Behind the scenes of an NPR space voyage

04Apr10

Ever wonder what it would look like to see a new solar system being born?

In this video I recently produced for NPR.org, Robert Krulwich flies from the outer edge of the Milky Way right up close to one of these baby solar systems, called proplyds.

People have already been asking me how we constructed this voyage. So here’s a behind-the-scenes look.

Robert wanted to literally feel like he was on a rocketship zooming through space toward his destination. We accomplished this by nesting together several ultra-high-resolution images from the Hubble Space Telescope (obtained from our “copilot” Michael Benson) — up to 30,000 pixels wide in some cases. This insane amount of resolution meant we could zoom in on the images far deeper than is usually possible, thus creating our “flying” effect.

In order to bring a “live” feel to Robert and Michael’s conversation during our shoot, I had them take the voyage together in real time — they clicked through the images interactively on Michael’s home computer as I filmed them with a webcam and a second video camera. (Most of that footage ended up on the cutting room floor, though.) I also used an app called Screenflow to record the onscreen images and mouse gestures directly from Michael’s monitor, so that I would have a perfect reference for reconstructing their journey later in postproduction. Here’s a clip of that raw material:

Unfortunately, all that Hubble resolution made editing extremely difficult — my poor Macbook Pro just choked on the data. Mac Pro towers at NPR’s headquarters were similarly vanquished. In the end, it took animator Brian Edgerton over 12 hours (not to mention 12GB of RAM and 16 CPU cores!) to create the final fly-through. And he still had to use every trick in the book to stop his system from crashing.

The result is pretty spectacular, even though it’s basically just 2D zooms on a flat image. The sheer depth of those images — those 30,000 pixels nested within 30,000 pixels nested within… you get the idea — creates a 3D-like sensation that we tried to enhance with attention to certain subtle details, like adding a “banking” motion whenever the camera moves left or right. (That’s actually more like an airplane would fly than a spacecraft, but hey, it works.) We also noticed that letting the image remain still for even a single frame totally blew the illusion of being in space, so Brian and I made sure to include subtle twists and barrel rolls in our imaginary spacecraft’s motion even when we weren’t “zooming” toward anything.

Well worth the effort!



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