Asteroid film Disaster Playground is basically a real world 'Armageddon'

Wired, June 2015


Hypothetical: scientists spot a major asteroid on collision course with the Earth. What would happen? It's a question usually reserved for summer blockbusters, but designer and filmmaker Nelly Ben Hayoun wanted to find out. "The project came about two years ago, when I got frustrated with films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, where the only answer to deal with a Near-Earth Object is Bruce Willis with a big drill," says Ben Hayoun.

The result, Ben Hayoun's playful part-documentary Disaster Playground receives its London premiere on 30 June for World Asteroid Day. The film follows Ben Hayoun as she discovers what would actually happen should we spot an asteroid on a collision course with earth. "It's an armageddon movie but played by the real people involved," says Ben Hayoun. "The film follows the scientists planning the monitoring and deflection of hazardous Near Earth Objects and the real-life procedures in place in the event of an asteroid collision with the earth. You follow the chain of command that runs from the SETI Institute and Nasa to the White House and United Nations and meet the people who are responsible from protecting us from a potentially devastating asteroid impact."

One of WIRED’s 2014 Innovation Fellows, Ben Hayoun is a designer and director who often works with unusual scientific subjects. Amongst her many job titles are designer of experiences at the SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute and head of experiences at WeTransfer. Her past projects have included assembling the International Space Orchestra, building madcap installations like a working volcano and shuttle takeoff simulator, and a collaboration with CERN. "I’m looking at extreme ways to engage the public with what the scientists are doing, getting the human component back into the picture," she says.

Among the experts she interviewed for the film include Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the director of Nasa's Near Earth Object program, and a number of scientists and astronomers working on the reality of what would happen in the event of an asteroid strike.

While the film’s science is serious, it also has a playful tone: the 'cast' act out calling in disasters with giant red toy telephones. "Disaster Playground aims to get you to engage critically with the human condition in place in the space programme," says Ben Hayoun. "The craft, the real people doing it, their quirkiness, sometimes their imperfect reactions and their successes.

So, should we start building fallout shelters now? "There is a procedure that runs from monitoring devices -- telescopes all over the world -- to the scientists that find out [whether] an asteroid is likely to impact Earth," says Ben Hayoun. "But we realised that it is much more complex than that. I want people to realize that there are things in place, but that there needs to be more attention on funding the NEO program. Asteroids are getting more attention because of the mining projects or the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). But it needs to be a worldwide effort. It can’t just be Nasa; it needs to be global."

"But if an asteroid were to strike tomorrow, we’re not quite ready yet."

Disaster Playground is available on demand from 30 June.