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Mysteries of the Unseen World

See beyond the limits of human vision with this 3D film from National Geographic, which makes its NY premiere at the American Museum of Natural History

by Nara Shin in Tech on 07 January 2014

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The current René Magritte exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC (which concludes on 12 January), titled "The Mystery of the Ordinary," showcased surrealist paintings by the Belgian artist that challenged the way the viewer would perceive the "ordinary." In a similar—and more contemporary—vein, "Mysteries of the Unseen World" is a film that takes the seemingly ordinary and applies advanced imagining technologies to reveal a whole new realm to the viewer, that is too small, too fast or too slow to be seen by the naked eye.

Produced by National Geographic Entertainment and Day's End Pictures, "Mysteries of the Unseen World" is the first-ever digital 3D movie to be screened at the American Museum of Natural History (thanks to the recent projector booth upgrades to the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Theater) and marks the film's New York premiere.

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"I pitched this project to National Geographic about 10 years ago. I said, 'I want to make a film about everything a human eye can't see, I want to do it in IMAX and I want to do it in 3D.' You can imagine, that's a pretty difficult challenge," says director Louie Schwartzberg. "Behind the camera, the technology we had to use had to be invented or state-of-the-art. The goal is really to inspire people to open their eyes, look at the ordinary in the extraordinary way and see things that will take you on a journey of discovery."

Schwartzberg is renowned as an artist who has been continuously shooting time-lapse cinematography 24/7 for the last 35 years of his life (which he has condensed into 12 hours of material, what he calls a "God's-eye view of the world"). He founded the contemporary stock footage company Energy Film Library (later acquired by Getty Images in 1997) and present-day production company BlackLight Films; you'll be familiar with his footage as it's made it onto the big screen in films such as Koyaanisqatsi, American Beauty, E.T. and The Truman Show, just to name a few. More recently, his TED talks that feature his nature time-lapse photography as a medium for meditation have garnered millions of views.

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Shooting a high-tech film where the "actors" are incredibly difficult to see involves a myriad research institutions including MIT, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Basel-based Center for Cellular Imaging and NanoAnalytics (C-CINA) as well as funding from the esteemed National Science Foundation, Lockheed Martin and more. The list of scientists who advised on this project seems even bigger than the size of the production team.

Schwartzberg gave us a peek into the technical process on the production side: "The Eurasian eagle owl was [shot at] 600 frames per second, the water balloon 1000 frames per second, the popcorn 2500 frames per second. We used the Phantom camera which can record high frame rates. It hasn't been around that long—three or four years—so it's great that technology enabled us to do those slow motion shots."

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Schwartzberg notes, "Curiosity is, I think, the most important ingredient in being a scientist or an entrepreneur or being successful in life. There's a giant metaphor in this movie where it's all about opening your eyes, looking at things differently. I mean, what a narrow vision we have with everything we look at in our world, 24 frames per second. And there are these other frame rates which you can look at. To me, it's cooler than a Spiderman movie or Avengers movie because, that's all fake. Blow up New York City, big deal. But when you see that spiderweb thread that's stronger than steel—that's all real. And because it's real, it penetrates deep into your heart and I think it inspires people to be curious."

On the audience reaction after they've watched his films, Schwartzberg says, "You can't walk by a flower and not appreciate it on a whole new level. Or watching pollination—you can't look at a bee as something I'm scared of, that will sting you. You have to look at the miracle of life that it's creating. Once you see it in that way, you will always see it differently from that point on. Time-lapse, slow motion, it's kind of like wearing glasses."

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"I think everybody here knows the museum is famous for our exhibitions, from its impressive dinosaurs, gorgeous dioramas and, of course, the big blue whale and our literal gem; the Star of India. But what I think a lot of people don't realize is that behind, above and tucked behind these exhibits, we have over 200 scientific researchers who are busily working," says Associate Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at AMNH, Dr Susan Perkins . "There are also those of us who work on things that, well quite frankly, don't take up very much space in jars, drawers or cabinets. Eunsoo Kim and I are the museum's two curators of microorganisms, and we were simply hired because the museum realized that 99.99% of all life on the planet is microbial, well then we probably should have a couple people working on it. Dr Kim and I both use light microscopy and electron microscopy to study tiny organisms that are a millionth of a meter long; in my case, these are the parasites that cause malaria in human and other animals. We have others... who use cutting-edge technology to find things that are too far away to find things with the naked eye or even simple lenses. My colleague Ben Oppenheimer in the Department of Astrophysics builds custom instruments that black out the lights of distant stars in order to find the planets that orbit them."

"From microscopes to telescopes, scanners to 3D printers, technology drives science and AMNH has kept at the forefront of these technologies to advance our understanding of the natural world and to communicate those findings to our visitors, students and our community."

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The film is breathtaking in IMAX 3D—it makes viewers think twice about what we're missing not only with our own two eyes, and also makes top-grade DSLRs look pretty wimpy in comparison. One of the most beautiful, contemplative scenes was a simple time-lapse of a root growing from a seed, as if it was a moving leg of an animal; when seen in time-lapse, plants surprisingly move along like animals and insects, in search of light. However, the film isn't only limited to time-lapse photography but makes use of high-speed photography, electron microscopy, nanotechnology and data visualizations to show the viewer what exists out there, but is hidden from the naked eye. This includes magnifying the dragonfly to learn that it flies better than an aircraft, as it can fly forward, backwards and even upside down, or mimicking a mosquito's infrared vision to zoom in on the warmest parts of your body—which means more blood. Throughout the film, eyes will dry up from lack of blinking, for fear of missing another incredible shot.

"Mysteries of the Unseen World" opens this Friday, 10 January at the American Museum of Natural History; IMAX tickets are separate from general admission and are $25 for adults, $21 for students and seniors and $14 for children when purchased on-site. The film has a running time of 40 minutes and will be screened in both 2D and 3D daily through June 2014. Visit the Museum's website to plan your next trip.

Eyelash mite image courtesy of Eye of Science / Science Photo Library, all other images courtesy of National Geographic

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