California School of the Arts

An inside look behind Nat Geo’s ‘Science Fair’ with Director Cristina Costantini and math genius Robbie Barat

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, “Science Fair” tracks nine high school students from spread out corners of the globe as they work their way through the ranks to win the international science fair. Only one person will walk away named “Best in Fair” with a $75 thousand award. With teens who fight viruses, prevent cancer, or even create an AI that raps like Kanye West, the film mixes humor with heart to present the inventors and creators of not only tomorrow, but today.

I had the opportunity to interview Cristina Costantini and Robbie Barat, the director and a student featured in the film, respectively. The director also took part in science fair for two years, when she was in high school.

“For me, I think science fair was always the place that my passions were validated in a way that they weren’t in high school. I think Robbie had a similar experience,” Costantini said. “The social environment of school wasn’t doing it for me. When I went to science fair, I felt like I had finally found my tribe.”

Barat was scouted in the 2016 science fair, and Costantini immediately knew that he would be a great feature in the film. As a recent graduate, his talent for creating Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs has brought him to the intersection of art and AI. He currently works on creating AI-generated paintings as well as computer generated runway videos and clothing.

“[Science fair] is a good excuse to work on something you’re interested in and get recognized for it, “ Barat said. “It really helped me out and helped me sort of get into this mode of thinking for projects that I’m doing right now.”

robbie An inside look behind Nat Geos Science Fair with Director Cristina Costantini and math genius Robbie Barat
Robbie Barat next to his booth at the 2017 Intel ISEF (Photos courtesy of Nat Geo)

“Science Fair” tracks the stories of several students scattered around the globe. Not only does it inform the audience of the International Science Fair, it tells the lives and backgrounds of the students competing.

“I knew we wanted to do something full of human stories. It was about science but it was more about this very diverse range of kids coming together from different backgrounds and we did tons of tons of interviews,” Costantini said. “It’s about people that made us laugh, people whose stories were very tragic, underdog stories. We wanted to represent that range through our choice of kids.”

“It is looking like this is going to make a significant impact on the number of people participating in science fair and the number of people aware of science fair. When I did science fair for the first time in my high school, I was the only kid from my high school to do it, even at a county level,” Barat said. “It’s really cool to see people being interested and I hope it’ll make more kids want to do science fair.”

“Science Fair” attempts to give representation to the 7 million students that attempt to join ISEF every year, the 1500 that are chosen, and the select few winners of the competition. Several of the contestants that the film documents actually end up winning awards at the national level.

sundancefinal 1 An inside look behind Nat Geos Science Fair with Director Cristina Costantini and math genius Robbie Barat
Director Cristina Costantini (Photos courtesy of Nat Geo)

“I hope [‘Science Fair’] reminds the adult world that [science] is important, this is what it means these kids, this is who we used to be as a nation, and this is who we should continue to be in the future,” Costantini said. “Robbie says wonderfully in the movie ‘you’re missing the point of science fair if you think it’s about winning.’ It’s really about the exploration and experimentation and innovation.”

As for future plans, Barat will soon be traveling to Paris for an art show as collaboration with a French oil painter in the winter, as well as working on bringing AI clothes to reality.

“AI is going to be really great for art and artists. It sounds like it’s going to replace artists or but it’s really going to be a wonderful tool and medium,” Barat said. “I really want to hopefully go to school to study that or just keep working on it.”

As for Costantini, she originated as an investigative journalist, but hopes to continue working on feature documentaries in the future.

“Whatever I want to do next, I want to meld these two things like comedy and lighthearted or inspiring together,” Costantini said. “[‘Science Fair’] is totally different from anything I’ve ever done, because it’s lighthearted and fun and full of cool kids. I wanted to make a celebration of this world — a love letter to the science fair, because it’s full of these amazing minds that are still in high school.”

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