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The Universe on DVD
Posted Jun 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 2 next »

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."

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