A Big Movie About a Tiny World

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The newly released documentary “Mysteries of the Unseen World” brings a cat flea and other microscopic organisms to the largest movie screens in the world. The IMAX film in 3D started screening 1st November 2013.


Cat Flea (Ctenocephalides felis)

Image on the Left The cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is one of the stars of the new IMAX movie “Mysteries of the Unseen World” produced by Day’s End Pictures in Hollywood.

Showing what moves too fast or grows too slow, what is located extremely far away, or simply too small to be seen by the naked eye was the aim of National Geographic’s new 3D-stereo IMAX motion picture. The result is one of the most lavishly produced films ever.

Some of the most remarkable sequences come from a laboratory in Switzerland. The University of Basel together with the micro-photographer Martin Oeggerli aka Micronaut shot a series of images that resulted in the first ever high-resolution 3D flight around a cat flea. The resulting movie is so detailed that even the individual bacteria are visible on the flea. “We are the first who can show these structures in this quality,” says Professor Henning Stahlberg, who dedicated parts of his laboratory to produce the film sequences.

“The project faced enormous technical hurdles to overcome,” he says. The required IMAX quality with stereo vision, animated camera trajectories, and full artistic colorization of movie sequences, had never been achieved before on cat flea level.  “We had to develop methods and find solutions to problems nobody had encountered before,” Stahlberg says.



Super Size Camera

First he had to construct a seven tonne concrete block to serve as a foundation for the “camera”. It in itself was a technological wonder worth the equivalent of eight Lamborghinis. It was a 900 kg heavy scanning electron microscope (SEM), so sensitive to vibrations that even the traffic during rush hour could have an impact on the quality of the final images. The production involved scanning of more than 100 000 single SEM frames. After recording a series of frames, Oeggerli colored them manually. Since 24 images are necessary for one second, an entire sequence would have amounted to one year of work for Oeggerli. An impossible task.

The movie “Mysteries of the Unseen World” is featured on an advertising at Times Square New York. Image on the right  The movie “Mysteries of the Unseen World” is featured on an advertising at Times Square New York.

Basel Computer Lab Goes Hollywood

When the team around Oeggerli realized this, they contacted the computer sciences group of Professor Thomas Vetter from the Institute of Informatics and Mathematics at the University of Basel. There, the talented PhD student Jasenko Zivanov developed new software that would automatically colorize most of the frames based on some hand colored slides of Oeggerli. The time pressure for Zivanov was immense: “We only had seven months worth of time to develop our new method and to perfect it to a degree at which the results would be accepted by the Hollywood studio. Fortunately, there was just enough time in the end.”

“I will never forget the day when I realized that Jasenko’s software is suitable to color hundreds of frames very precisely,” Oeggerli says. Finally, thousands of post-processed frames were lined up and merged into a continuous package of film in full color. Even with the program, each series of frames took more than a week to record and several months to develop. “It took us almost two years to produce some five minutes of film,” Oeggerli says.

The result of all this work is astounding. “The sequences we have created let you plunge into the microcosm and explore invisibly small things that you would otherwise never see throughout your entire life,” Oeggerli says. “For all of us a dream became true to be involved in such a prestigious production,” Oeggerli says



Read more about the team of scientists at the University Basel that developed the technology and produced the SEM sequences!


Awards & Nominations

Wildscreen Festival - PANDA Awards

Wildscreen Festivals - Press and News

About Wildscreen Festival


In the Media

National Geographic Cinema Ventures – Trailer – Narration by Forest Whitaker

National Geographic Cinema Ventures – Movie Advertised at NG education

National Geographic Cinema Ventures - Trailer – Spanish

National Geographic Cinema Ventures - Trailer – Danish

National Geographic Cinema Ventures - Info – Chinese

Swiss Television SRF: Portrait about Micronaut

University of Basel News: National Geographic IMAX Project



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