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Michael Gibson -

designing visuals for "Deep Space 9"

interview by Douglas Eby

"We hope we are helping to form the concept that present space attempts are not
wasted money, or that future interplanetary space travel is not just 'wild fiction'...
I should like to maintain the feeling there is still much we haven't seen
and don't know about."
   Gene Roddenberry

"Blossoming suddenly out of black space, with multiple layers of swirling gaseous clouds, miles in diameter, centered with a mushroom dome that irises open to reveal a tunnel pulsing with an energy field of rippling shock waves that explodes from the aperture, blazing with an atmosphere lit by a deep interior sun."

This is how designer and director Michael Gibson of Rhythm and Hues Studios describes part of the elegant CGI (computer generated imaging) wormhole sequence visual he has designed, commissioned for the new Paramount series "Star Trek : Deep Space 9" .

The speculative idea of a wormhole, proposed by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen in 1935 as an extension of the concept of a black hole, intrigues a number of scientists trying to make sense of the wealth of information now available.

The basic theory of a wormhole is that a series of constantly changing points connect different parts of the universe, allowing travel from one location of space-time to another without the ordinary limitations of 3D reality. One way to visualize this is to think of space as endless cosmic Swiss cheese, with continually forming and reforming holes and interconnecting tunnels.

Or as a giant stretched rubber sheet: if a weight such as a stone is placed on it, representing a star, this will cause a dimple depression in the sheet, simulating the distortion of space by gravitation. A marble, representing a spaceship, rolling across the sheet will tend to be pulled down into the gravity depression, and needs to be travelling fast enough to climb back "out": escape velocity.

A black hole, such as Cygnus X-1, ten thousand light years from earth, may be pictured as an infinitely deep pit, and thus no velocity would be enough to escape. A wormhole may also be pictured as a long tube extending down from the "sheet" of space in a curve, returning back up to connect to the sheet in another location - the spaceship "marble" could enter it and reemerge somewhere else in the universe.

The dynamic sequence commissioned for "Deep Space Nine" (DS9) will be important in terms of ongoing storylines affecting the future spaceship and crew, but also brings a new level of visionary effects animation art to the home viewer : a richness of detail, movement and feeling that will make it exciting repeated viewing.

Paramount's enduring commitment to quality for the Next Generation series, investing approximately two million dollars per episode, is reflected in ratings keeping it number one in original syndicated programming. Rhythm and Hues' work for DS9 promises to keep the tradition alive and growing for both dedicated fans and new audiences, and for enthusiastic Paramount executives, such as Producer Peter Lauritson and Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato.

The primary sequence of the starship's discovering and entering the wormhole takes only about six seconds on screen, but the production schedule to achieve it was fourteen weeks.

Gibson describes further some of the elaborate CGI imagery that required such intensive labor: "The tunnel is a fantastic interplay of vibrating, spinning rings of energy in a turbulent sea of space. The interior has waving tendrils of gases and dancing lights based on supercomputer simulations of the filament shape of gas condensing a million years after the Big Bang."

He notes that these tendrils also have a luminous striated interior structure based on studies of the molecular design of life forms, such as fluorescence micrographs of cell interiors, and that "the outer layer of the tunnel is formed with what looks like raindrops falling on a dark pond, forming ripples that grow and fade, representing micro wormholes constantly emerging and disappearing, connecting and disconnecting.

"The feeling is very fluid and 'sea-like'. Rays coming from behind dark clouds form pockets of light inside colored nebula gases. Flying through the tunnel, you could make a detour through one of these raindrop holes and shoot off to some other part of the universe. The experience is a very fluid kind of flight path through a dimensional, multilayer tunnel of light, inside another tunnel, inside yet another."

This level of rich detail is extending the capabilities and applicability of computer imaging, and has inspired a number of colleagues at the studio to comment that they didn't know it was possible to achieve this look with CGI.

Technical Consultant Larry Weinberg says,"I like the abstract quality, and at the same time, the attempt at a realistic simulation of this wormhole effect. There's an element of fantasy. You know there's an artist behind this, that it's Michael Gibson's vision. I like that. A lot of times, we're asked to use computer graphics to make something that looks real, and that is an exciting challenge, but it's also nice to be able to stray from that, and create something pretty in its own way."

This level of design requires advanced software such as particle migration simulation, and is pushing the studio's Silicon Graphics Indigo workstations and Predator image processors toward their limits, given all the other projects being produced at the same time. At full resolution, each film frame may require up to two hours processing time.

Gibson's design choices and repertoire of visual concepts reflect his appreciation of natural sciences and commitment to visual and scientific research over many years in such diverse technical areas as medical imaging, astrophotography, biophotography, field-ion microscopy, remote satellite sensing of the earth's surface, fluid dynamics imaging.

Physicist David Bohm has noted, "Physics is a form of insight and as such it's a form of art." The full range of art history provides him additional aesthetic and conceptual material, from cave painting through the Renaissance to expressionist sculpture and computer art. Some of his inspirations include Salvador Dali, Michaelangelo, Monet, Vermeer and Leonardo da Vinci.

A Harvard professor of psychology, Hugo Munsterberg, argued in 1916 that cinema is a completely different kind of art from live theater (which is an artistic version of what goes on in the world), saying that a movie is an artistic version of what goes on in the mind.

The inspired use of visionary thinking, extensive visual and technical expertise, and access to some of the most advanced and sophisticated CGI hardware and software engineering in the world is propelling Rhythm and Hues into a leadership role in creating fluid animation art that visualizes not only what we know, but explores new realities, such as space-time bridges, with imagery that has movement, feeling and rich beauty.

The studio is developing as a kind of "digital backlot", involved in a wide range of areas including live action, theme park development, motion control, models and miniatures, digital compositing, the blending of live action and computer graphics.

What really energizes this orchestra of dedicated and passionate artists and technicians is their love for the quality of their productions, and their working relationships as a team.

In talking about the development of his own studio, Walt Disney noted "We don't need all this fancy stuff, actually. The mechanics are secondary...The thing that makes us different is our way of thinking, our judgment and experience acquired over the years. We seem to know when to 'tap the heart'. This is an organization. Everyone is willing to work with the others and share ideas."

Michael Gibson likewise sees Rhythm & Hues Studios as a creative imaging science and production environment of supportive and interactive people who love and are passionate about their craft : "We are a symphony, creating exquisite music with color and light, tones, sounds, feelings, each person playing their instrument to the finest degree, with the excitement of discovery."

As with other projects that Rhythm and Hues develops, the DS9 project is an in-depth collaboration and synthesis of many talents : art directors, technical directors, software developers, and support staff. Clients are often actively involved in the process. For the DS9 project, creative input developed from both studios. Paramount's Rob Legato, for example, made some helpful suggestions about the lighting quality of the sequence.

Gibson notes that "it takes people with vision to make it happen, and everyone is vital and important. There is a unique magic here, doing things no other studio can, focused by a committed management group, inspiring desire, dedication and determination to achieve excellence in exploring new territory."

The unique results are rewarding to both the creators and audience. As Peter Lauritson recently commented to Gibson, "This looks like you really realized your vision - it's beautiful. Congratulations. You really made it happen."

The commitment and focus pays off. This quality of production is helping extend the capabilities and applicability of computer graphics.

As Larry Weinberg notes, "The more that creative writers, producers and directors see this kind of work, the more ideas they're going to get, pushing expectations and creativity, and the more extravagant and exciting designs will become. Hopefully, we'll bring in more of this kind of work, and we'll keep riding the creative wave and keep getting challenged."

Michael Gibson views the work in a similar way : "We are a team, dreaming together, exploring and painting new visual landscapes with an electronic brush, working in harmony like a JPL space mission."


published in POST magazine, 1993

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