The human eye is a marvel of biological engineering, but it’s incapable of seeing a large part of the world around us, particularly things that move too fast or too slowly or are simply too tiny for us to see. “Mysteries of the Unseen World,” a documentary playing in 3-D IMAX theaters around the country at science centers in New York, Denver, Orlando, San Diego and other cities (with more to come), uncovers this hidden world using state-of-the-art cameras and photography techniques and ultra-magnification microscopes to show everything from milk mid-spill and bursting popcorn to an owl in slow-motion flight and the cells of a butterfly’s wing.

The brainchild of award-winning nature filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg (“Disneynature: Wings of Life”) and narrated by actor Forest Whitaker, the documentary, is a fascinating window into the unseen world. Producer Jini Dürr, president of Day’s End Pictures, explains how it came together.

MNN: There are lots of spectacular images in the film. Which are your favorites and why?

Jini Dürr: That is like asking a mother to choose between their children. I like everything in the film for different reasons. I like the other-worldly nature of the macro water creatures, the spectacular possibilities in nanotechnology for solutions in medicine, how high-speed photography reveals clues to creating mechanisms that can mimic something in nature, looking at something really, really up close and personal on my body or in the air, beautiful flying insects and the real nature of the Eurasian eagle owl as it flies toward us in slow motion.

This film was 10 years in the making. What took so long?

Louie Schwartzberg came to National Geographic with a general pitch, the original concept of the worlds of too slow, too fast and too small. The end result was a collaborative effort by the key creative team, involving the director, producers, writer, director of photography/stereographer, production designer and editor. This ensures that we come up with a storyline that also gives an immersive and cinematic experience that is truly unique for the giant screen. National Geographic spent five to six years raising the necessary funding money and applying for a National Science Foundation grant. With support of NSF, Lockheed Martin Corporation, FEI and the National Geographic Society, we were able to make the film.  

Have innovations in technology made it possible to achieve things you couldn’t a few years ago?

Certainly, having higher resolution, high-speed cameras and digital high-resolution cameras contributed to providing a flexible tool in telling a story. Even today, there are even newer advancements in resolution and camera systems since the first stage of filming in 2011.

What were your biggest technical challenges?

This film just represents a small glimpse into all these worlds. There were technical challenges that also required a year’s long R&D. FEI was a great support in this by providing a high-end SEM microscope and then providing the engineering and software support team to work with artist Dr. Martin Oeggerli, the Center for Cellular Imaging and NanoAnalytics, Biozentrum and the Graphics and Vision Research Group at the University of Basel. In addition, it was quite an effort to find the right specimens for the SEM work. This is the first time that anyone has provided stereo high-resolution moving colorized SEM images for the giant screen. As is true with any documentary involving animals and in this case insects as well, it was both fun and challenging to get the kind of high-speed shots we wanted when all the animals and insects do not naturally want to pose for the camera! 

Did the IMAX format make it more difficult?

Films for the giant screen cannot make compromises in the image quality, and we have a much larger frame to worry about visually. Stereo adds an extra layer of complexity. But like all specialty filmmaking, we have a highly experienced and trained crew that makes the end result seem easy.

What can these discoveries from the unseen world mean for us and for innovations in design, technology, medicine, etc.? Which of these are closest to fruition?

There are some innovations in the film that are already used today. Nanotech materials that can keep you dry, for example. There are many universities and scientists, like Dr. Lixin Dong, who are working on bio-inspired robotic machines that mimic both insects and animals. The gecko robot exists both at Stanford and UC Berkeley. Clearly we are a long way away from a Space Elevator, but scientists are in active trials using nano-particles as possible cures for cancer. This is huge for humankind. Also, I am astounded when looking at the world through an SEM microscope, the intricate patterns in nature. I always encourage my daughter to observe nature as it opens up her mind to inquiries about how things work and why. We all want our kids to be curious as that curiosity starts the journey into coming up with innovative ideas.

pond bubbles

Pond bubbles. (Photo: Reuben H. Fleet Science Center)

How did you get Forest Whitaker involved as narrator? What does he bring to it?

We asked him and he said yes. Lucky for us! But more importantly, we thought Forest Whitaker brought many advantages to the film. He is not only an amazing actor, but his expertise as a director allowed him to quickly grasp the emotional goals of each section and each line. We like the unique and soothing quality that his voice brought to the show. His voice worked with the visuals and music versus overwhelming it, which can often happen in a documentary. Just as importantly, he is an exceptional human being and a role model for all with regards to his accomplishments and goals for the future. He is aligned with the missions of the National Geographic Society and we fully support his efforts to use advancements in technology to bring images and messages of peace and resolve conflicts around the world.

When/how did you become interested in nature filmmaking? Do you have another film in the works?

I studied rhetoric and film at UC Berkeley. Radio journalism and documentary for social change was my first love. I come from a background where science and technology was always supported and encouraged in my family and had a lot of exposure in college. I guess it is not an accident that I love to make films that bring science, art and technology together in a compelling visual story. I also love to research and learn anything I can about all these fields. We are currently excited to be working on a film about humanoid robots.

What do you hope audiences take away?

My goals for this film have never changed from the first moment I joined the team. I have always wanted the audience and especially children to walk away with a shift in the way they look at the world around them. To take a second look and to wonder what is actually going on there, how does it work, why does it need to be that way? I felt really rewarded when I was sitting on a plane with my daughter and there was a little turbulence and she looked at the glass of water in front of her and said. "Look Mama, look at what the water is doing. Just like in your movie." She also now loves geckos! What more can a mother and filmmaker want? We want to inspire children in art, education, science, technology and most of all with our humanity.

gecko robot

Gecko and robot. (Photo: Reuben H. Fleet Science Center)

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