Space Chimps Interview

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Space Chimps Interview with Dave Cassidy of Cabin Creek Films, New York, USA is one of the filmmakers of the space documentary ‘One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps’. It aired on the CBC and History Channel UK.


 Story of the Space Chimps


ASG: What is ‘One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps’ about?

Dave Cassidy: One Small Step recounts the earliest days of NASA and their use of Primates in the course of their rocket tests. While the title implies that this is about the Chimpanzees used, it also delves into the monkeys like Able & Baker and others. The emphasis is on Ham and Enos, their training and the goals of the program. The film also gets into what happened to the chimps after they faded from the public eye. When Ham’s mission occurred it was front page news around the world but as soon as the human missions began they faded from our consciousness but their story didn’t end there. One Small Step follows their journey all the way to the retirement of some of the remaining members space chimp colony at a Florida sanctuary.

What I love about this project is that it straddles two worlds: space and animals. I get screenings at libraries interested in Chimpanzees and then again at space museums. It was a huge undertaking to get it out on DVD finally but I am very pleased to see it out and looking as good as it does.


ASG: Is there a difference between a monkey and a chimpanzee? A monkey eg baboon, macaque, tamarin has a tail. A chimpanzee, which is an ape, does not have a tail ?

Dave Cassidy: Monkeys and Chimps are better differentiated in their DNA and Mental capacities. The great apes are held in higher regard due to their capacity to possess rationality and self-consciousness, and the ability to be aware of themselves as distinct entities with a past and future. Human DNA and that of Chimpanzees is separated by only 1.23% difference. That is closer than the DNA of a rat vs a mouse.

So, to answer your question it is the mental and physiological differences more than anything that elevates the great apes above the monkeys.


ASG: How did you come up with the idea to make the film ‘One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps’?

Dave Cassidy: I came across a few article regarding the controversy regarding whether or not the Air Force chimps should be retired. After reading further on the history behind the subject I realized a documentary had never been made. Through the story of the chimps we learn about the earliest days of NASA as well as our developing knowledge of chimpanzee and human physiology.


ASG: Do you have any connection with the new Space Chimps movie?

Dave Cassidy: None at all. While they have grounded their film in history loosely it holds no documentary value. I personally believe that Truth is Stranger than Fiction and to look back at these early space missions and that moment in history it is important, fascinating and indeed strange.


ASG: For budding space film-makers, what advice would you give in making a film with regards to research and actual filming and editing?

Dave Cassidy: The best advice I can give is dig deep and start at our very own National Archives. It is amazing what has been documented especially by NASA and the Air Force. I’ve seen some folks selling just the raw footage they find in the archives and I think that is a great idea.

Part of the problem I found is that no one really knows exactly how much footage is out there. I thought I’d recovered as much footage from the primate missions as possible but I am still amazed to see new clips popping up once in a while. Every base and museum has an archive and each one has something to add to the full picture that is the early days of NASA.

The good news is that much of this material is in the public domain meaning if you can find it you can use it. I can’t say enough kind things about the National Archive and the job they do in preserving our history.


ASG: What type of equipment did you use for filming and editing?

Dave Cassidy: This film was shot on DVCam, which was the standard at that time. I have recently switched over to shooting exclusively on HDV and HD formats. This past year or two has seen incredible technological advances and we are at the point where they are very affordable.

Much of the archival footage I used was on 16mm film or preserved on Beta Tapes.

The editing was done on an Avid. While I enjoy editing I no longer do it myself but the folks I hire edit on Avid as well.


ASG: Was actual film used or was video used?

Dave Cassidy: The film is a combination of Digital Video and Film. The original archival reels were all on 16mm. I was cracking open canisters of film that hadn’t been looked at in years.


ASG: What was your first film?

Dave Cassidy: I consider One Small Step my first film. I am extremely proud of this film and the fact that it has had a life now for six years. It is a rare project that you can say “Everyone I know should watch this and get something out of it” – this is one of only a couple I’ve been able say that about.


ASG: Is film making your profession or is it a hobby?

Dave Cassidy: This is a full time profession. I’ve been in the industry in some capacity for about 10 years now. I produce documentaries exclusively and have done everything from stories on space, animals, music to war and addiction. I appreciate the range I’ve been able to hit on.


ASG: Do you plan to make anymore space documentaries?

Dave Cassidy: I don’t at the moment but I’ve long wanted to make on the creation of NASA. 1958 is a big year in US history and the creation of NASA is indicative of a lot more than just our yearning to reach the moon.


ASG: Do you believe there is a market for space/astronomy based documentaries/movies?

Dave Cassidy: Absolutely. I think that IMAX films and Space related subjects are meant to be together. I also know that our fascination to understand the universe has not diminished. People can argue about the purpose of NASA or space exploration but in the everyone finds the idea of people exploring the unknown to be fascinating and this means that there is room for films about space.

While we are not seeing a huge surge in features or documentaries involving space you can’t escape it in popular culture. From animated films and cartoons to TV shows, space is huge. I love science fiction but I believe that we do need a film that discusses the current state of space exploration. There seems to me to be a disconnect between the public and those responsible for publicizing the program. Most people probably couldn’t tell you about what we do on the space station and that is disappointing since it used to be that people followed the space program closely. The universe is being revealed to us all and it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

Finally, I have not been approached to do another space related film but I am confident that the opportunity will arise.

ASG: Dave, thank you for talking to ASG via email (May 18, 2008).


For more info, the visit David’s site www.spacechimps.com which has a pretty good story section with more photos going up as well as a couple scenes from the film.

Note: Space Chimps an animation film was released in the cinemas around the world in 2008 and is not related to Dave’s documentary.


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