The Astronomers: Photographing the Real Stars

By Parisi, Paula | American Cinematographer, February 1991 | Go to article overview

The Astronomers: Photographing the Real Stars


Parisi, Paula, American Cinematographer


From the fiction of Steven Spielberg to the fact-based books of Steven Hawkings, few things have inspired the creativity of visionary thinkers like the heavens above. Beginning April 15, PBS viewers will turn eyes skyward for The Astronomers. The six-part series, produced by Los Angeles affiliate KCET-TV. This production utilizes groundbreaking computer effects for detail the mysteries of space. Five years in the making, The Astronomers is described by visual effects producer Michael Van Himbergen as "the largest public computer graphics project since Tron."

Special visual effects account for roughly one hour in six, an unusually high percentage. The show is rounded out by live action footage shot by 16 cinematographers on several continents. "There are three aspects of the show," said series producer "Peter Baker. "The first is a look at what's out there in the universe, and what do we know about it. The second is the tools we use to explore the universe' and the third is the men who invented the tools, and who use them.'

Each segment of The Astronomers examines a different aspect of the universe, starting a billion years ago with the creation of our galaxy, and traversing billions of miles to explore the enigmatic "dark matter" that lies beyond our solar system. Though the series takes a decidedly human tone, keeping its focus on the lives and work of present-day astronomers, if s the startling new use of computer graphics that distinguishes the program, bringing to life extraordinary wonders that had previously been left to the artisf s paintbrush, or the scientist's imagination.

For the first time, celestial phenomena like supernova, swirling black holes and the "big bang" itself will be brought to the screen in full motion, three-dimensional splendor, via the latest in cutting edge computer technology. "The decision to go with all computer generated imagery rather than using live-action miniatures was pivotal," said Van Himbergen, explaining that Industrial Light & Magic submitted a proposal incorporating both live action and computer effects that was under serious consideration but was ultimately rejected as too costly.

"We became convinced rather early on that we could reach certain budgetary objectives by going the computer graphics route, rather than by utilizing traditional effects means," said Baker. Van Himbergen notes that "we could have tried to pull this off using miniatures and motion control systems, cloud tanks and handcontrolled effects, but that wouldn't have given us the precision movements we were able to get using computers," he said, noting after a pause that "Two years ago, we couldn't have even done this using computers."

After careful evaluation of the project's visual needs, Van Himbergen - a former line producer with Boss Films, whose credits include Die Hard, Big Top Pee Wee and the HBO series Tales From the Crypt - decided he could maximize his slightly below $1 million effects budget by dividing the work into three categories and contracting out the work to four different Los Angeles-based companies, each specialists in their fields.

The most complicated category was that which consisted of creating the evolutionary sequences, characterized by motion. These shots, which Van Himbergen describes as expensive and difficult to pull off," were handled primarily by the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, which condensed clouds of gas and dust into starfields and black holes. Digital Animation Laboratories (formerly Optimistic), rendered the titles and the showy big bang animation, using an unusual Connection Machine computer. "It was probably the most esoteric piece of equipment that we used," said Van Himbergen, explaining that it allowed the graphic artists to manipulate hundreds of thousands of individual particles on screen.

Computer animation house Sidley Wright & Associates handled the second effects category, creating 39 minutes worth of computer generated scientific illustration, largely through use of a Pixar Image Processor. …

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