too. It was interesting to find the biggest, worldwide game and try to do a narrative of that and then take what I learned from that experience and apply it to something small and communal - just focused in a classroom, but taking the same principles and applying them. It was definitely something I thought about and, as an editor, you find yourself taking and learning from the processes that you’ve discovered previously, applying them, and adapting them for other uses. Just having a competition and a sport and turning that into a sport in space seemed like a natural thing.
How did you first hear about the competition?
I got involved with Zero Robotics through my Executive Producer, David Worthen Brooks. I worked with him a lot on Phenoms in particular. He had an MIT connection, heard about the concept, and wanted to do something with it. He sort of handed the reigns over to me and I got incredibly passionate about it because space, the cosmos, the universe are all things I immediately find fascinating on my own. It was a pretty quick turn around from hearing about the whole thing and shooting.
That passion comes through in the film. What got you first interested in space and the universe?
I was always passionate about space movies moreso than space itself, but I was always fascinated about the cosmos. I love thinking about how big the universe is and our place in it. I’m absolutely influenced by movies like Star Wars or Star Trek, but Apollo 13 was a huge one for me as a kid. It never left me. I always had the dream to do a space movie and then this one happened.
I had no idea I would ever do a documentary or that I would get the opportunity to try to make my own space movie. So that was where all that began. There’s even a couple of shots in the documentary that were influenced specifically by Apollo 13 like the astronauts going down the walkway to the rocket. The day the students code in the film, I was trying to get a shot of them walking in slow motion down the hallway because it reminded me of that shot.
Did you choose to follow the one class? How did that work?
The concept we devised early on was that coding was something with a very apparent need. That’s where the connections to Silicon Valley comes in. It was strategic from a narrative perspective because of how impactful coding and tech and the industry is there. So, in order to bridge that connection between what is needed in schools - I think it’s getting better now, but at the time we shot the film (2017) there wasn’t as much coding in curriculums. We found that Zero Robotics competition trying to bridge that gap by using out of school time and summer time to give kids a leg up as they move into the next school year.
We chose to shoot in San Jose because Silicon Valley is right there. It’s part of their world. How I found the students and the class was through orientation. You see a little of that in the film where there is a bunch of teachers learning about what the competition is all about. That was the time that I used to figure out who I would want to follow as a class and then from there with the teacher I went to see who was in the class.
For the majority of the shoot and the summer where everybody was coding for the competition, we were filming with everyone. The story itself kind of got reigned in at the editing stage. We found who were the students that really gave us the narrative and had varying interests but still wanted to work together as a team to accomplish this great thing that they all did.
As to which teacher to follow, I took a swing. I remembered the teachers I had that I still remember and, in a way, I was just looking for somebody I responded to - somebody who would make me excited about something if I had no idea simply because of their charisma or passion. Tanner Marcoida just gave me that vibe. I’d ask him about space and even things that weren’t related to the competition to gauge who they were as people and what they cared about. I connected with Tanner immediately and decided to follow him and see which students might show up in his class. It was very organic.
Tanner’s grandfather had a very interesting connection to the space program. Did you know about that prior to shooting?
I remember specifically one question I asked when I met him - how did you get your inspiration for science and space, where did that come from? He mentioned his grandfather; however, it wasn’t until much later in the story that the NASA connection came to be. That’s when I learned he worked on parts for the Hubble Space Telescope. It was one of those really unique moments that I had no idea about.
That’s sort of the beauty and nature of documentaries sometime. You’re following the story to the best of your ability and sometimes you get lucky and amazing things can happen just because you’re involved. But yeah, emigrating from Mexico and then working for NASA - it’s like the legacy and the generational themes of the film and how you pass down this inspiration. That was just magic. I wish I could say it was planned, but it just happened that way.
Tell me about following the kids through the competition.
I loved meeting the kids and watching them grow. It was the most profound part of the experience for me because it happened so fast in my eyes. I don’t have kids of my own, so this was illuminating to see how much they are like sponges and how fast they learn, grow, and adapt.
The difference for me in that room from the first week that they started to the end was one of those things that will never fully come across because there’s so much I saw that isn’t in the film. But seeing how much they really took to the whole experience was just a fascinating thing to see for me.
I thought it was a nice touch to add the update on what the kids are doing now at the end. When was that added?
That was added in the very end of February 2021. I thought what was interesting about the majority of the post-production of this movie is that those updates happened right around the time when Perseverance landed on Mars. And the majority of my editorial happened when they launched it - that was an interesting bookend. I was hoping everything worked out with the Perseverance landing because I sort of felt my fate was tied to it even though I had nothing to do with it other than get inspiration as a spectator.
The class you follow did not win the competition but the story does not end there as that class goes on to help the winning team. If this diverse mix of kids working together is a glimpse at the future of the country, it’s a good look. What do you hope viewers take away from the film? The sense of cooperation?
That’s a good question… I think what touched me the most and, in a way, is what is interesting about doing a documentary is that the narrative tells you. If this was a narrative film, I would be in control of what I’m trying to say and how to say it. In a documentary, it’s a little more like the subjects inform all of that. That was a fascinating place to be as a filmmaker because I learned a lot about the process myself and also what I believe and want to see in the future. One of those things is, of course, working together and finding common dreams and values to pursue with the help of others for everybody to benefit. That’s something I feel is very important to me and it came from seeing the experience happen in front of my eyes. But I also think it’s relevant to the world we live in today where everything is so divided and how affecting that is even with the pandemic and science and whether people know whether a mask works or doesn’t work rather than trusting the experts.
I think there’s a lot for me wrapped up in how do we work together to create a brighter future - especially in the time that we’re living in right now. That’s what I hope gets passed down from this film to people who watch it.