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The making of MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

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At BIAFF 2012 Alan Atkinson won  a 5 Star Award and Best Documentary with More than Meets the Eye.

It was about sixteen years ago when I realised that humans tend to live very much in the middle of things. We are much smaller than the cosmos but much larger than atoms. We can only perceive motion at speeds that are familiar to us and only see things with light in the narrow range of wavelengths to which our eyes are sensitive.

At the time, I was involved in thermal imaging for work. It started me wondering if showing these many different invisible worlds might make an interesting film; I decided to keep the thermal imaging footage. Many years later, thoughts began to crystallise and work began on More Than Meets the Eye. It would take viewers into a world that we cannot access with our own eyes, illustrated with amazing images. At least, that was the intention.

The thermal imaging footage was not too bad, and I had several other interesting photos that had been saved from my days in a scientific career, but much more than this would be needed.

Thermal image.
Thermal image
Where to get the other images? As much as possible, I aimed to produce them myself but many were, of course, well beyond the capability of an amateur working in his garage.
PET scanner.
PET scanner
Even professional makers of this kind of documentary need a great deal of help from experts and I went begging for a few seconds of footage from the people running things like hospital CT scanners.

Fortunately, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency)are very generous in allowing limited use of their astronomical images. A few of the others approached were very helpful but most did not even bother to reply. In such cases, the pictures usually had to be simulated, using computer-generated imaging (CGI). This did not seem too much like cheating, however, as the 'genuine' images of the type needed are, themselves, very often the result of substantial computer processing.

CGI was also used to create many of the other scenes, where it was not possible to film 'live' (heartpic).

It would have been much nicer to have had filming access to actual locations, but one has to make the best of whatever is available, and remind oneself that the pros often find themselves in a similar position. The CGI was mostly done using very ancient versions of 3DS Max and Poser software, with Premiere 6.5 being used for final assembly. Some images started as still photographs so, in order to make them more interesting, they were animated in various ways.

Heart.
Heart
For the light microscope shots, I rebuilt an old optical microscope and attached a small Sony Bloggie camcorder to it (microscopepic). I was pleasantly surprised about how good the images were (mosquitopic). Attempts at putting together some of the other optical devices were not so successful but, hopefully, the results were just about acceptable. For example, the polarised light sequences (polarisedpic), look pretty good, especially when cut to music.

Microscope.
Microscope with camcorder
Mosquito.
Mosquito larva
Polarised light.
Polarised light

Talking of music, I decided that the film needed short pieces of music during each sequence of images made using a particular method. It would also provide interludes without narration, which would otherwise have been silent. There were, of course, the usual agonising decisions to make about what music would be appropriate. Fortunately, my collection of CDs provided all that was needed, with most being of the modern style that seems to work best with this kind of film.

I was fairly satisfied with the time-lapse scenes of growing plants, but beware of attempting this unless you are prepared to tie up your camcorder, and an entire room in your house, for several months. I found that plants (I mainly used dandelions and amaryllis) have minds of their own. They stubbornly refuse to stay in frame as they grow and, without some fancy gear, it's almost impossible to pan the camera smoothly enough (and by 1mm every hour, day and night) to get a perfect result. Of course, all the most determined attempts by the growing tips of the plants to escape from the picture happened in the small hours, when there was no one about to adjust the camera.

A big decision was whether or not to take the part of an on-screen presenter or simply use voice-over throughout. If David Attenborough and Brian Cox can do it, I thought, why not me? It certainly proved to be a challenge for, despite having written and learned the lines, they went completely out of my head the moment the camera started running. It's no exaggeration to say that some bits took twenty or thirty takes to get them reasonable. And it soon became apparent that, in order for 'talking-to-camera' to work, the presenter needs to become quite an actor. I shan't be trying this again for some time.

So, how well did it all work out? My original ambition was an informative film, full of stunning images, with several threads running through it - all connecting smoothly with each other to give a coherent whole. Sadly, it fell somewhat short of this and, in fact, I came close to abandoning the whole project after it was about 90% complete. This was despite already having committed well over a thousand hours of work. It also became apparent that the content and style were too 'nerdy' for general audiences - more appropriate for late night on BBC4 perhaps. I persevered however and, although the finished product was not quite what I had hoped, it was awarded Five Stars and Best Documentary in BIAFF 2012. I could hardly believe it.

Alan Atkinson 2012


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Page updated on 09 January 2013
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