Freeze Frame: Hubble 3D’s Million Points of Light

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This is part of an ongoing weekly series called “Freeze Frame,” where we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features.)

I’ve already talked about the 3D moments in Avatar that altered my beliefs of what movies are capable of. I’m thinking specifically of Jake Sully, awakening in that spaceship, our eyes struggling to process the depth of that cargo bay. And then Jake’s avatar, flying atop the Banshee, in one of the most beautiful sequences of 3D filmmaking imaginable. (More at Techland: Is James Cameron about to piss off all of Hollywood?)

Well I was in Washington, D.C. last week, at the world premiere of the Leonardo Di Caprio-narrated Imax-Warner Bros. film Hubble 3D, and it was here were I encountered probably my second favorite usage of 3D ever. It was enough to not only dazzles my eyes, but to send my mind reeling.

Now I’ll be writing plenty more about Hubble 3D this week – a film that is set to open on the biggest IMAX screens in institutions this Friday, and then spread wider to mainstream theater venues in later months – but allow me to set the scene. The majority of this documentary is captured through IMAX cameras that were taken up to orbit in 2009, as astronauts raced to make their final repairs to the Hubble telescope. But in two key sequences, the filmmakers actually used supercomputers to manipulate imagery captured by Hubble, creating a 3D journey out into the cosmos. (More at Techland: NASA’s space telescope: the musical)

The last of these virtual journeys through the universe takes us out to the nearest neighboring galaxy, and then the largest and brightest of all the other galaxies that humans have been able to detect. It’s cool to see these clusters of stars, that are billions of miles away, and kind of mind-blowing, to conceive of how far into space Hubble is able to peer.

But then, zooming back away from those galaxies, and then back beyond even the Milky Way, director Toni Myers shows how all of the universe’s galaxies are strung together, in this intricate, interweaving of matter. The further we pull back, the 3D stars, and 3D galaxies, that we have been marveling at suddenly give way to a 3D representation of the wider universe.

As someone who is not an expert in science or space, it was a revelatory sequence. I always thought of the concept of “galaxies” in terms of 2D spinning wheels. And I guess I can imagine going into the middle of a galaxy. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around how the entire universe is made up of intertwined galaxies, towering ladders of matter and light. To even discuss this now, in writing, is one thing. To comprehend it on a visual level is quite another. I have to say: In the final seconds of Hubble 3D, as the familiar image of a single star in a galaxy pulls back, to reveal a complicated three-dimensional rendering of the universe in all its depth and glory, I found myself able to understand in 3D what I never could have processed through a 2D journey.

I mentioned the scene to astronaut Megan McArthur and she said that she, too, was blown away by this wide shot. She said that one of her crewmates on that 2009 shuttle mission is an expert in astrophysics, and always talked about the fabric of the universe. And seeing this moment of filmmaking during the world premiere, McArthur says she knew that this was the scene that could convey his theories and explanations in a way that the mainstream (i.e.: me) could understand.

This is what filmmaking is all about. The era of powerful, profound 3D is most definitely here.

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