A fly head from Basel in Hollywood

Print Friendly


For once, not George Clooney and Halle Berry play the lead role in a Hollywood production, but a cat flea and other microscopic organisms. “Mysteries of the Unseen World” is an IMAX film in 3D, which makes the smallest creatures of the world stars. The National Geographic Society’s documentary is produced by Day’s End Pictures in Hollywood. It comes up with some breathtaking images of an unknown world – thanks to the micro-photographer Martin Oeggerli and a specialist team, including biologists and software developers from the University Basel.


Record effort

For the four minutes of film Martin Oeggerli, Kenneth Norman Goldie who works as a researcher at the Biozentrum, and Jasenko Zivanov who is a computer scientist at the University of Basel, needed more than one year. “This is probably one of the most lavish productions in the history of film,” says Oeggerli. The reason for this is the special “camera”. It is a 900 kg heavy Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at the Center for Cellular Imaging and Nano Analytics (C-CINA) from the Biozentrum.

With this device, the team of scientists record several thousand individual images and then put them into short film sequences. Preliminary, Professor Henning Stahlberg and his team from the C-CINA had to saw open the floor of a laboratory and pour a foundation of seven tons of concrete for the microscope. Only then the high-precision device was stable enough in order to take absolutely vibration-free images over a series of days, and sometimes weeks.

Gold and sweat

The film sequences show zoom or tracking shots and consist of over one thousand individual images. A single sequence devoured several weeks of worktime. The preparation included mites, bacteria, flies, or tomato leafs being chemically fixed, dehydrated and coated with gold. Only then the electron beam of the microscope can scan the objects and generate the characteristic black and white images. Later Oeggerli colourises them in hours of manual work on the computer. Per image he has to assign colour tones to over 20 million grey pixels. “This is an insane effort,” says Oeggerli.

In order to handle such an amount of work in a useful time, programmers from the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Basel developed computer software to automatically colourises intermediate images between Oeggerli’s colourised originals. With it, “only” one of every two hundred images had to be colourised by hand and the colour of the remaining images was calculated by the program. “The computer scientists in Basel are real cracks in this field,” says Oeggerli.

Microcosm in 4K

One of the results is the first 3D camera flight around a cat flea. The images correspond to the 4K Ultra High Definition quality. They are so detailed that even individual bacteria are visible on the flea. “We are the first who can show these structures in this quality,” says Stahlberg. The film will screen in IMAX theaters worldwide on 1 November, 2013.

For an exclusive look inside the head of a fly, an ion beam has milled out a rectangular piece, a process which took 14 hours. The head will be seen in the film “Mysteries of the Unseen World” in 3D. The pictures were taken with a Versa 3D Focused Ion Beam (FIB) electron microscope of the US company FEI.