Documentary Animation Analysis– “Of Stars and Men” (1961 or 1964)

Of Stars and Men, a 1961 (or 1964– Youtube says 1961, Wikipedia says 1964) animated documentary film directed by John Hubley, and narrated by the astronomer and scientist Dr. Harlow Shapley (who wrote a 1959 earlier book of the same name), is a film dealing with the topic of humanity’s place in the vast Universe, what mankind (at least in 1961 or 1964) has learned about the Universe so far, and what, with this knowledge of the constituents of the cosmos and who we are, we can infer about both ourselves and the future of humanity in regards to our technological and scientific progress. The film starts with a charming cartoon apparently done in some sort of transparent film strip (given the background and the characters blend) about a lion wearing a crown leading his animal subjects through the jungle, only to give a little boy he finds living in a wooden house that same crown after witnessing his intelligence— representing the fact humanity is no longer dominated by the forces of nature or by mythology and religion, but can now master his own world and manipulate it through technology. The crown, in this sense, is an iconic sign of humanity’s dominance over the world in the modern age. In the scenes with the boy-King that follow afterward, we see his expressions and his wild gesticulating movements as he gets to know about the Universe and reality from his house or fortress, where the doors to the knowledge of the cosmos have been opened to him.

Of Stars and Men then transitions into various “sections” describing with beautifully drawn animations aspects of the Universe like time, space, matter, energy, and the origins of life, and makes frequent uses of zoom-ins and zoom-outs to illustrate the smallness of atoms and molecules, and thus the insignificant scale of our tiny planet as we zoom-out into the great void, our Solar System disappearing into nothing more than a speck. Multiple times throughout this film, we zoom into the cells and atoms that make up the boy-King’s foot, only to zoom back out into the greater cosmos, which is also made of atoms, to illustrate the fact we are all connected to the Universe by what we are made of (a profound revelation in itself). Shapley’s narration, and even the tone and feeling of the music used, matches or runs parallel with what is being shown in the animated film at the time, an example being when the narrator talks about galaxies and stars, and compares the number of known stars in the Universe according to the ancient Hindus (a measly 6000), to the number of stars known by scientists in 1961 to exist in the Universe (100,000 million), as the Universe zooms out more and more, revealing more stars in its wake, and more galaxies. Another example is when Shapley later talks much about the Sun and its power to give life right as we as the viewer are treated to a video taken of the literal Sun ejecting solar flares into the depths of space.

There is also a section in this film about the periodic table and the elements of the Universe that is narrated by two children, who are heard playing with blocks in the background in tandem with the animation, which features two children playing with blocks representing the elements— the building blocks of life itself (a symbolic representation). The scene when the children talk about “energy” features a humorous bit in which the boy-King finds a block of energy and tries to throw it back into the door labeled “ENERGY” on top, only for it to emerge from behind him out of the door labeled “MATTER” on top (the labels being symbolic), demonstrating to the viewer the inextricable relationship between matter and energy, and how one can form the other. In addition, the frame rate in this film is slowed down purposefully when Shapley goes on to describe the nature of time later on in the film, and also of early unicellular life, with the boy-King and his stopwatch moving at a snail’s pace. In addition, there is another scene in which a fade-in animation technique is used when a representation of the galaxy spins around counterclockwise with a clock overlaid on top of it that is ticking backwards towards earlier epochs of the galaxy billions of years ago. Both scenes show the vastness of time and the grand timescales of the galaxy relative to when the Earth was formed, when life first formed, and finally, when humanity arrived on the scene. Of Stars and Men embodies the principles of the Universe it talks about as much as it merely illustrates them in action.

Keeping up with this film’s frequent use of symbols and signs, in the last portion of Of Stars and Men, we see the boy-King walk in a hallway where on every tile on the floor the word “PRESENT” is inscribed (another symbolic label), indicating the present moment. He sees a literal sign pointing to both the past and the future— the future in particular being depicted as a dark seething mass or void we cannot see from afar— representing what I think to be an indexical construct of the opaque future. At the end of the animation, we see the Earth and the Solar System flying away becoming smaller and smaller until both of them disappear into the darkness, repeating the animation done earlier in the film in which the Earth is dwarfed in scale to the rest of the Universe, bringing everything full circle.

Because this film was done using animation and cartoon characters, and because a portion of this film was dedicated to two children talking about the periodic elements and energy, as opposed to using live action figures like in a “real documentary” I can only assume that this film was intended for children, or at least very young audiences curious about science, the Universe, and the mysteries of existence when it was first showed in 1961 or 1964. The time that this film was made and released is also significant, since it was only 5-8 years before the Apollo Moon landing in 1969, and only 4-7 years after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into low Earth orbit, as well as within the year (or three years after) Yuri Gagarin set the record as the first human in space. Being narrated in English, it can be presumed that this film was made specifically to inspire curiosity in a new generation of young Americans and Europeans about space at the beginning of the Space Race between the US and the USSR, possibly in order to create a new generation of scientists and engineers dedicated to showing America’s might in space and beyond.

Word Count: 1135

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