Deep Field: Symphonic and Cinematic Astronomy

F. Summers (summers[at], G. Bacon (bacon[at], J. DePasquale (jdepasquale[at], and D. Player (dplayer[at]

The Project

The Hubble Deep Field, released in 1996, revolutionized our view of the distant universe. Within a single image, astronomers got a glimpse of the vast array of galaxies stretching more than 10 billion light-years into the universe. Later projects, including the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, extended this view both farther into space and across infrared and ultraviolet wavelenths. The light from those remote galaxies takes billions of years to cross the intervening space, and thereby shows us what these galaxies looked like billions of years ago. Within these deep fields, we see not just the extent of our universe in space, but also its history across time. 

Hubble Ultra Deep Field
The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field.

That vision of cosmic wonder inspired the Grammy award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre to write a symphony entitled "Deep Field." At the premiere in May 2015, a special app on the audience's cell phones spread Hubble visuals throughout the concert hall during the live performance. Suggestions naturally arose that the audio of the symphony be paired with video of Hubble imagery to maximize the scientific basis and artistic effect.  

Such ideas came to fruition starting with Whitacre's visit to the institute in early 2016. The immense possibilities of soaring orchestrations combined with immersive visualizations were immediately apparent. The following year, the Office of Public Outreach (OPO) began a collaboration with Whitacre's management company, Music Productions, and a London-based multimedia house, 59 Productions, on crafting visual sequences to accompany the movements in the score.  

OPO Visualization Team
Members of the OPO Visualization Team attend the world premiere at Kennedy Space Center (left to right): Frank Summers, Joseph DePasquale, Dani Player, and Greg Bacon.

The film, "Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe," had its world premiere at the Kennedy Space Center in November 2018. The piece was simultaneously relased in full 4K resolution on YouTube, and can be accessed via the website. The film is being used in conjunction with symphony performances, as well as playing on its own in venues around the world.

The Story

As the symphony is 24 minutes in length, the visuals need to explore much more than just the galaxies of the distant universe. The main astronomy storyline became a classic one, moving from near to far and from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Separate sections are devoted to the solar system, to stars and nebulae, to galaxies, and to the deep field.

These astronomical sections comprise about two-thirds of the film. NASA solar system mission images provide the vibrant views of the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Sun. Hubble visuals (described below) cover the rest of the cosmos. In contrast, the introductory and final segments are rooted in our planet, Earth. The first serves as a launching point for the journey, while the last brings us home again.

The Milky Way
The Milky Way above Capitol Reef National Park.

The opening soft, shimmering, and hanging notes of the symphony suggested the magical time at dusk when the stars slowly appear in the night sky. OPO image-processing specialist Zolt Levay, who is also an accomplished photographer, observed the stars and Milky Way for this sequence. While serving as artist-in-residence at Capitol Reef National Park, he captured a glorious time-lapse in those dark skies.

One production note is that, even though the park is somewhat remote, dozens of airplane flights crossed through the sequence. At 59 Productions, they assigned a dedicated artist to the task of removing these interlopers frame by frame.

The virtual choir and the Nile River Delta
The videos of the Virtual Choir singers fade-in across a backdrop of the Nile River Delta.

The final movement of the symphony/film brings in a signature feature of Whitacre's works: a virtual choir. More than 8,000 singers from 120 countries submitted videos of their performances for this project. The multitude of choral voices were mixed into the soundtrack, and the video clips are presented in conjunction with International Space Station views of our planet, creating a visual and literal global choir. The film ends with our planet hanging in the blackness of space, as an homage to Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot."

The Visualizations

For the OPO Visualization Team, this project presented a wonderful opportunity to reinterpret old sequences and create new ones in an artistic style different from the usual press-release videos. Whitacre's music provides a lyrical and thoughtful setting that's appropriate for relaxed contemplation of the cosmos. In collaboration with 59 Productions, the pacing, camera moves, and transitions were adjusted and fashioned to match the ebb and flow of the symphony.

Stars and Nebulae sequences
Four visualizations in the Stars and Nebulae sequence of the film: Star-Forming Region Sharpless 2-106 (top left), the Bubble Nebula (top right), the Lagoon Nebula (bottom left), and Star Cluster Westerlund 2 (bottom right).

The Stars and Nebulae sequence featured several previously produced pieces combined into a continuous visual journey. After leaving our Sun, the camera traverses the local stars to explore the star-forming region Sharpless 2‑106, the Bubble Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, and the star cluster Westerlund 2. Misty, veil-like segues between the pieces were created from semi-transparent layers of these and other Hubble images.

Galaxies Visualizations
Four visualizations in the Galaxies sequence of the film: Galaxy Traverse (top left), the Whirlpool Galaxy (top right), Stephan's Quintet (bottom left), and the CANDELS Ultra-Deep Survey (bottom right).

The Galaxies sequence required three new pieces, utilizing three separate techniques. The Stephan's Quintet visualization demanded careful extraction of overlapping galaxies into isolated layers that could express the 3-D nature of the galaxy group. In contrast, Hubble's high-resolution image of the Whirlpool Galaxy provided great detail for a point-cloud model containing five structural components and some 80 million points. Finally, the Galaxy Traverse sequence used a computer simulation from researchers at CalTech and UC Davis as the basis for an intricate point-cloud realization of a Milky Way proxy.

The climax of the film flies through the tens of thousands of galaxies in the CANDELS Ultra-Deep Survey as a lead-in to the triumphant reveal of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. These previously produced pieces transport the viewer to the farthest reaches of the observed universe. Astute observers may notice one small change, though. A high-redshift "red dot" galaxy was shifted to a central position in the camera path, so that one of these farthest and earliest objects would be the last astronomical image for the audience.

Symphonic and Cinematic Astronomy

The eighteen months of work on the film developed into a wondrous example of blending art and science. Every member of the team—musician, filmmaker, visualizer, or astronomer—shared their knowledge across disciplines and developed a deep appreciation for the skills and insights of their collaborators. A major goal of the producers was to promote the integration of STEM fields with "Art and Design," thereby creating the powerful force of STEAM education. Hopefully, this piece will serve as an inspiration to many in pursuing such multi-facted projects.