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Friday, 20 July, 2001, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Bringing the Universe to Earth
Space BBC
Sam can throw asteroids across the Solar System
The BBC is about to screen its blockbuster science series, Space. The series producer, Richard Burke-Ward, explains how the technically complex programmes were put together.

It was one of those moments when you look at yourself as others do - and wonder what on Earth they must think. I was standing on a riverbed in New Zealand, in what can only be described as a sandstorm, wearing two, large, green, fluffy bath mats on my feet - and talking to a movie star about black holes.

We couldn't take Sam out into space, so we would bring space to him

How Sam Neill kept a straight face, I'll never know - but then he had the same footgear on, so maybe he was in no position to laugh...

We were making the BBC One series Space. Our mission: to look at the cosmos like never before, to boldly go to whatever lengths necessary to bring the Universe to life here on Earth. And this New Zealand riverbed was where we'd chosen to do it.

The idea was simple. We couldn't take Sam out into space, so we would bring space to him. We called it the "virtual space zone", or "space simulator". We were going to use computer graphics to allow Sam to interact directly with planets, stars, asteroids - even the whole Universe.

Superfast galaxies

Mountain Film Unit Ltd
Caught on film: The author strides out in his trendy footwear
Image courtesy of Mountain Film Unit Ltd

Simple in principle but, in practice, mind-bogglingly complicated. What we were filming was Sam and four graphite-coloured "pods" planted in the sand, which would form the corners of the space zone. But the zone itself, and everything inside it - from black holes to exploding stars - existed only in our imaginations.

Each individual shot took around three-quarters of an hour to prepare. There were blue screens to set up, which would allow our computers to "cut around" Sam so that we could put computer-generated objects behind him.

There was a period of frantic measurement and calculation as we tried to log the details that would allow us to match up the real video pictures with the virtual elements we'd be adding later.

There were endless subtle lighting decisions - what would Sam look like in the glow of a galaxy whirling at a million times its normal rate?

Space BBC
Setting up shots required some imagination
Image courtesy of Mountain Film Unit Ltd

Hardest of all was keeping the sand clear of footprints. Thirty people stomping around on a beach, setting up all manner of equipment, was bound to create a bit of a mess.

But the area where Sam would interact with the space zone had to look pristine in every shot. And that's where the fluffy footwear came in.

We actually cleaned out the local town's entire bath mat supply

Our cameraman had the inspired idea of cutting up sheepskin bath mats, and wearing them fluffy side out as slippers. It worked. If you're ever on a beach and you don't want to leave footprints, try it.

We called them "fluffies", and with thirty pairs to make, we actually cleaned out the local town's entire bath mat supply. Competition for a matching pair was fierce.

Recoloured sand

With the shoot over, it was back to the cutting rooms and graphics suites for the painstaking process of adding layer after layer of computer-generated material to the raw footage we'd shot.

The space zone's laser-like poles were added, and the sand around them recoloured to seem as though they were casting light on to it.

Computers matched Sam's shape and movement so we could add new lighting effects to him, and make sure that he appeared in front of layers that were supposed to be behind him.

Galaxies, stars, and planets were added - a fake sky, artificial sunrises, you name it. And then all the layers were compiled into the finished shots you'll see in the television programmes.

Space BBC
The amazing world of computer graphics

It's taken months, and scores of extraordinarily talented people - the two producers who've worked on the programmes, the camera and lighting crews, and an amazing computer graphics team.

The technology for a real space zone is probably centuries away

The result is one I think we can all be very proud of. It's all artificial - in fact the technology for a real space zone is probably centuries away. But on television, looks are everything - and the space zone looks real.

The only unreal things about it are the memories. Did we really stand around talking with Sam Neill about black holes in pairs of matching sheepskin bath mats? There are photos to prove it.

Space is screened on Sundays on BBC One at 2030 BST. The first programme airs on 22 July

Space BBC

Richard Burke-Ward
We wanted Sam Neill to do for space what he had done for dinosaurs
Sneak preview
Sam Neill takes a tour of our galaxy
See also:

05 May 99 | Sci/Tech
When worlds collide
16 Sep 99 | Sheffield 99
Walking like a dinosaur
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