Telling NASA's Tales With Hollywood's Tools

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

Every once in a while when a new movie with mind-blowing special effects or oh-my-gosh-it-looked-so-real animation opens, a nondescript office at NASA Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt will mysteriously empty of employees during matinee hours.

Before an investigation is launched into the whereabouts of these workers -- particularly, say, around last year's opening of "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" -- understand that they are not blowing off work. The absentee employees are animators, NASA staffers and contractors who use the same software Pixar Animation Studios uses to tell stories about talking cars to instead tell stories about the Earth. They just want to see what their counterparts in Hollywood have been up to.

There is the occasional did-you-see-that elbow nudge, but in their case it's about craft, not cinematic delight, said Horace Mitchell, project manager at the space center's scientific visualization studio. Mitchell is a NASA employee, but the studio is staffed primarily by animators working for Global Science & Technology Inc., a government contractor in Greenbelt. The company uses the Hollywood software, including Pixar's RenderMan and Autodesk Inc.'s Maya, to translate complicated data into animated movies that illustrate what is happening in and around Earth. The videos often end up on the evening news.

The crucial difference in NASA's use of the software is that Hollywood uses it to spin inspiring, happy-ending stories about love and courage and friendship and hope, while the animators in Greenbelt are often telling stories about bad things happening in the atmosphere, such as last year's hurricane season. In their chilling short film "27 Storms: Arlene to Zeta," set to Vincenzo Bellini's eerie music, viewers can watch the ocean heat up, helping fuel one storm after another -- thanks to the same Pixar software used in the upcoming version of "Charlotte's Web."

NASA oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman frequently collaborates with the Global Science studio. He studies the ocean from space.

"Visualization is that link between the flood of data coming down from space and the ability of the human mind to interpret it," Feldman said. "That's the crux of the story. Better than most other groups in the world, they are able to take this fire hose of data coming down and turn it into images -- visual animation -- that then allows the general public to see this data in ways their brains can interpret and study."

The Hollywoodization of NASA data is in part the result of Pixar's success in creating real-life worlds from fantasy stories. People have come to expect that even the most fantastical of ideas -- a talking, curmudgeonly Mr. Potato Head -- can look and feel exceedingly real. "They don't expect to see crudity," Mitchell said. "They expect to see sophistication because they see it everywhere. In order for us to tell the story, we have to be sophisticated about telling stories and we have to use sophisticated technology to tell them."

Pixar was spun off from George Lucas's film company, and its early days were spent selling animation software and hardware -- a way to pay the bills until computer technology caught up with the firm's vision of making the incredibly life-like films that it produces today.

Today, anyone can purchase versions of RenderMan online, for $995 to $3,500.

Global Science, a private company that employs about 250 people, is definitely not a movie studio. It was founded in 1991 by Chieh-san Cheng, a former employee of an aerospace and technology company with advanced degrees in technical management and meteorology. Global Science provides services in applied science and research, geospatial standards, engineering services, and information technology. The firm's contract with NASA is a small part of its business, contributing about $650,000 a year to about $45 million in revenue.

Global Science and Pixar know about each other, but interaction between the staffs is generally limited to animation conferences and trade shows. But the Global Science staff does feel a strong bond with Pixar, particularly when watching one of its movies.

Jim Williams, a Global Science animator, said, "I'll go into it thinking I'm going to look at the technical stuff and then I'll get completely sucked into the story."

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