VR Short Film
Directors: Justin Denton, Ari Palitz
Producer: June Cohen
Financing: Within/Sloan Foundation Grant
Production: 3 Days (Live footage)
Shooting Format: GoPro Odyssey VR Camera
A century ago, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime—but believed they were so small that humans would never observe them.
More recently, an MIT physics professor did the math and concluded that Einstein was wrong. So he built the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which measures almost infinitesimally small disturbances in spacetime—smaller than anything that’s been measured before. And in 2016, LIGO succeeded, detecting gravitational waves from a massive, far-away collision between black holes.
Listening to the Universe gets up close and personal with the scientists of LIGO and their thrilling discovery.
Development & Financing
Virtual Reality company Within was looking to produce its first series of VR shorts, focusing on people who had made extraordinary innovations, breakthroughs, or discoveries in technology. In partnership with sister company, the production house Here Be Dragons, a five-part series, The Possible, was planned with topics that included advances in robotics, breakthroughs in hover-board technology, and speed freaks building cars capable of speeds close to 400mph.
Other subjects that were considered included the research at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the search for gravitational waves at LIGO. The filmmaking team at Here Be Dragons, led by executive producer June Cohen and co-directors Ari Palitz and Justin Denton felt that the work at CERN was much more widely known and publicized, so they settled on LIGO as their subject.
The work at LIGO was the result of decades of research to prove the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime created by cataclysmic cosmic sources, such as the mergers of neutron stars or black holes, or supernovae. Einstein predicted the existence of these ripples 100 years ago in his Theory of Relativity, but he also predicted that waves that had travelled more than a billion light years across the universe would be so infinitesimal that no instrument on earth would ever be able to detect them.
The LIGO project—established to attempt to detect these ripples in spacetime—consists of four facilities: two research centers and two gravitational wave detectors (the interferometers). The two research centers were located at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA. Both these institutions shared the running and operation of the two massive detectors which were constructed in isolated locations 1865 miles apart—one in Hanford, Washington, the other in Livingston, Louisiana—but they worked in unison to detect gravitational waves. This coordination is essential to LIGO’s ability to verify the detection of a gravitational wave; a gravitational wave that had travelled millions (or billions) of light years across the cosmos would be detected simultaneously by the two interferometers.
The challenge for the filmmakers was to explain the science via interviews and take viewers on a tour of the giant instrument that had been built to detect the gravitational waves…all in about seven minutes.
The team at Here Be Dragons wanted one of the episodes of The Possible to feature 360˚ animation and/or visual effects; a film about scientists working at sub-atomic levels seemed to be the perfect fit. The technologies featured in the other episodes of The Possible—hoverboards, balloons that travel into space—lent themselves to the visually immersive nature of 360˚ video. But events taking place at sub-atomic levels would require animation and visual effects to bring the subject to life and explain the complex theories to the lay viewer.
While Cohen did have a scientific background, Denton and Palitz both needed to fully grasp the extremely complicated theories if they were to distill everything into a simplified—but “not dumbed-down”—VR short.
Notes Denton, “It took us two visits to Caltech before we had even a basic understanding of what spacetime was; by the end of the second visit I could at least pretend to understand what I was talking about. And when we went to LIGO in Hanford, that was where all the pieces started to fall into place.”
Palitz: “The first thing we had to do was understand the technology and the science. Then we had to pre-visualize the animations and visual effects. We had an outline of the film. We knew at the very beginning that we wanted to have some kind of hook to get people in space; then we knew we wanted Einstein in there; and we wanted to talk with [theoretical physicist] Rainer Weiss, if we could get him.”
The Possible series was an ambitious project, but funds for each episode were limited—there wasn’t the budget for animating a sequence in 360˚ that took the viewer far into the cosmos to observe the collision of two black holes. Without animation, the filmmakers felt they couldn’t tell this story. Cohen decided to reach out to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to see if there was interest in funding the project.
LIGO had partnered with the SXS project (Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes), that had been established by scientists to create animated simulations of black holes and other extreme spacetimes, to gain a better understanding of the physics of exotic objects and events in the distant cosmos. Denton and Palitz worked with Geoffrey Lovelace at SXS to create a look-book and a scientifically accurate pre-visualization video to present to the Sloan Foundation, so it was clear what their donation would be funding. “It was really important to [Sloan] that what we were doing was not so far off that it was artistic representations, taking a lot of artistic license with what the visuals are. It was very important…that they were scientifically accurate,” says Palitz.
The Sloan Foundation’s film program typically supports dramas exclusively; Particle Fever (about scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider) was the only documentary Sloan had supported. This episode of The Possible was thematically very similar—it featured scientists working at sub-atomic levels making new discoveries about the nature of the universe. Sloan agreed to back Listening to the Universe, and provided the funds needed for all the animation and visual effects.
During the scouts at LIGO and MIT, Palitz and Denton would photograph potential locations with a Ricoh 360˚ camera that would give them an instant still version of a 360˚ image that they could view on VR headsets via their smartphones. The best locations were ones that had plenty of existing light (as there was nowhere to position lights, out of view of the VR camera) and were visually full of detail, such as physicist Rainer Weiss’s office, stacked full of books, folders and other clutter.
The first shoot took place at LIGO Hanford, where the filmmakers were given complete access to shoot in the facilities, although they had to wear bunny suits and goggles to prevent contamination. The slightest amount of dust could affect the detectors. Even the VR camera tripod had little booties.
The filmmakers found that the best way to shoot interviews in VR was to have interviewer Palitz sit across from their subject on the other side of the camera. It felt like the subject was talking to the viewer directly, but anyone who might feel disconcerted by this, could turn their heads 180˚ and see Palitz too, nodding subtly as he listened to the physicists’ explanations. Palitz worded his questions carefully to illicit succinct answers that were simple enough for lay people to understand; he also made sure to ask the same questions to every interviewee so that he and Denton would have multiple options for the edit.
In total the filmmakers shot for two and half days: one day at LIGO Hanford, one day at MIT and one half-day for aerial drone shots of the LIGO Livingston facility.
Editing and Animation
Back at Here Be Dragons, they began their assembly and worked with Lovelace at SXS to craft pre-visualizations of the animations that would make up the rest of the film.
Palitz: “Our first edit was 20 minutes which terrified everybody. So we scrapped that and started small and added footage and layered [the scientists’ voices over animated schematics].” And as we got to ten minutes, we showed it to people and asked them, ‘Do you like this? Do you understand this? Do you like these people? Do you understand what they do?’” Everyone—from Within founders Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, to interns new to the company—was asked to give feedback.
The Sloan Foundation was also consulted on the edit. As Denton and Palitz got the cut down to a lean seven minutes, they went back to re-record a few explanations from the scientists, asking them to simplify and shorten what they’d said previously, so that it would fit with the animated sequences.
Once they had their final cut, the animated 360˚ sequences were farmed out to VFX/3D production house Legend 3D.
On October 3, 2017, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss for their work on the LIGO project.
Advice from the filmmakers
Denton: “One thing I had to learn very quickly and it’s really hard to let go of, is to stop trying to fully adapt your current skill set as a filmmaker into VR. VR itself is a completely different medium. Your ability to immerse someone into a space and give them an intimate connection to why they’re there, is something completely unique to the VR medium. Quite often we’re seeing a lot of [VR] projects come out that could exist in traditional media in the exact way they were created for VR, that you’re missing an opportunity there. You have the ability to tell this story in such a different way that it’s time to embrace that.”
Palitz: “Accept responsibility. When film came out, when TV came out…there was a power to it; you see how’s it’s used by governments, by the news, by entertainers. This is a new medium and I believe it to be an even more powerful medium. People are completely immersed now. They give themselves over when they go into a headset; the agreement, this suspension of disbelief has to be taken seriously. If you take care of the viewer, it’ll help you appreciate more what virtual reality is capable of.”