The Universe on DVD
Posted Jun 1, 2003

Tim Tully set out to fit the whole universe on a DVD. All it took was some wrangling with NASA, the right software, and a little help from his friends.

June 2003|The Universe is a mighty big place to reduce to a single DVD.

But Tim Tully, partner in what is now Universe Productions of Menlo Park, California, was captivated by pictures beamed home from NASA's space-based telescopes, and he was intent on sharing his wonder and excitement with others. So he set out to self-produce a DVD-Video that would showcase the NASA images while both informing and inspiring viewers. Though the process tested his tenacity, the resulting DVD—aptly named The Universe—confirms that his enthusiasm for both the material and the medium was justified.

Available from both selected retail outlets and the company's Web site (, The Universe is a tour of the cosmos in eleven chapters, covering our own solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and beyond. Another chapter explains the telescopes themselves, covering not only the Hubble Space Telescope, but others lesser-known: SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), TRACE (Transition Region and Coronal Explorer), Chandra, and IRAS (Infrared Astronomical Satellite). The disc also includes interviews with University of California at Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko and Karel Schrijver, an astronomer at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center.

Tully designed the DVD to be enjoyed not only as an educational experience supported by informative narration, but also on a purely sensory level with only musical accompaniment. Either way, the NASA images, presented in widescreen and often zoomed or panned for a sense of motion, are stunning.

"The images themselves were my basic inspiration," Tully says. "When all those Hubble pictures started popping up all over—on posters and so forth—I was knocked out. After finding out that NASA had hundreds of pictures available for download, I wanted to see all of them. So when we got a cable modem, I just started downloading pictures, then calling people into the room and saying: ‘Look at this! Can you believe this stuff?' And no matter who I showed it to, they would all be stunned at the beauty and weirdness of the pictures."

Beyond their visual appeal, however, the pictures aroused Tully's curiosity. "I realized I didn't know what or where half of them were," he says, "and I wanted to. So that was the secondary inspiration: wanting to know more about these magnificent objects. I decided to create a DVD that displayed these spectacular pictures to their very best advantage, and did so in a way that answered for the viewer all of the questions that came into my mind when I first saw them."

An ambitious undertaking
While producing a commercial DVD—as well as a VHS version—was ambitious for his tiny company, Tully wasn't starting out as a novice. A musician and composer, he was experienced in audio recording, editing, and mixing in his home studio. He had co-written two books on media production, been on the editorial staff of content creation trade magazines, and written hundreds of articles. And he was also able to draw on his experience as a video producer.

"I've done a lot of industrial video over the years," he recalls. "I've worked with nearly all the desktop NLE software: Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Edit DV, Ulead Media Studio Pro. When Sonic Foundry came out with Vegas Video, I got hooked. I've done a number of smaller projects with Vegas over the past couple of years, and its speed and power convinced me that I could do something at a commercial level on my own desktop."

DVD authoring, on the other hand, was a brand new area to Tully. "Apple's DVD Studio Pro really opened the door. This software is so straightforward and graphic, it got me up to a good speed really quickly. It lets you learn to do the basics in a couple of sessions."

As for graphic design, Tully says it was almost entirely the work of his wife and partner in Universe Productions, Kathy Marty. "I can't give her enough credit," he says. "She did the whole Web site, the packaging for both the DVD and VHS, the business cards, logo, letterhead, and promotional signage. She also gave me a lot of input with my on-screen titles and the labels that identify the different objects that appear in the video."

In the initial stage of the project, Tully focused on research. "I started doing a lot of reading," he says, "to learn the differences between dissimilar kinds of nebulae, and between a white dwarf and a neutron star, and so on. Then I had to figure out which of the images I saw were what, and arrange them in groups. I eventually decided to arrange them anthro-centrically: starting here, and going outward. So the program starts with the sun, and goes from there out to galaxies and star clusters that are about thirteen-and-a-half billion light years away, which astronomers now believe is the actual edge of the universe."

While it was one thing to plan the flow of images through the program, it was quite another to nail down the permissions required to use those images on the DVD. "Making dead sure the rights were available took a lot of diddling around," Tully says. "NASA doesn't say that the images are public domain, just that they will not enforce copyright. I sent a lot of emails and made a lot of phone calls before I was convinced they actually wanted people to promulgate these pictures and display their work."

The images that Tully was able to clear for use came in on a wide variety of formats. "The stills from Hubble, Chandra, and IRAS were an assortment of JPEGs, PNGs, TIFs, and GIFs," he says. "The image quality once they were captured to video was directly related to the quality of the original. Some images going in were a little more pixelated than others. I mostly avoided any that looked only fair or poor except for a small handful that were so cool for various reasons that I felt it overrode questions of image quality."

Tully recalls the project's biggest visual challenge as making the stills look and feel like video. "This was where Vegas really performed for me," he says. "Its Pan/Crop feature allowed me to place each image in the frame, then move it to create the impression that the viewer is flying up to, across, and around the 200-plus planets, stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. With careful use of transitions, I even created the illusion that the ‘camera' was moving through a nebula or starfield to reveal a new object on the other side. If I'd had to render each time I tweaked these movements, I'd still be doing it. So without exaggeration, Vegas's real-time preview made the project possible."

As for material from video sources, it's largely confined to the DVD's chapter on the Sun. "The Space Telescope Science Institute [STScI] provided all the material from TRACE and SOHO, which take time-lapse video of the Sun's corona, where superheated gas churns, boils, and explodes along the convoluted lines of a complex magnetic field." Tully first got the footage in QuickTime format, compressed with the Sorenson codec, but he was dissatisfied with artifacting that resulted from recompression to MPEG-2 for DVD. So he went back and asked for uncompressed video.

"They were entirely unprepared to deliver uncompressed," he says, "but after tossing it around with media specialist Steele Hill, we decided he would send me CD-ROMs filled with individual frames, as many as 2,500 per disc. I had planned to load them onto my hard disk and bring them into the Vegas timeline at one-thirtieth of a second each, and then render them as uncompressed video. After some trial and error, it turned out that Vegas did this slowly. But I eventually discovered that Final Cut Pro did it handily, and after some cross-platform follies, I finally had the Sun footage I needed."

Winging it
As for defining how the content would be structured, Tully describes the process as "planning, and then modifying those plans—i.e., winging it." The total program length was naturally constrained by the capacity of the disc. "To be commercially viable," Tully says, "I really had no choice but to go with DVD-5. And I figured that since a DVD-5 is officially supposed to be able to hold two hours of video, I'd be okay if I shot for half that. So I set a semi-arbitrary goal of one hour for the main video, and came up with an average duration for each clip, which could be modified later to fit the narration and the music."

The length of each chapter was largely defined by the narration, which was recorded in Tully's home studio isolation booth. "It was a great joy to work with the narrator, Tim Enos," he says. "The tone of the narration had to impart the sense of awe and wonder the images instill, and it also had to be authoritative, yet friendly. Tim has an incredible bass/baritone voice that was perfect."

The other sonic component, the music, was contributed by Paul Lehrman, with whom Tully co-authored the book MIDI for the Professional. "Paul's music is perfectly suited to the subject matter," Tully says, "It's orchestral, and it avoids the ‘twinkiness' of the new-age stuff that so often goes with astronomy." Lehrman delivered the music as stereo AIFF files, which Tully cut, pasted, and cross-faded in Vegas to fit to the narration and video.

To create surround sound, Tully then rendered each of the edited music tracks to AIFF and copied them (along with a reference video file) over his local network to his Macintosh G4, where he opened them in MOTU Digital Performer 3. "I chose DP3 because I knew it, because it supports audio, MIDI, and video, and because it let me mix in surround." Tully added complementary parts to expand the soundfield into surround, and also filled in some gaps by composing new material using similar motifs, harmonies, and themes. He wasn't able to mix the added MIDI parts to surround directly, so instead he played each part out through his mixer and recorded it back in as audio.

Using the soundtrack as the basis for adjusting image durations, the main video came out to 67 minutes. The astronomers' presentations, meanwhile, were brought down to 24 minutes with extensive editing. "With a total running time of 93 minutes," Tully says, "plus a free screen saver on the disc, I just barely made it under the 4.7GB limit."

The next task was to author the DVD. While DVD Studio Pro's ease-of-use meant that Tully was quickly up-to-speed, he says that the program's capabilities "did max out sooner than I wanted. Relatively soon in the authoring process, I hit a level where it didn't have features and functions that I needed." For example, he was able to author video for anamorphic playback (full-screen on widescreen monitors and letterboxed on 4:3 screens), but it wasn't evident how to achieve the same behavior for menus.

"No matter how I shaped them or what settings I made," Tully says, "the menus would be either stretched or truncated. I finally discovered that a professionally authored DVD will have scripting that addresses the player's System Parameter settings, but nothing in the manual described how to do this. I was eventually saved by a fantastic online forum ( run by a guy named Trai Forrester. With the help of a bunch of dedicated and very smart users, I learned and developed a set of unsupported workarounds and scripting solutions to DVD Studio Pro limitations, including the menu problem."

Beyond the Universe
On completion of the authoring—a year after the project started—The Universe was placed in the hands of replicator Dub-it in Los Angeles, whom Tully says "did a great job." With that, his life changed radically. "Since releasing The Universe last October," he says, "the sequestered, almost hermit-like life of me-and-my-art-and-my-computer is gone. I've turned into an always-on-the-phone-or-on-the-road marketer. But now that I'm beginning to feel that the disc and our business systems are becoming established, it's time for me to move on to project number two. It's more work than I could ever have imagined, but it feels very right, and I believe it will ultimately work financially. I definitely have the jones."

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