Bringing the universe to the world

Swinburne astrophysics research is not just helping us to understand the universe – it is also delivering the universe to movie audiences throughout the world.

Promotional image from Hidden Universe, 3D IMAX film.

The Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing is a research group that also produces astronomy 3D animations and films, including a successful IMAX movie. These films are not just about astronomy. They use real astronomical data to produce scientifically accurate images that allow moviegoers to explore the wonder of astronomy and the achievements of astronomers.

The centre was established in 1998, along with a national supercomputing facility that provides computational infrastructure to researchers at Swinburne and astronomers from across Australia.

Almost from its beginnings, the centre set out to use the supercomputing facility to create quality public education and outreach in astronomy.

In support of the centre’s ambition, in 1999, Swinburne funded the development of a virtual reality theatre. The centre set up a dedicated production group with a full-time non-academic animation and programming team to expand the movie portfolio and its audiences.

We went 3D

Swinburne Astronomy Productions has produced 12 short 3D films since the first in 2001 – Our Sun: What a Star! To produce the movies, new research and accepted astronomy concepts have been synthesised, interpreted and communicated. Each film features high-resolution 3D animations using astronomical datasets and is presented using 3D projection techniques. Several of the animation sequences have used visualisation techniques developed by Swinburne researchers.

The films are screened regularly in Swinburne’s virtual reality theatre as part of the centre’s AstroTour outreach program. AstroTours are presented to schools, astronomical societies, special community groups and the general public, reaching around 3000 people each year.

The films are also screened in a network of 3D theatres across Australia and internationally:

  • The Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre has screened the films for about 12,000 visitors each year for more than 15 years.
  • Sydney Observatory screened the films for around 20,000 visitors each year from 2002 to mid-2015.
  • The Ballarat Municipal Observatory and Museum and the University of Western Sydney screen the films for more than 3900 visitors each year.

The films have also been shown at schools, museums and observatories in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, China, Thailand, Germany and Italy

We got bigger than big

The most successful and popular film is Bigger Than Big, which continues to be screened at many venues. It is the only Swinburne astrophysics film to have screened on Australian national television, appearing on SBS on Tuesday 31 May 2011 to around 253,000 viewers around the country.

Then we went global

Swinburne’s move into IMAX moviemaking, in partnership with December Media, took the team’s established approach and commitment to visual and educational quality to a global scale in 2013. Narrated by British actor Miranda Richardson, Hidden Universe is a 45-minute IMAX movie featuring high-resolution computergenerated images of the earliest galaxies, stars being born, the surface of Mars and distant celestial structures.

The film is in many ways a love letter to astronomy, with those interviewed in the film the sort of passionate souls who in their very nature want to encourage you to be an astronomer too ... The 3D is used to brilliant effect as we look through what must be one of the most impressive slideshows of astronomical graphics seen to date ... a near perfect articulation of why the IMAX format remains a vital way to educate and inspire. It creates immersive worlds that can stun and fascinate both young and old.

Larry Heath

AU Review

Highlighting Swinburne-led research

An important sequence in Hidden universe was based on research data from a Swinburne-led multi-institution global project known as the WiggleZ Dark Energy Survey (GiggleZ simulations).

After a world premiere in Sydney on 28 June 2013, Hidden universe was released to IMAX theatres internationally. Now, more than 1.5 million people have seen the film in 43 theatres around the world.

And people love it

In September 2014, Hidden universe was awarded the People’s Choice Award at the inaugural Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia Research Commercialisation Awards. It was also nominated for Best Creative Engagement Strategy. At the end of 2016, Hidden universe was ranked in the top 10 Australian documentaries of all time based on box office takings. The success of Hidden universe and the partnership with December Media has paved the way for two additional IMAX movies: The search for life in space (released internationally October 2016) and The story of Earth(2018).

In 2015, Swinburne Astronomy Productions received the Astronomical Society of Australia’s triennial David Allen Prize for exceptional achievement in astronomy education.