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NCSA’s visualization team hitting the red carpet

NCSA is helping produce movie magic with cinematic scientific visualization.

The Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently worked on A Beautiful Planet, the latest 3D space documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Toni Myers and IMAX Entertainment, made in cooperation with NASA, which will premiere in New York City on Saturday, April 16 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13.

AVL, led by Director Donna Cox, helped produce the opening and closing scenes of A Beautiful Planet. Cox served as visualization producer and designer on the NCSA scenes of the film. AVL previously worked with Toni Myers and the IMAX team to create scientific visualizations for the award-winning IMAX® documentary, Hubble 3D, from Warner Bros. Pictures and IMAX Entertainment (2010).

AVL has a long history of producing cinematic scientific visualizations for full-dome planetarium shows, television documentaries, feature film and IMAX documentary films.

A Beautiful Planet is a 46-minute film documentary that gives moviegoers a never-before-seen glimpse of Earth from space and provides an increased understanding of our planet and galaxy. In cooperation with NASA, the movie captures footage filmed by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

AVL team produced 6 minutes and 20 seconds of visualization, including two dramatic astrophysical voyages: the opening journey into the Milky Way galaxy to the location of our Sun and the closing scene, a flight from the International Space Station to the Earth-like exoplanet K-186f, nearly 500 light years away from Earth.

“There’s no place like Earth, and the movie tries to capture that truth,” said Cox. “We used a virtual camera, advanced computing, and scientific data to provide a unique voyage to a planetary system in our galaxy far away. NCSA’s AVL focuses on scientific accuracy while cinematically presenting data.”

AVL team that worked on the film includes: Robert Patterson (visualization designer/camera), Stuart Levy (visualization/astronomy), AJ Christensen (visualization design/effects), and Kalina Borkiewicz (visualization development).

NCSA welcomed the IMAX production team—Myers (Producer/Director), Judy Carroll (Co-Producer), and Hugh Murray (Stereographer)—to NCSA on two occasions, along with astronomer Dr. Frank Summers from the Space Telescope Science Institute, to develop the concept and treatment for NCSA’s contribution to the film. The team used AVL’s 4,096-pixel 3D stereo virtual environment and visualization software to collaboratively design the scenes for the IMAX screen. Then they employed their advanced computing environment to develop and refine the 4,096×2,880 resolution IMAX 3D scenes. In the end, AVL delivered over 9,000 stereoscopic image pairs for the film.

“It was a great collaboration,” said Patterson. “NCSA was able to provide the IMAX audience with immersive 3D visualization journeys using a host of scientific data to help viewers understand our place in the Milky Way galaxy.”

The film will be shown to the public exclusively in IMAX® and IMAX® 3D theaters beginning April 29.

About NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a hub of transdisciplinary research and digital scholarship where University of Illinois faculty, staff, and students, and collaborators from around the globe, unite to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. Current research focus areas are Bioinformatics and Health Sciences, Computing and Data Sciences, Culture and Society, Earth and Environment, Materials and Manufacturing, and Physics and Astronomy.

The Center also provides integrated cyberinfrastructure—computing, data, networking, and visualization resources and expertise that are essential to the work of scientists, engineers, and scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and across the country. NCSA is also an engine of economic impact for the state and the nation, helping companies address computing and data challenges and providing hands-on training for undergraduate and graduate students and post-docs.

About Dr. Donna J. Cox

Dr. Donna J. Cox is a producer/designer who collaborates with scientists and filmmakers to create cinematic presentations of science. As Director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she and the AVL Team collaborated with IMAX and Toni Myers on the film A Beautiful Planet to create the opening and closing scenes.

Cox is a Professor in the School of Art and Design, and the first Michael Aiken Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois. She is the forerunner in the convergence of art and science through digital visualizations and the inventor of “Renaissance Teams” as an interdisciplinary approach to visualizing scientific data. Cox won the international Coler-Maxwell Award for Excellence granted by the Leonardo International Society in Arts Science and Technology.

Cox and her collaborators have thrilled millions of people with stunning cinematic data visualizations of science for IMAX movies, feature films, television, and large-screen digital museum shows around the world. Cox and her AVL team worked with IMAX and created two major virtual scenes using scientific data for the Hubble 3D IMAX film that premiered at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, March 2010. The film won three Giant Screen Awards for best film, best life-long learning, and best cinematography. She was Associate Producer for Scientific Visualization and Art Director for the PIXAR/NCSA segment of the IMAX movie, Cosmic Voyage, nominated for a 1997 Academy Award in the documentary category. She uses best practices to direct and co-produce content for original productions including the recent full-dome Solar Superstorms narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Over her long career she has created a large body of work. She is an international keynote speaker and her collaborative work has been cited and reviewed in hundred’s of publications including TIME, National Geographic, and New York Times. Cox writes on the art of science visualization, coined the term “visaphors” and is co-editing a forthcoming book on the history of women artists and collaborative invention. She shares a patent for a “Virtual Reality 3D Interface System for Data Creation, Viewing and Editing” system that her team employs to create movies and used with Toni Myers to choreograph scenes for A Beautiful Planet. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry selected Cox as one of 40 “modern-day Leonardos” and exhibited her digital collaborative works in the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition.

About Robert Patterson

Robert Patterson (visualization designer) is a research artist in the Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Patterson and AVL have a long history of producing cinematic scientific visualization for planetarium productions, television documentaries, and feature film and IMAX documentary shorts, including most recently, A Beautiful Planet.

Patterson received a BS in film production from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987, where he started working with computer graphics. He began working in scientific visualization at NCSA in 1989. Patterson spent a year at Industrial Light and Magic in 1993 as a digital artist on the feature film Forrest Gump. Upon returning to NCSA, he co-created Virtual Director, a virtual reality tool for exploring data and interactively designing camera moves. Patterson used Virtual Director to design two data visualizations for the IMAX film Cosmic Voyage (1997), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Patterson and AVL more recently contributed two astrophysical visualizations for The Tree Of Life (2011).

Patterson and AVL began their collaborative relationship with Toni Myers and the IMAX team on two astrophysical visualizations for Hubble 3D (2010). Working closely with Myers, Patterson used AVL’s software to interactively design camera moves in immersive 3D based on scientific models and data. The team reunited in 2015 for A Beautiful Planet, in which Patterson worked with Myers and team to create camera moves and design the opening and closing astrophysical visualizations for the film.

In collaboration with Thomas Lucas Productions, Patterson and AVL worked on a series of broadcast documentaries, including NOVA’s Runaway Universe (2000) and Hunt for the Supertwister (2004), and co-produced planetarium full-dome productions including Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity (2006) and Dynamic Earth (2012) narrated by Liam Neeson, and more recently Solar Superstorms (2015) narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

About A Beautiful Planet

A Beautiful Planet is a breathtaking portrait of Earth from space, providing a unique perspective and increased understanding of our planet and galaxy as never seen before. Made in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the film features stunning footage of our magnificent blue planet—and the effects humanity has had on it over time—captured by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. From space, Earth blazes at night with the electric intensity of human expansion—a direct visualization of our changing world. But it is within our power to protect the planet. As we continue to explore and gain knowledge of our galaxy, we also develop a deeper connection to the place we all call home. From IMAX Entertainment and Toni Myers—the acclaimed filmmaker behind celebrated IMAX® documentaries Hubble 3D, and Space Station 3DA Beautiful Planet presents an awe-inspiring glimpse of Earth and a hopeful look into the future of humanity.

IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.


Kristin Williamson
Assistant Director, Public Affairs

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