The celestial inspiration of FCB Chicago’s “Looking Back”

“Looking Back” — FCB, Lord + Thomas

FCB Chicago’s award-winning short film for the Clark Street Bridge School of Writing, Looking Back, is an inspirational trip into creativity.

With galactic visuals and sparse music, it compares the Voyager II space probe’s exit from our solar system to a child’s first day at school: both craft and student turn around for one last gaze at the worlds they are about to leave behind.

In that moment, they follow an irresistible urge to “see what home looks like, so far away from home.” This is a central theme in the two-and-a-half minute video, which won the One Screen Short Film Festival’s “Budget Under $10,000” category on Oct. 18.

FCB Chicago Writer-in-Residence and self-described “outer space freak” John Claxton wrote the script and narrated the story. He believes that the analogy is a fitting description for the Clark Street Bridge School of Writing.

“How do you take an event that was experienced by the whole world and relate it to a simple experience that everybody can relate to?” he asks.

“The celestial moment was taking a photo of earth. The mundane moment was a kid going to school.”



The Clark Street Bridge School of Writing started out as an in-house workshop that Claxton founded in 2011. Since then, it has evolved into “a couple different things.”

“One is a performance,” he says. “Which is spoken word with projected images and live bands.”

Pursuing a mission to “enrich the creative abilities of business leaders and connect with a younger audience,” today’s Clark Street is a multimedia experience that performs in venues like Northwestern University and Marwen, a River North organization that “educates and inspires underserved young people through the visual arts.”

Boasting its own website, Facebook page, and a legion of fans, Clark Street “nurtures creativity” by inviting audiences to help write the presentations as they happen. The shows feature specific themes that continue for about three or four years.

Looking Back was a pillar of the program in 2013 and played at, among other venues, the University of Chicago.

John Claxton
John Claxton

“The film grew out of that project,” says Claxton. “It was such a fascinating story … Somewhat legend, somewhat myth, but I think about 90% true. Just as the Voyager II was about to leave the solar system, the people at NASA turned it around and took a picture of the earth.”

That image, as explained in the film, is “a small blue dot in a single beam of sunlight … and that, should anyone ever ask you, is the definition of art.”

Clark Street’s most recent performance was October 12 at 456, a building in the Fulton Market district that FCB Chicago acquired and converted into a creative space last year.

With dramatic visuals and a seven-piece band, the event was reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s early live shows, when Andy Warhol screened movies directly onto the band while they played at his Factory.

Very cool, no doubt; but does it work?

Indeed. The team that created Looking Back’s metaphorical journey got it done by completing a Clark St. style expedition of their own. One of the main travelers was Jared Stachowitz, Executive Producer at FCB Chicago’s in-house production and post division, Lord + Thomas.

Jared Stachowitz
Jared Stachowitz

Stachowitz, another self-described space nerd, knew where to find relevant imagery when he and Claxton determined that the Looking Back multimedia experience was worth transforming onto the screen.

“You can go to right now and see that there are images from all the spacecraft that are in the public domain … lots of them,” he explains. “So many that I got a separate hard drive and downloaded all of them.”

After enlisting “someone at the agency who’s much smarter than I am” to write a program that indexed and centralized the RAW files, Stachowitz and a team at Lord + Thomas compiled the best into a digital timeline.

“There was a whole bunch of garbage, but then you start to look at it and you see rocks and the rings of Saturn,” he continues. “We sifted through and created animation by assembling 24 frames per second.”

FCB also handled the music and the voiceover. “We recorded it at about six a.m.,” Stachowitz recalls. “This is a project that came from passion. The fun part of it, for me, was working at the odd hours of the day and night.”

Claxton, likewise, often feeds his creative jones in the wee hours. He came upon the analogy described in Looking Back — comparing the space probe to the student — during an inspiration that matches the film’s introspective mood.

“I write between 1:30 and 2 o’clock in the morning,” he says. “That concept happened at 1:35 a.m.”