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'Mysteries of the Unseen World' brings Natural History Museum into 3D film realm

Being able to finally see what is on geckos' feet that enables them to climb surfaces makes it possible for engineers to build robotic climbers.
Being able to finally see what is on geckos' feet that enables them to climb surfaces makes it possible for engineers to build robotic climbers.
National Geographic Entertainment

Jeff Bezos may well to look at a dragonfly as he contemplates Amazon delivery by drone. The dragonfly is the greatest flier known - it can hover, fly backwards, upside down in ways that no aircraft can do. No one knew its secret. Until now.

Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg discussing his new 3-D film, Mysteries of the Unseen World, now on view at the American Museum of Natural History, which lets us see what is otherwise too slow, too fast, too small or even invisible.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

The same carbon that is in a pencil point can be harnessed into a nanotube strong enough to build a space elevator to carry a rocket car; an atom of gold can be adapted to eradicate a cancer cell in the body. These new frontiers are being paved by the knowledge that comes from new devices enabling scientists to see the tiniest particles of life and into the deepest recesses of space, to slow down the motion of a dragonfly's wings or speed up the process of slime mold growth.

Now we, too, are getting to see things that are too slow, too fast, too small and even invisible to our eye, in a new 3D film, Mysteries of the Unseen World at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City through June 2014 (it is presented in 3D as well as 2D).

And hopefully, it will inspire a new generation of engineers and entrepreneurs, environmentalists and ecologists, says filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, who directed the film for National Geographic Entertainment.

The images he offers erase the barrier between what is "natural" and "man-made" - we see a whole new way of appreciating nature and man's part in it.

Even a scene of a decomposing mouse and how slime mold moves "intelligently" in its pursuit of food, and when the food supply is exhausted, forms a stalk with a spore on the top that can be lifted to a new source of food.

New technology which slowed down the flapping of the dragonfly wings revealed for the first time how it is able to fly backwards, upside down and hover by capturing its ability to independently control two sets of wings. Engineers can figure out how to mimic that pattern in designing new flying machines.

Similarly, the ability to magnify to a degree never before possible, lets scientists see what is on geckos' feet that enables them to climb surfaces - which engineers might replicate to build robotic climbers.

"You see how nature is an ingenious device - and if we can see how nature works, we can imitate it," Schwartzberg says.

Most fascinating is how the film uses these advanced imaging techniques to delve into the ordinary to see just how extraordinary - even how crucial to our survival - they are.

Mysteries of the Unseen World reveals spectacles of life that occur outside of human perception, including a view of the world through x-ray vision, or infrared vision like mosquitos and how they can sense heat in human skin to know where to bite; lightening-fast events such as a rattlesnake’s strike; and minute details, from the miniscule structures on a butterfly’s wing to the tiny microorganisms that inhabit the human body.

Schwartzberg, who has been fascinated with time lapse photography for decades and is one of the earliest pioneers, says he was inspired to look at ordinary things in extraordinary way - too slow, too fast, too small, invisible altogether. What happens when a water balloon is pierced, a glass of milk crashes to the floor, a raindrop falls into a puddle.

He shot footage for three years - "having fun, like little kids" trying all sorts of things - to get the 40 minutes of footage. Though an old-hand at time-lapse photography, this was the filmmakers' first foray into 3D, which he says poses additional challenges.

We start our visit into the Unseen World with what is invisible to us. We see only what is within the rainbow of light waves called visible light - a tiny fraction of the millions of wavelengths in the vast electromagnetic spectrum. The film shows audiences what it would be like if we had X-ray vision, or infrared vision like a mosquito, how a bee’s eyes see through ultraviolet light, and what Gamma rays, microwaves and radio waves show us.

Then we get to see what is in fact too slow for our perception. Time-lapse images capture mundane events and the spectacles of life that happen too slowly for humans to perceive: plants creeping toward the sun, how slime mold searches for food. On a grander scale, time-lapse allows audiences to see our planet in motion—from the vast and relentless sweep of nature to the restless movement of humanity.

The most advanced high speed cameras capture events that happen too quickly for human perception--from a rattlesnake strike to drum cymbals flexing. There are eye-popping slow-motion sequences of a Eurasian Eagle Owl, the world’s largest, flexing its wings as it flies right at you, claws and all, which was shot at 600 frames per second (FPS); a basilisk or Jesus lizard running on the surface of water, shot at 1,000 FPS; popcorn popping at 2,500 FPS; and lightning that, shot using a Phantom camera at about 10,000 FPS, is revealed to rise upwards from the ground as well as strike from the sky, contradicting the conventional wisdom that lightening only strikes down.

Probably the most thought-provoking and inspiring section of the film focused on seeing what is otherwise "Too Small," as wondrous as Alice in Wonderland.

Images captured with an electron microscope show us that the air we breathe is actually a soup of such things as pollen, skin flakes, insect parts, animal hairs, even particles from space; that there are 30,000 tons of space dust in our atmosphere, some in every breath we take.

A super closeup of a dog's eyelash shows that it is the habitat of an eight-legged mite.

We learn that there are 32 million bacteria that live on our skin (some are good for you), and more microorganisms live in each one of us that there are people on earth.

The world of the super small is particularly fascinating - kids might be enthralled by Spiderman, but the secret of how a real spider makes his thread is even more exciting, Schwartzberg says.

The film, using technology that magnifies up to one million times, takes us into the "nanoworld" - the spider's silk thread is 100 times thinner than a human hair; the bacteria on it is 10 times smaller; the virus that lives on that is 10 times smaller still; down to the DNA and the atom that is the building block of the thread. If we can replicate that!

Nanotechnology can create whole new devices that can clear up clogged arteries, repair DNA, we are told.

We enter the nanoworld, where substances behave differently than in our realm.

Take gold for example. In this world, gold is colorless but absorbs light and radiates heat. Here's the proposition presented: implant gold particles into blood, chemically coated to attach to cancer cell, then using a laser beam, heat the gold particle so it burns the cancer cell.

We are introduced to carbon, as ordinary as pencil lead. At the nanoscale, one atom thick, it is harder than a diamond, and if rolled into sheets, can be turned into the strongest, hardest, lightest, nanotube - which can be used to build an elevator to space, with a little rocket car riding up on its tracks.

"Who knows what remains to be seen? How the world can be changed remains to be seen."

The film is as entertaining as it is educational - in fact, with a movie-going public increasingly accustomed to computer-generated images and 3-D, the images are less surprising than early motion-picture audiences seeing the first images of how a race horse actually has all four feet off the ground, or the first images that captured a bullet striking its mark.

At first, it seems like CGI (computer generated images) we have come to love in 3-D movies, but very soon you see these are real images of the real world, though certain elements are computer enhanced (like showing the flow of electricity and radio waves - but Schwartzberg says the computer generated images are based on data, as realistically depicted.

For example, a portrait of human activity of the earth is created from data of airplane flights around the globe and ships-at-sea. The image shows "the entire planet is a single organism sustained by currents of sea, atmosphere; the anatomy of earth."

"What is real and not real is blurred," prompting a zen-like analysis of the digital world we now inhabit. "Everything is captured digitally and shown digitally. Digital data and digital sensors are all the same - they show reality . this is intended to be thought-provoking; it takes us out of our realm of consciousness."

Schwartzberg craeted the film with goals of entertaining, educating and inspiring, and also with kids in mind.

"This is cooler than Spiderman, cooler than the Avengers - all fake. But when kids see for real that a spider web is stronger than steel, that is real, it penetrates to the heart, inspires a child to be curious, maybe even to be an engineer."

So he is not the least bit uncomfortable showing the decomposition of a dead mouse (though he seemed to have children's sensibilities in mind when Superman-style x-ray vision through clothes do not show genitalia):

"I believe decomposition is not the end of life but the beginning, and [anyway], kids like to be creeped out. The goal is to be inspiring."

"My goal is to inspire, open eyes and see things differently - ordinary things. To become more mindful.. . Curiosity is the most important thing to be a scientist, an entrepreneur, to be successful.

"This is all a metaphor for opening eyes, seeing things differently. We see at 24 frames per second. The camera is a portal."

H.G. Wells had his time machine; Schwartzberg has been playing with time for decades, becoming an early master of time lapse photography (an early project involved 35-years of time lapse photography of flowers that compressed to 12 hours).

"Real time is boring for me," he says. "When we die, it is said that life passes slowly before our eyes, but maybe we time lapse into another portal."

And for adults, as well, the images which turn the realm of the ordinary into the extraordinary and show humankind to be part of nature, might also be inspirational.

"There are people who see how a flower grows and say they can't walk by a flower and not see this process. Instead of seeing a bee that can sting, see it as a miracle of life. People see things differently forever.

"What if Galileo didn't discover the telescope?" he poses "We would still think earth was the center of the universe."

Being able to see produces a "shift in consciousness. We see ourselves as part of nature, that the universe is bigger.... like God's eye view. Imagery opens our eyes through tools like this and we see what nature created and now might figure how to protect the planet."

Schwartzberg, an award-winning filmmaker ((“Disneynature: Wings of Life,” "American Beauty," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Crash," 'Erin Brockovich," "ET," "Independence Day," "Men in Black," "Twister," among others) who was one of the pioneers of time lapse photography, sees himself as a filmmaker, not a scientist, though he says he incorporates scientific research, then decided to do what he believed would be of interest to audience.

"It has to be entertaining. There are a lot of stories I could do, but which will be the one that grabs your heart?"

Mysteries of the Unseen World, narrated by Forest Whitaker, is an original production by National Geographic Entertainment and Day’s End Pictures. The American Museum of Natural History is the first in the Northeast to show the film, which is presently in five museums and science centers,with more being added.

At the AMNH, it is being shown in 3D (at 12:30 pm, 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm) and 2D (at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm- it is highly recommended to see it in 3D).

The film was created in collaboration with a variety of groundbreaking scientific, data, computer graphic and 3-D animation companies, as well as scientists at MIT, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Center for Cellular Imaging and NanoAnalytics (C-CINA)—a research laboratory at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Mysteries of the Unseen World was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation and a contribution from Lockheed Martin for the film and educational outreach. FEI, a manufacturer of electron microscopes, contributed to the film and extended learning stations for theaters.

Mysteries of the Unseen World ushers in a new era of "seeing" at AMNH, as well.

This is the first 3D digital film at the Museum's Imax theater - which was closed for three days for the installation of new equipment.

"With the addition of 3D digital screenings, the American Museum of Natural History has added one more way for visitors to be fully immersed in the latest large-format films about science and nature," said Brad Harris, senior director of visitor services.

To purchase tickets to Mysteries of the Unseen World in advance, call 212-769-5200 or visit (a service charge may apply).

For more information on Mysteries of the Unseen World, including Theater Listings, links to the trailer, and behind-the-scenes videos, visit (Become a fan on Facebook at, orr follow on Twitter @NatGeoMovies, #unseenworld.)

Most visitors to the American Museum of Natural History who revel in the fabulous exhibits of dinosaurs, human origins, native peoples, and the Rose Center for Earth and Science, may fail to realize that this is also a major scientific research institution, with some 200 researchers working on everything from microbiology to astrophysics.

Museum admission supports the scientific and educational endeavors.

The museum offers discounted combination ticket prices that includes suggested general admission plus special exhibitions, IMAX films, and Space Shows.

Visitors who wish to pay less than the suggested Museum admission can still purchase a ticket to attend a special exhibition, IMAX film or space Show (tickets must be purchased at the museum), for $25 (adults), $20.50 (students/seniors) and $13.50 (children) for a Space Show, special exhibition or IMAX film.

For more information, call 212-769-5100 or visit (Become a museum fan at or follow at

Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner


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