In the middle of 2006, a number of sensational video clips of UFOs were presented at a website titled the Australian UFO Wave. Word about the videos spread, as new videos continued to be added - some were excited by the amazing footage, others very cynical. At the start of August, a new video - this time of an actual alien - seemed to tip the scales for most everyone in favour of the site being a hoax. In mid-August, an Australian filmmaker by the name of Christopher Kenworthy stepped forward to claim responsibility, describing the project not as a hoax or deception, but as "an immersive artwork". Kenworthy also revealed that the site was part of a larger project, that of creating a documentary about the 'immersive artwork' and public reaction, which was made possible by a grant from the Australian Film Commission. Chris Kenworthy was kind enough to answer a few questions from TDG about the Australian UFO Wave:
TDG: Thanks for talking with us Chris. Can I ask, what inspired you to come up with the Australian UFO Wave website? Did you have a previous interest in UFOs and the paranormal, or was it just a sudden flash of inspiration?
CK: It's been on my mind for a long time. I've been interested in UFOs since I was a child, when I had a handful of experiences that were somewhat inexplicable. And even back then I had a strong urge to create simulations - I faked a few still photographs of UFOs, by taping outlines of objects to my window and photographing the result (without the window frame being in the shot). By focussing on the background, I made the UFO look slightly out of focus. They were pretty good for a nine year old.
But I've continued to have a variety of UFO experiences. This may mean I'm fantasy-prone, or that something else a bit stranger is going on. I have no idea, but it certainly interests me. And my desire to create this project was more like a compulsion. I felt the same when I made crop circles back in the nineties. I wasn't a major circlemaker, but I felt compelled to make formations - not to fool or trick people, but to be close to the phenomenon and to interact with it. And in those days, when I was making circles, I saw more UFOs than at any time in my life. Most circlemakers will tell you the same thing.
So, the Australian UFO Wave came out of all that history. I've been interested in visual FX all my life, and then I learned how to create FX, and in a couple of books and articles I showed how to fake a UFO as a means to demonstrating various FX techniques. Once I'd seen how it could look, and the effect it could have on people, this idea that had been simmering for a long time began to obsess me. The biggest surprise was that it received funding.
TDG: Do you think though that by 'making an entrance' via the Australian UFO Wave, you've opened yourself up to deep suspicion about any claims you make in future, even about your own personal history and motivations?
CK: Of course, and that's the price I pay. But that's the case for any UFO witness; people doubt what you say. It's just that in my case more people will doubt what I say. And that's OK. Whatever happens now, some people will assume I'm part of a dark plot to cover up the truth. If the government had called me up hired me to hoax UFOs, I might agree, but it was my idea from the outset.
TDG: Reading through what you describe as the aims of this 'immersive artwork': "1. To give people a taste of the drama and excitement of a UFO Close Encounter, creating a genuine sense of wonder." In your opinion, will people appreciate being given a taste of the drama, or will they be more inclined to not appreciate being taken for a ride?
CK: I must admit that I was afraid I might simply annoy people, but I've been relieved to find my Inbox full of praise ( as well as hate mail). Mostly it's from outside of the UFO community, but there are even some people from within the community who understand what I was trying to do.
TDG: The second aim, is "to improve research into videos of genuine UFOs...as we discovered, researchers are woefully equipped to spot fakes." As someone who can obviously do the faking, can you therefore provide real-world input on how to spot the fakes? With the low cost of high quality gear these days - and video being recorded directly to digital - have we reached a point where no video can be trusted, or will there always be a way to spot a fake?
CK: One of the points I wanted to make is that there are lots of ways to spot fakes, and that people should have seen them. Although people spotted the clues at the end, nobody wrote to tell me they'd seen the clues or mistakes that run throughout the earlier clips. People need to be more vigilant. Secondly, I wanted to underline that a clip should not be trusted (or shared on websites), until a reputable researcher has spoken to witnesses and had the original tape analysed. A couple of researchers did ask for more info and witness contact, but when we stalled they posted the clips on their sites anyway. Faking short clips is one thing, but faking an entire event (with actors acting as witnesses after the fact, and a full camera tape) - that would cost ten times our budget, just for one clip. So if researchers do their job properly, faking clips would be impossible for all but the highest budgets.
TDG: You also claim that the site shows "skeptics that they often rely on faith rather than evidence." What percentage of skeptics analysed the clips in a methodical way, rather than relying on faith?
CK: I have yet to hear of skeptics who did methodical research into these clips. Such research may have occurred, but I certainly wasn't informed, and most of what I read on the web or that was sent in emails consisted of the standard skeptical responses - balloons, meteors, lens flare...
TDG: Do you accept that many serious ufologists will view your project in a very dim light, as just one more thing detracting from serious research into the UFO phenomenon?
CK: I know that many are annoyed, but I also know that when these people see that I am a UFO witness who cares about the subject, they look at the project a little more objectively. I wouldn't want to harm research, but I think it needed a bit of a kick in the backside. That said, there are probably some fabulous researchers out there who were never taken in - I just wish they'd written in with their suspicions, or put them on the web early on. Lots of people did publish their suspicions once we got down to the last few clips (as plausibility was reduced), but we ran for two months with barely a whisper of suspicion.
TDG: Yet, on your site you make comment that "I do resent sitting in a cinema and hearing people review each scene (and even each line) out loud as they watch. Audiences are so critical that they fail to immerse, and rarely become engaged with the material. I wanted to create video art that, by its nature, drew people in to experience the raw emotions and the wonder of a UFO sighting." This seems to reflect a dichotomy in your own opinion - should audiences react critically, or immerse themselves? And doesn't a project such as the Australian UFO Wave just make it all the more likely that people do not "immerse themselves", for fear of looking naive and gullible?
CK: When I see a UFO clip on the web, I rarely get to the end without seeing the flaws, so I'm not immersed. Sometimes, though, I see a clip that's so convincing that my critical faculties have nothing to get hold of, and lo - I'm, immersed. Whether the clip is fake or not, that's a fantastic experience. That's what I hoped would happen to the general public when they viewed this project. But UFO researchers are not the general public, so I hoped that even if they got that thrilling sense of wonder, they would then switch their critical faculties back on. Perhaps some did.
I don't like an audience to be uncritical, but I prefer it if they do their criticism after the film is over. As a director I find it very difficult to watch a film without noticing the camera set-ups (and a thousand other technical details) moment to moment; but I try not to analyse all that until the film's over. I want to get lost in the story, just for a while. The problem with modern audiences is that they start the criticism while a film is still on.
And I would never say anybody was gullible for taking the clips at face value. If a magician shows you a good trick, you're not gullible for appreciating the illusion.
TDG: To what degree was the project meant for personal gain, either through advertisement earnings or through publicising your own name around the globe?
CK: The advertising over three months has brought in less money than I earn in a day - it was there initially to remove suspicion that this project was somehow funded. And now I leave the ads up as they contribute to the costs of running the site. But it's loose change, really. And the project itself wasn't a huge earner. The total budget was $15,000, and out of that comes insurance, legals, writers, actors, producers fees - and so on, so this project was for love more than money.
Every project I work on as a writer or director is for personal gain, but it's never solely for personal gain. I want to create worthwhile art. As for publicity, it remains to be seen whether this project will enhance my career or not. Of course, I hope that every project I work on will publicise my name around the globe, but that's an afterthought, and never a motivation.