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Imax at Fermilab: Has anyone seen the universe?

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When the white Ryder van pulled up outside Fermilab's main building, the phones at the usually sluggish security office started ringing off the hooks. Inside, a grinning producer was apologizing. The van belonged to the film crew for a new Imax movie, Cosmic Voyage, which purports to sketch the known universe from the quasar to the quark, from the big bang to the present. Still recovering after a late flight from Hawaii, where they had weathered 40-mile-an-hour winds, freezing temperatures, and altitude sickness to shoot one of the world's largest telescopes atop Mauna Kea, the crew hadn't realized that unattended vans outside federal buildings drew attention these days. The van didn't contain any explosives, they explained, just miles of film and hundreds of pounds of camera equipment. They were there to observe, not destroy, and yes, they would move the van.

"Hello," shouted director Bayley Silleck over the din of middle- school students and the general rigging of lights and dolly tracks in Fermilab's Wilson Hall. "Has anyone seen the universe?" Silleck was referring to a one-inch crystal sphere meant to represent the universe shortly after the big bang. In the scene, 16 students from a nearby middle school would be led into the atrium by Fermilab and University of Chicago astrophysicist Dr. Edward Kolb, known to everyone as Rocky. They would sit down, listen attentively to a few sentences about how the early universe was "packed into a space smaller than this," and watch as Rocky held the crystal with two fingers against the backdrop of his blue shirt. The whole sequence was about 25 seconds long, but the dolly track was uneven, the kids were quickly losing patience with the prospect of becoming movie stars, and the universe was missing.

"I think Rocky has it," said the production coordinator, who was busy trying to arrange a last-minute lunch for the crew. Feature films have elaborate catered meals; the Imax crew would suffer silently through cold-cut combos from Subway.

When Rocky finally turned up with the crystal--he'd escaped to his office to squeeze in some work--Silleck began a low-key pep talk. "I'd like you to look over your lines a few times, then just throw them away. The most important thing is that it appear natural."

An hour and 15 takes later, Rocky and the kids had lapsed beyond naturalness into pure fatigue. "That was perfect," Silleck said to the group. "Now let's do it again." The shot employed a tulip crane--a large seesaw on wheels with the director of photography and the camera on one end, counterbalanced by lead weights on the other--that was riding on an uneven dolly track and causing the camera to vibrate. The crew sanded the tracks down, checked them with levels, and doused them with baby powder between shots. Despite the pleasant odor of a changing room that now pervaded, the camera still shook as the crane wheeled forward and lowered for the shot. After a few more takes, the weights were removed and a weary Tim Housel, the director of photography, climbed down from his perch.

"OK, who's the bad boy on this set who smokes?" he asked, sniffing the air.

"Uh, me," admitted a hesitant grip.

"Good," said Housel after a pause. "Can I have one?"

The film world adheres to its own version of the entropy principle. Chaos seeps in wherever it can, especially when you're attempting to capture the universe on 70-millimeter film. What Imax offers, an image on a 60-foot screen in resolution that would make Daguerre drool, comes at a cost. Unlike conventional 35-millimeter cameras, which can weigh a scant 30 pounds and process film with a precisely coordinated silence, Imax cameras are large unwieldy beasts, consuming 336 feet of film a minute and weighing up to 100 pounds. Twenty-four times a second, small pins grab hold of perforations, move a seven-square-centimeter spot of film into place, hold the film still while a vacuum pump sucks it flat and the shutter exposes it, and then whisk the film away. Silleck jokes that the camera sounds like a "slightly muffled machine gun." The running chatter rules out most audio options except voice-over narration, and the film size limits each roll to three minutes. Cinema verite is not an option. With Imax it's best to hang your camera out of a helicopter or strap it onto a race car--it's wasted on anything less. C-SPAN filmed in Imax would reveal only the pores of a politician.

"I'm worried about the salt and pepper shakers," Housel said, squinting through the camera. Behind the atrium was a decidedly unphotogenic cafeteria. Large posters of the Horsehead nebula and other galactic vistas had already been erected to act as a backdrop, but the condiments were showing through. After the undesirables and their companion napkin holders were cleared out of the frame, the afternoon sun came crashing through the wall of windows in the rear. Large foam sheets were brought in to block the glare. Housel has no problem distinguishing the world in the camera from the world in front of the camera: "The real world's in there," he says, pointing to the eyepiece.

A dozen takes later, the dolly movement had been restricted to a small section of the track. For logistical problems, the antidote was usually Peter Reynolds, a large Manchester-born grip and gaffer with straggly graying hair and blue eyes slightly bloodshot from sleep deprivation. The son of a carpenter, he avoids power tools as a matter of principle and can cut a four-by-eight in seconds with a handsaw. Once he finally had the camera stable enough to complete the shot, the kids, overtaken by a case of brat-pack stardom, had taken to baiting the director. "I want a raise," said a wiry boy whose silk shirt, undoubtedly selected by his parents, was now completely untucked. "I want $80,000." Oliver Stone might have exploded, but Silleck merely brought out his own wiry kid. "Yeah, who's your agent?" he asked, hands on hips, leaning down to the boy. While the crane was hurriedly removed for the next scene, the director grabbed a mop to clean the floor. "It's not as glamorous as they say, you know."

As darkness descended on the lab and the crew packed the van, Silleck and a soundman remained with Rocky Kolb to record his dozen lines without the noise of the camera. It was the only segment of the film where they would patch over exact dialogue. To reproduce the acoustics, Rocky stood in the atrium as he had during the filming. Wearing headphones that played back a crude tape made during the filming, he repeated his lines into a large black sphere of a microphone, his voice now relaxed and clear. The building seemed a kind of cathedral to science, refrigerators humming quietly in the background, Rocky's voice rising up the 15 floors of cutaway space above. The words he'd uttered all day now sounded like a prayer: "When the universe was packed into a space smaller than this..." Silleck sat silently by, his head in his hands nodding encouragement. "OK," he said quietly when the reverberations had died away, "that's a wrap." That night at the bar of the Hilton Hotel in Lisle, the director of photography and the assistant camera drank beer until 2 AM. Rocky spent the evening nursing an allergic reaction to the makeup.

The final day of shooting had about 30 seconds of footage to cover. The morning half called for a close-up of Rocky's hand with the crystal universe at his fingertips. He stood in a cramped room and stared patiently at the ceiling. They only wanted his hand now, the rest had become vestigial. A fiber-optic cable carefully hidden up his sleeve made the sphere glow a bright blue. Never in Imax history had anything been filmed so close-up. "It's kind of a violation of the medium," Silleck said. "His fingers are going to be 20 feet across on the screen."

From the crystal the film will cut to a computer simulation of the big bang. Quarks are too small to film, the big bang too old, but limits of space and time will be overcome with dollars and digitization. Consuming months of computer time and a good chunk of the film's $6.5 million budget, roughly a third of Cosmic Voyage will be computer rendered in incredibly fine 4,000-line resolution. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications will run simulations of colliding galaxies, re-creating the motion of millions of stars under the consolidating influence of gravity. For scenes where the camera appears to zoom through the solar system, real star maps and satellite shots will be used. A host of scientific consultants will keep the planets aligned and the DNA spiraling in the right direction. The levels of detail will probably go unappreciated by all but the most attentive scientists, but the idea is that, like a good scientific theory, the whole thing will hang together.

In the afternoon, the crew lugged their equipment over to one of the control rooms at the lab where physicists collect data from the collisions of protons and antiprotons in a four-mile superconducting ring of magnets called the Tevatron. Over the past year, researchers at the lab had sifted through trillions of collisions and identified what is believed to be the last and heaviest of nature's building blocks, the top quark. A few who'd been recruited for the shot now sat patiently while a woman packed makeup on their faces. "Cosmetic Voyage," they joked.

As was apparent to the locals, elements besides the physicists had been touched up for the camera. The control room they were in was not where the top quark had been discovered, but a spare room that had been suited up with TVs and terminals. White ceiling tiles were deemed too reflective for the shot, so black replacements were cut from foam board and put in their place. A large black Formica table had also been specially constructed for the shot, with a three-foot-diameter backlit slide of a top-quark event forming the tabletop. The room was sparsely lit except for the light from the table, which illuminated the faces of those gathered around it. It wasn't quite how physics was done, but it had all the drama of film noir. Clicking loudly through precious film, the camera moved slowly in an arc on a curved dolly track. The quarks weren't visible, but they had been well represented.

In 1922 Robert Flaherty directed one of the first American documentaries, Nanook of the North. To accommodate cinematographer and camera, his subject threw harpoon after harpoon before the stationary eye of the camera and constructed an igloo three times its normal size, removing half the roof for lighting. "One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit," Flaherty once said, apparently without irony. Like Nanook, the Fermilab physicists reenacted their daily hunting for the camera, sitting before an enlarged portrait of their quarry, the top quark. Soon the crew will move on to North Dakota for a scene meant to depict early life on earth. Native Americans there will be shown an instructional video, made by a historian in Missouri, on how to throw ancient spears. Like the physicists, they will do their best for the camera. Sometimes the world can be as hard to film as it is to measure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Jon Randolph.

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