Cosmic Zooms and The Theory of Everything

by Graham Edwards

Visual effects for "The Theory of Everything" were created by Soho-based Union VFX.

Visual effects for “The Theory of Everything” were created by Soho-based Union VFX.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

So said the renowned theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Mine – a presentation he delivered via video at the University of Cambridge in 2012 during a symposium held to celebrate his 70th birthday.

Hawking’s remarkable story is dramatised in the Working Title production of The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh. Visual effects for the BAFTA-nominated biopic were provided by Union VFX, including a two-minute end title sequence that imagines a trip not only through deep space and a black hole, but also into the depths of the human nervous system.

This juxtaposition of elements both cosmically large and biologically small is the perfect analogy for Hawking’s life. For most of the time his mind has been exploring the farthest reaches of the universe, his wheelchair-bound body has been constrained by a form of Motor Neurone Disease called ALS.

Union’s lead visual effects supervisor on The Theory of Everything was Adam Gascoyne, but before he shares the film’s VFX secrets, let’s take a look at some other movies that have taken us to infinity and beyond.

A Brief History of the Cosmic Zoom

Many filmmakers have tried to communicate the incomprehensibly vast size of the universe to a wide-eyed audience. One of the most famous examples is Eva Szasz’s Cosmic Zoom. Made in 1968, this 8-minute short uses animation to transport viewers from the very edge of the universe to a single atom inside a human cell.

Watch Cosmic Zoom:

Nine years after Cosmic Zoom, modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames served up Powers of Ten, which presents a vision of the cosmos that continually expands by a factor of ten, every ten seconds. The result? A space-going safari that whisks you far beyond the most distant galaxy before returning you to somewhere much closer to home, yet equally alien – the microscopic interior of your own body.

Watch Powers of Ten:

While not nearly as old as the universe itself, the concept of the “power of ten” shot goes back a long way in cinematic terms. You’ll find a dazzling example in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, in which a celestial court case is convened to decide the fate of an English airman overlooked by heavenly bureaucrats. In a show-stopping pull-back incorporating paintings by Percy Day, the huge judicial amphitheatre recedes into the distance until it is finally revealed to be no more than a tiny mote afloat in the glowing heart of a vast spiral galaxy.


Galaxy pull-back from “A Matter of Life and Death”

So effective is the shot that visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar) named it his favourite VFX shot in the Empire magazine article Cinema’s Greatest Effects Shots Picked By Hollywood’s Top VFX Specialists.

Take the Ultimate Trip

Cosmic explosion from "2001: A Space Odyssey"

The cosmic explosions from “2001: A Space Odyssey” were created by mixing oil- and water-based compounds in a black tank.

Many films have made the connection between great and small through the very mechanics of visual effects. The Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – in which astronaut Dave Bowman experiences a hallucinatory trip across space and time courtesy of a monolithic alien portal – features a number of shots created by photographing the reactions of such everyday ingredients as black ink, banana oil and white paint in extreme close-up.

Similarly, Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was visualised by photographing microscopic marine life, in an underwater shoot undertaken by Oxford Scientific Films off the coast of Bermuda.

More recently, Douglas Trumbull – the visual effects innovator behind the 2001 Stargate – blew the dust off his microscope when he was called in by visual effects supervisor Dan Glass to help create an 22-minute “creation” sequence for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

"The Tree of Life" - Douglas Trumbull and the Skunkworks Lab team.

For “The Theory of Life”, a team led by Douglas Trumbull built a custom table with a pump that produced a radial flow of water emanating from the centre. With a high-speed camera recording the results, pigments and other materials were injected into the flow.

The result is a cosmological smörgåsbord chronicling the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang through the appearance and development of life on Earth. An eclectic mix of visual effects vendors contributed to the sequence, with Trumbull’s team building on his earlier experiments using such diverse materials as toothbrushes, milk, dry ice and fluorescent dyes.

Thanks to these and other cinematic excursions, the cosmic trip has become a trope familiar enough to be relegated from the main body of a film to its opening titles or end credits. Recent examples include Thor and Star Trek Into Darkness, both notable for their spectacular tours of exotic planetary systems and galaxy-spanning gas clouds.

Thanks to digital techniques, however, creating such monumental voyages no longer requires a wetsuit and a ticket to Bermuda. Here’s a video by Andrew Kramer of Video Copilot, explaining how his team created the title sequence for Star Trek Into Darkness using Adobe AfterEffects and Element 3D:

The Theory of Everything

Union VFX completed a total of 160 visual effects shots for The Theory of Everything, from design and previs through to final execution. “This is our first project with James Marsh and we worked very closely with him to develop a visual interpretation of Hawking’s theories,” remarked Adam Gascoyne. “We tried to come up with a look and feel for the period and wanted the visions to be very subtle in keeping with the context of the film.”

"The Theory of Everything" - cosmic zoom

Visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne described the “cosmic zoom” sequence for “The Theory of Everything” as “a waltz through the universe.”

For the end title sequence, Union created nebulae and starfields in Houdini, with composites and grading carried out in Nuke. “It was a waltz through an imaginary universe,” Gascoyne explained. “We used Hubble telescope images as a base for look development, but really made shapes and formations that worked for the title sequence. The main motivation for the move through the universe was the orchestration and the placement of Matt Curtis’s title cards. For reference, we watched a number of movies – including 2001 and The Tree of Life – but only for look and feel; from there we completely made it up!”

Union’s contributions to The Theory of Everything also include a post-production redesign of the monitor used by Hawking to communicate, and various crowd replication shots, digital matte paintings and greenscreen car interiors.

As well as these invisible effects, Union also added a few more creative visual touches. “We did simple things like reversing the motion of cream being added to coffee – using Houdini fluid simulations,” Gascoyne commented. “Then there was the animation of embers flying out of a fire, and the explosion of the pupil in a human eye, representing Hawking’s heat radiation theory. These effects have considerable visual impact on an already compelling story.”

To Springfield and Beyond

In a “couch gag” from season 15 of the classic animated series, The Simpsons, the show opens with the camera expanding its field of view from the small town of Springfield, zooming out to the edge of the universe until galaxies shrink to the size of atoms … which turn out to be the very particles making up the bright yellow skin on Homer’s head.

As a three-time guest star on The Simpsons (there’s even an action figure based on his cartoon persona), Professor Stephen Hawking might well agree that if you’re looking for a single visual effect that’s truly embedded itself into popular culture, there’s nothing bigger – or smaller – than the cosmic zoom.

Special thanks to Cheryl Clarke. The Theory of Everything photographs copyright © 2014 by Universal Pictures International. 2001: A Space Odyssey photograph copyright © 1968, 2001 by Turner Entertainment Company. The Tree of Life photographs copyright © 2011 by Fox Searchlight.

2 thoughts on “Cosmic Zooms and The Theory of Everything

    • Excellent suggestion, Simon, thanks!
      I’m sure that for every example I’ve mentioned there must be a dozen more. So how about it, people – what’s YOUR favourite cosmic zoom?

Comments are closed.