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Inaugural Ebert Symposium announced for October 1

The Roger Ebert Film Festival, or “Ebertfest,” has celebrated movies each spring for two decades in downtown Champaign and at the University of Illinois.

The first Roger Ebert Symposium will explore the cinematic presentation of science and related subjects—bringing together an IMAX film shot from space, the former NASA astronaut who shot much of it, the film’s writer/director, and a diverse collection of visualization experts, journalists, scientists, media experts, artists and designers.

The one-day symposium, coming to the Illinois campus Oct. 1, will highlight interactive storytelling, data visualization and connections between the arts and sciences—all with an eye on the power of cinematic arts to bring a deeper understanding of nature, society and the universe.

The event, free and open to the public, will be held in the auditorium of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), 1205 W. Clark St., Urbana, starting at 9 a.m. It will feature three visually rich, interactive panel discussions, as well as opportunities to preview movie clips.

Capping the day will be a free screening of the IMAX film “A Beautiful Planet,” narrated by Jennifer Lawrence. The screening will take place at 4:30 p.m. at the Goodrich Savoy 16 IMAX theater, 232 Burwash Ave., Savoy, which is co-sponsoring the event.

Much of the film was shot from the International Space Station (ISS), with NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory collaborating on the opening and closing virtual scenes of flight through intergalactic space, based on scientific data.

Tickets for the film and the symposium are not required, but preference will be given to individuals who pre-register online. Online registration will open on the Ebert Symposium website in the near future.

Titled “Empathy for the Universe: Storytelling and Data Visualization,” the symposium is a tribute to film critic Roger Ebert five years after his death. The event is a collaboration between the College of Media, the Ebert Center and NCSA. The theme is drawn from Ebert’s belief that “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”

“The symposium embodies the principles Roger stood for, including empathy, compassion and inclusion, whether we are talking about the earth, the cosmos or our oceans,” said Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow and co-founder of Ebertfest, who established the endowment of the Ebert Center with Roger. “We will show in an emphatic way that science and the arts are not mutually exclusive, but share a bond that results in greater benefits to humanity.”

The day’s first panel discussion, “Science on the Screen,” will feature former astronaut Terry Virts, a cinematographer for “A Beautiful Planet,” who spent 200 days aboard the ISS and shot much of the film; and Toni Myers, the writer/director of “A Beautiful Planet” and other NASA-related IMAX films.

“That will be just the first in a day filled with interactive sessions on exciting approaches and timely topics around story framing, accuracy in data presentation and how inclusive, novel thinking that crosses the arts and sciences can build understanding and address some of our greatest societal challenges,” said Donna J. Cox, an Illinois professor of art and design, director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory and one of the event’s organizers.

Other participants in the day’s panel discussions and post-film Q&A, along with Ebert and Cox:

  • Anita Chan, an Illinois professor of media and cinema studies specializing in global imaginaries around new information technologies
  • Brand Fortner, an Illinois alumnus, professor of physics at North Carolina State University and an expert on accessible scientific visualization
  • Temple Grandin, an Illinois alumna and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University known for her work on the humane treatment of livestock (participating remotely)
  • Brant Houston, an Illinois professor of journalism who specializes in investigative and computer-assisted reporting
  • Karrie Karahalios, an Illinois professor of computer science specializing in computer-mediated communication and online community building
  • Nate Kohn, “Ebertfest” director, film producer and director of the MFA screenwriting program at the University of Georgia
  • Katie Mack, a professor of physics at North Carolina State University known for her public science outreach through the @AstroKatie Twitter account
  • Stacey Robinson, an Illinois professor of graphic design whose graphic novels and other work explore ideas of Afrofuturism and black utopias
  • Rachel Switzky, the inaugural director of the Siebel Center for Design at Illinois and a former executive at the global design firm IDEO
  • Doron Weber, a vice president at the Sloan Foundation who runs a program to advance public understanding of science, technology and economics and to bridge the cultures of science and the humanities.

Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, was an Urbana native, U. of I. journalism alumnus, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and founder of

The full schedule and additional information on participants can be found at

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