Each month the International Dark-Sky Association features an IDA Advocate from the worldwide network of volunteers who are working to protect the night in a feature called ‘Monthly Star.’ This month we’re highlighting the work of Sriram from India, with a Q&A.
People all over the world have told stories about the night sky for thousands of years through different media, and we continue this tradition today. Visual storytelling is a powerful tool in showing the importance and beauty of the dark night sky, and this month’s Monthly Star has a renowned talent for using film to tell his stories. We sat down with filmmaker Sriram Murali from India about how picking up a camera put him on a path to inspire people to look up and learn the stories written in the stars.
Q: What got you interested in protecting dark skies?
A: The first time I saw a sky full of stars was in Yosemite National Park in 2011. It felt so unreal. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I’ve been passionate about Astronomy since childhood, but this experience gave me a profound connection and made Astronomy accessible to me. From that point, I’ve wanted to tell the story of the stars.
Q: Can you tell us about dark skies in India? How are dark skies viewed there different from other countries you have lived in and visited?
A: People hardly look up in India. The skies are mostly washed out except for a few dozen stars. Dark skies tend to be around protected areas for wildlife and access is restricted at night. There are very few accessible dark sky places in India. This is why I love the National Park Service in the US. National Parks in the US are some of the best places to view the night skies.
Q: How did you get started in dark sky photography?
A: When I saw a sky full of stars in Yosemite National Park, I found photographing the night skies as a way to express my passion for Astronomy. I bought a basic DSLR, started looking up light pollution maps and began photographing dark night skies.
Q: What was your first dark sky film?
A: Many questioned the amount of stars in my photos and whether they were photoshopped. It bothered me that most people have never seen a sky full of stars or worse, even don’t believe they exist. So, I made a short film “Lost in Light” showing what the night skies look like at different levels of light pollution.
Q: What films have you made since then?
A: I didn’t expect the massive response “Lost in Light” received worldwide. It made the news in over 40 countries, played in hundreds of film festivals and was published on National Geographic. I realized that film making is a great medium to express my passion for Astronomy and dark night skies. Six years since then, I’ve made three other films. “Saving the Dark” is a feature documentary on the significance of Astronomy, the need to protect dark night skies, the effects of light pollution and the ways it can be solved. “Minmini“, a short film on the billions of synchronous fireflies at a Tiger Reserve in India and “In Search of the Stars” follows my journey searching for stars near home in India.
Q: Tell us more about your most recent film.
A: While exploring dark skies near my hometown in India, I realized the darker the skies got, the more lively the locations were; both during the day and night. Birds, mammals and plenty of wildlife filled these places with life during the day, and fireflies and nocturnal creatures transcended one to hundreds of years ago. I made a film “In Search of the Stars” showcasing this journey and that a naturally dark place is also a naturally wild place.
Q: Making films is challenging. You have the added challenge of making films in the dark. What are some of the challenges of shooting in low-light conditions and how do you overcome them?
A: Shooting in low-light conditions brings in several safety issues – moving around in unknown landscapes without light could cause physical damage (both to myself and the equipment), safety issues from a point of view of wildlife, and finally from humans (theft, etc). I scout the locations during the day and plan my shoot to the dot. That helps me minimize the unknown. When shooting around forest areas with wildlife, I keep the company of people who are well aware of the wildlife in the area and trust their judgement. I tend to engross myself in the surroundings at night, so I bring along at least one other person for keeping a vigil.
Q: How can dark sky advocates utilize your films to help raise awareness about light pollution?
A: With my films, I try to emotionally connect the viewers to the wonders of the night skies, the dark and the issues of light pollution. Many dark sky advocates have found that playing a quick, emotional video wins the heart easier. So, advocates could incorporate my films or sections of it in their outreach.
Q: Documentary-style films are more than communicating facts and figures. The focus is still storytelling about real-world ideas. How do you approach creative storytelling to talk about dark skies?
A: I try to break everything down and think deeply about what makes me feel awed and connected to the stars, the dark, the fireflies, birds and the environment. I feel true passion and original ideas reach very far. I have longed to pursue my passion for Astronomy. I have dreamed what my life could have been if I were exposed to Astronomy at a young age. It’s those innate thoughts that I bring in my films and hope that the viewers connect and feel the same emotions. I feel that emotional connection is the most important part of storytelling.
Q: What would you say to someone who wants to get started using photography to raise awareness about light pollution?
A: To get started, the type of camera does not matter. What’s more important is what story you want to tell. A decent photo/video with a good story reaches farther. Putting the photos or videos together in such a way that it tells a good story. That’s what catches attention.
Q: What resources have been most effective in your dark sky work?
A: I’ve found the IDA materials and pamphlets to be great educational materials at outreach events. It helps to talk about IDA’s mission, vision and successes to give people hope.
Q: What is your greatest success in dark sky conservation?
A: I’ve had many positive outcomes from my films – used as conservation tools, to educate children, architects, and politicians and has garnered worldwide attention. But two really stand out close to my heart. I’m quoting Dawn J. Nilson, Dark Sky Advocate from Portland, Oregon on the first one .
- “The Portland City Council voted to accept a Dark Sky Strategy Report for the city, the mayor commented that someone [it was me] sent him a link to a film that really influenced his thinking on dark skies and he encouraged everyone to watch it. Then he quickly remembered it and exclaimed “it was called ‘Saving the Dark!'” So, I thank you once again for your exceptional film. I’ve spent over 10 years advocating for dark skies in Portland, but your film pushed the issue to a unanimous vote.” (Nov 2020)
- I received an email from a mother that after watching “Saving the Dark” at a film festival in Ohio (2018), her 12 year old daughter who’s not so interested in science got inspired and wants to pursue Astronomy. I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome for my efforts. This feedback is so heartwarming that it brings a tear every time.
Q: What is your favorite part about the night?
A: Well, at night that the dark transports me to hundreds of years ago. It gives me a connection with our ancestors. People are often scared of the dark and equate dark to not being able to see anything. But, the more you explore the dark the more you actually see. It’s ironic the darker it gets the more we actually get to see.
Q: What is your favorite thing to tell people during dark sky events?
A: I like to talk about the scale of the Universe, start with how fast light is and yet it takes 8 minutes to reach from the Sun and build upon it and say that it takes 2.5 million years for the light from Andromeda galaxy to reach us and yet, in the scale of the universe, it’s right next door. I also like to talk about Europa and the possibility of lifeforms there.
Q: How about a funny story that happened in the dark?
A: Shooting in the jungles of India at night has its own fun. Once a leopard walked right by my tripod that I had set up and watching from a distance. An Elephant that was hiding in the bushes just 3 feet away while I was on feet. Another time what I thought were two fireflies flying towards me but the distance between them never changed and I realized those were two eyes, not sure what animal, but I ran and once I had to run with my heavy equipment because my brother got scared hearing some noise in the bushes, but it turns out it wasn’t anything. He was just new to the dark and got an earful from me for disrupting my time lapse 😀
Q: Anything else you would like to share?
A: I’ve been working on studying fireflies at a Tiger Reserve near my home in India. I’ve gotten very interested in fireflies. I photographed, identified the species diversity, and educated the forest officials on conservation mechanisms. I’m currently working on documenting firefly ecology, diversity and habitats in Tamil Nadu, India. I was added to the IUCN Species Survival Commission – Firefly Specialist group earlier this year.
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