The Advanced Visualization Lab at Illinois boldly goes where no filmmakers have gone before
By Mary Timmins
Beyond that pie-plate thingy wobbling across the heavens in “Plan 9 from Outer Space”; beyond the streaming Technicolor vortex of “2001: A Space Odyssey”; beyond the ever-voyaging starship Enterprise and Brian De Palma’s fatal “Mission to Mars” and even beyond the surreal star-constructs snapped from on high by Hubble, await cinematic visions of space like no other.
These are the visions emanating from a laboratory at the University of Illinois.
Galaxies hover and wheel, detaching themselves to shoot individually past.
Stars are born in the pink-clouded womb of the Orion Nebula.
White-draped on a cerulean infinity, galactic strands of light weave skeined layers over the place where time began.
Flying through such imagery, enabled by 3-D glasses and a few terabytes of data, the viewer becomes the spaceship, zooming, swooping and diving, on a wild ride that merges science and imagination into ecstasy.
This is the realm of the University’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory, a heady place indeed, especially these days, with productions showing in planetariums, museums and IMAX theaters across the country.
Even Hollywood wants in. “The Tree of Life,” the Oscar-nominated Terrence Malick film, features AVL sequences of supernovas illuminating the early universe and a flight through the Milky Way.
In the past three years alone, AVL visualizations have screened in places from a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert to Bring Your Kids to Work Day at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Led by Donna Cox, the six-member group won three awards in 2010 from the Giant Screen Cinema Association for “Hubble 3-D,” a 43-minute film that has wowed IMAX theatergoers with the space telescope’s incomparable images, animated and rendered in exquisite, stereoscopic detail. That Leonardo DiCaprio’s voice is on the soundtrack makes for just one more sprinkling of stardust.
Narrated by Liam Neeson, “Dynamic Earth” is the latest piece to showcase AVL work; an immersive, giant-screen program about the changing global climate, it recently debuted at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Jodie Foster did voice-over on “Life: A Cosmic Story,” which premiered at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco in 2010; produced by the California Academy of Sciences, the film includes a journey into the Milky Way of 5 billion years ago, choreographed by AVL.
For star power of different kinds is all to the good. “Our goal,” says Cox, at an interview in her office – which, despite her fondness for deep space and alternate realities, is a pretty regular kind of office, with two windows, a desk and surprisingly normal-looking computer – “is reaching the public with science and knowledge.”
Then proceed along the directive of rock group Pink Floyd – and set controls for the heart of the sun.
The longtime home for AVL is the U of I’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, one of the few places in the world with the machinery to crunch the numbers for the group’s data-intensive renderings. Cox has been involved in visualizations for NCSA since 1985, bringing to the effort her dual background as an artist and computer programmer versed at transforming data into imagery. In 1997 she took over leadership of the visualization lab, where her longtime collaborator has been Bob Patterson, a virtuoso in computer imagery who started out his career in filmmaking and advertising. Team members Alex Betts ’97 faa, Jeff Carpenter, Stuart Levy and AJ Christensen ’09 eng provide skilled technical support.
As Patterson describes it, AVL has “morphed and changed over time,” with the emphasis shifting from a support group for scientific visualizations to its present focus on public outreach. But always, he says, there has been “a great creative and innovative spirit at NCSA.”
Their deployment of University resources has been pure genius, from building on the immersive environment of the famed CAVE at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (a 3-D room where one can do everything from planting a garden to playing squash) to creating high-resolution visual imagery for productions at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (including a recent multimedia music concert inspired by the Mississippi Great Flood of 1927). Cox emphasizes interdisciplinary collaborations among scientists, artists and technologists – what she calls “renaissance teams” – and has established the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute (eDream) to explore and promote the digital media arts at Illinois.
What drives the work of AVL, Cox says, is the desire to quicken science with art – and not just in outer space. In a visual sampler of the group’s work – which visitors touring NCSA get to enjoy in a small projection room outfitted with comfortable leather chairs and stereo glasses by the bushel – a spare grid of downtown Chicago whizzes with cars (a sequence created to study traffic patterns) and the cone of an abstracted Hurricane Katrina whirls hundreds of colored vectors of warming and cooling air, each undulant with uncanny motive power.
One of AVL’s latest techno-coups comes with the ambitious redo of the Adler Planetarium, completed in the summer of 2011. Chicago’s venerable star venue – the first planetarium in North America, built in 1930 on the Lake Michigan waterfront – now boasts a new dome theater with a 20-projector system that produces the largest single digital image in the world. The ensuing vision of the night sky is akin to viewing the stars from the middle of a desert or other vantage point far from the lights of civilization.
Such is the venue for a 22.5-minute film that rushes and glides into realms where no one has gone before – or ever may go. Part of the planetarium’s “Deep Space Adventure” program, “The Searcher” wows schoolchildren and astronomy enthusiasts with colliding galaxies, a supernova explosion and a black hole ripping apart a star. It is, according to Adler’s chief technology officer, Doug Roberts, “the most ambitious planetarium show ever done.” The show emerged from a collaboration between AVL and a team led by Roberts. In preparation for the show’s July debut, AVL worked with Adler online, watching screen tests of the show on a specially constructed mini-dome at the planetarium and fine-tuning the programming of the imagery.
An astronomer who worked at NCSA in visualization for the better part of a decade back in the ’90s, Roberts offers praise for AVL that is at once personal and professional.
“They do,” he says, “the best work of this type in the world.”
Adler visitors are correspondingly star-struck. “We have had overwhelming positive response to the show,” says Cox. “People love the convergence of beautiful fantasy art with hard-core, data-driven science computation.”
AVL is now at work on a second show for Adler, expected to debut next year.
AVL visualizations are made possible by tools created in-house by the team – some customized for specific data sets and others for more general use. Once the raw data and imagery have been prepared – including overlays of color and shape up to 54 layers strong, which create depth and beauty in the manner of an oil painting – Virtual Director, a propriety program developed by AVL, allows team members to evoke perspective and movement.
The program’s 3-D environment is akin to a video game, where avatars of AVL team members and collaborators work and interact and, as Cox puts it, “fly around.” It strangely echoes filmmaking in the real world, with a virtual camera that hangs on a grid in the cyberspace of the AVL computer screens. The filmmakers use a trackball to pan and zoom visual material of the data, and create fluctuating perspectives that maximize scale and drama. In one “Hubble 3-D” sequence, the viewer sees the universe through eyes approximately 50,000 light years apart. The imagery is animated in two separates sequences, one for each eye, which merge to produce a three-dimensional viewing experience that is beyond stunning.
“That’s been one of our hallmarks in recent years – long, multi-scale, seamless journeys,” Patterson notes.
Once the Virtual Director programming is complete, the animation must be rendered, meaning that – as with all animations from flip books and “King Kong” on – images are created, repeated and altered to endow the imagery with realistic movement. So much information is involved in AVL visualizations that the final animation rendering, done by supercomputer, “may take days,” Cox says. “This is a very complex process.”
Now this incredibly versatile technology is headed into a new and unlikely realm – that of the antiquities of planet Earth. Through a collaboration with the Cyprus Institute – an international nonprofit organization for science and technology research and education, located on the Greek island that is, Cox fondly points out, “the birthplace of Aphrodite” – AVL is creating tools for virtual exploration of cultural sites, such as theaters and monasteries. These tools allow archaeologists to explore virtual versions of the ancient world, experimenting with restoration of structures and surfaces and placement of artifacts – which have been laser-scanned at an incredible level of detail – and even meeting up with other archaeologist in cyberspace environments.
From recreating old temples to mapping today’s Chicago traffic to zipping in hyperdrive to the place where time and space merge into one, the work of AVL evinces both scientific and aesthetic integrity – a rare and alluring combination made possible by an extraordinary intellectual community. As Cox concludes: “There’s no place on the planet we could’ve done the work that we’ve done – except for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”
Editor’s note: To find out more about the work of AVL, visit the group’s website at avl.ncsa.illinois.edu. Information on “Deep Space Adventure” – including testimonials from audience members – may be found on the Adler Planetarium website: www.adlerplanetarium.org/experience/dsa.