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August 2014
Issue: September 1, 2007

Q&A: 'SEEING IN THE DARK' PRODUCER TIMOTHY FERRIS

Stargazing is the subject of Seeing in the Dark, an HDTV documentary that premieres on PBS this month. The program is based on the book "Seeing in the Dark" by Timothy Ferris, an award-winning author, journalist, filmmaker and an avid amateur astronomer for more than 50 years. Ferris is also the producer of two other PBS specials, The Creation of the Universe and Life Beyond Earth, and is author of the bestsellers "Galaxies," "The Whole Shebang," and "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," among others. He produced the Voyager phonograph record, an artifact of human civilization launched aboard the twin Voyager interstellar spacecraft in 1977 and now exiting the outer reaches of the solar system.

Post: Why did you do this production in high definition?

Timothy Ferris: I wanted to make a film that would answer to the beauty of the stargazing experience. That meant employing world-class optics and maintaining maximum high-definition throughput from shooting through post. Nature filmmakers whose work appears on PBS and other high-def networks currently have real technological advantages in comparison with feature-film directors: We don't have to build expensive, high-definition sets, since the natural world is high-def already, and a 30 frame-per-second HD video with 5.1-channel surround sound, when delivered to a big-screen home system via cable, satellite, or HD DVD, can produce an audio visual experience superior to that of a Hollywood feature film seen in a movie house — if only because we're not obliged to downgrade to 24-frame film stock for distribution. The audience size is impressive, too. If Seeing in the Dark gets just decent ratings on its PBS premiere, it will reach more viewers in that first hour than will see the top-grossing feature film all week. 

Post: What were your greatest challenges in production and post production?

Ferris: The stars look vividly beautiful to the eye in ways that have seldom, if ever, been captured in a film. Their colors, which result from their temperatures, their twinkling, produced by Earth's atmosphere, and the ability of the eye and brain to convey the appearance of great swathes of the night sky exceed the capacity of any existing motion-picture camera. The Sony 900-series HDTV cameras we used in the film came close, sometimes recording both people in the foreground and a smattering of stars in the sky, but even they could not match the remarkable ability of the eye. So, although we used minimal lights on location - mostly LED screens - we drew on a wide range of art and modern technology to bring the stars into each scene. 

For wide-angle, naked-eye skies we started with the remarkable still photographs of Akira Fujii, then "twinkled" the brighter stars by applying pseudorandom algorithms developed at the digital processing houses Form in Los Angeles and Video Arts in San Francisco - and by our special effects artist, Don Davis. The digital post processing wizards started with theoretical models, while Don simply made de-focused video images of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, then reverse-engineered its twinkles to apply them to the stars in Akira's images. 

Our telescopic views of brighter objects - such as the moon, the planets, and the brightest stars - were shot with an HD camera through a telescope by the astrophotographers Kenneth Crawford and Michael A. Mayda. Dimmer telescopic objects, from star clusters and nebulae to galaxies, were rendered by taking thousands of stills which were then run as frames of motion-picture footage - thirty frames delivering one second of on-air time - or by "twinkling" certain still images. Most of these timelapse sequences were shot by astrophotographer Jack Newton; our cinematographer, Francis Kenny, and myself. We used everything from chilled CCD cameras, which reduce thermal noise during long exposures, to off-the-shelf Canon digital cameras with CMOS chips.

Post: What are the most spectacular special effects in Seeing in the Dark?

Ferris: The film contains several zoom shots that would not have been possible a decade ago. The long "pull" on the Cone nebula seen over the Einstein quotation in the Cape Florida beach sequence early in the film exploited the high resolution of Rob Gendler's painstakingly assembled wide-sky photomosaics. The astonishing "push" into the Orion nebula begins with a timelapse photo of the entire constellation shot on a CMOS digital camera with a 35mm lens piggybacked on the 18-inch Newtonian telescope at Rocky Hill, dissolving seamlessly to a Rob Gendler mosaic and then to a Don Davis effect in which we fly through the center of the nebula itself. 

Don's special effects, hovering over the rings of Saturn, moving out among the stars to spot extrasolar planets, witnessing the explosion of a star eleven billion years ago, and flying over the entire Andromeda galaxy, capture a bit of the "being there" sensation familiar to seasoned stargazers whose knowledge of astronomical objects lets them get the most out of their hours at the telescope, in much the same way that a baseball game looks much deeper and more involving to a knowledgeable fan than to a novice.

Post: Who worked on Seeing in the Dark?

Ferris: Among the many artists whose work did so much for the film are our cinematographer, Francis Kenny, who combined his years of feature-film shooting with his extensive experience in high definition video to explore new visual territories; our editor, Lisa Day, who made the film dance; our cheerful and resourceful director, Nigel Ashcroft, who brought the script to life on location; sound designer Kate Hopkins, whose grounding in natural-history filmmaking did so much to draw earth and sky together in a common web of nature; and sound mixer Walter Murch, an Oscar-winning living legend who nonetheless threw himself into the project as if it were his first project. Other key photographic contributors were Jack Newton, Mike Palermiti, and Rob Gendler. I also shot some footage myself. In all, more than a hundred creative individuals worked on Seeing in the Dark.