DVD: Gravitas – Portraits of a Universe in Motion (2006)

April 18, 2011 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: n/a/ Region: 0 (NTSC) / Released: January 1, 2006

Genre: Astronomy / Space / Digital Animation

Synopsis: Eight animated simulations of galaxy collisions and cosmic travel.

Special Features: Audio Commentary on 5 segments / Foldout poster & detailed scientific liner notes / “Metamorphosis” in 3-D (6:14) / 1 pair of 3-D glasses




Previously seen in SPV’s DVD of Hubble: 15 Years of Discovery, the animation vignettes by astrophysicist John Dubinski are also archived in complete form on his self-distributed Gravitas: Portraits of a Universe in Motion – a marvelous self-distributed DVD that contains 8 separate cosmic simulations (plus one in 3-D), along with optional audio commentary on a selected five.

In nature, represented phenomena such as the creation and collision of galaxies took billions of years, yet in re-tracing the steps and animating the minutia, Dubinsky’s simulations become more than concise, functional moving charts for theorists, and attractive strong aids for teachers seeking to instill some excitement into bored and disinterested students.

The first segment, “Cosmic Cruise” (1:55) illustrates the Big Bang Theory, and animates dark matter into illuminated points that drift past the viewer. Colour shifts move into soothing sepia shades, and more defined ‘galaxy webs’ reveal the beginnings of the cosmic order which continues to evolve. John Kameel Farah’s original music score is deliberately primal, and uses digital tones, industrial drones, and textural swathes of pulses and undulating tones reminiscent of Gil Melle’s primal electronica from the early seventies (particularly The Andromeda Strain).

Even as an short intro, “Cosmic Cruise” was crafted with an eye towards beauty, and there’s an extraordinary emphasis on detail in Dubinski’s animation – accomplished through the use of some powerful supercomputers at the University of Toronto. “Galactic Encounters” (3:11), for example, shows off the layers of detail, particularly in the waves of fine particles that drift in and out in a magnetic dance meant to illustrate the motions as galaxies fall together. Farah’s score is appropriately moody, and goes for a more ethereal, techno edge.

“Swarm” (2:14) offers a faster-paced simulation of three vantage points, as clusters interact within each other. Separate tinting – white/blue, sulfur yellow, and pastel red for each piece – are musically underscored by a repetitive phrase, punctuated by heavy bass hits and cascading keyboards. Synth cymbals nicely colour the masses of swarming matter and more or less emphasize waves of small particles and swirling bright pellets that dominate the intertwining masses.

According to the detailed liner notes in the DVD’s booklet, “Nightfall” (5:55) was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s titular short story, and simulates a massing cluster of bright stars that blow in a swirling cloud, not unlike airborne dandelion seedlings that swirl in gusty wind lifts and subsequently disperse into thinning waves of white dots. Farah’s score blenders jazz, minimalism and techno percussion, and conveys a sense of shifting density, with synth drones acting as an anchor to the cloud’s own sense of inner gravity.

“Klemperer’s Dream” (4:03) animates ‘special arrangements of particles that follow predictable orbits’ – orders that succumb to degrees of chaos when galaxies collide. The result in this segment is a lengthy and seriously hypnotic/trippy collection of symmetrical forms – trios, quartets – that spin, are drawn together, crash, disperse, coalesce, and fuse into layered matter with elegant clouds of pink and light blue tissue shades, and streams of salt that spread out in long curving waves. As composer Farah explains in the segment’s optional commentary, he crafted a waltz which keeps shifting a bit each time; discreetly unsettling the listener, yet following the constant alterations in patterns as each collision yields new and explosive motions.

“Spiral Metamorphosis” (6:18) – Part 1 of a couplet – is more sedate in its animated collisions, and “reflects the current state of our Milky Way and the Andromeda system,” explains Dubinski in the DVD’s extensive liner notes. “I have set up a plausible case where they all fall together… [and only] present the view of the naked stars unobscured by the interstellar gas and dust clouds within the galaxy.”

Whether seen in 2-D or 3-D – as in the final segment, titled “Metamorphosis in 3-D” (6:13) – the animation singles out two slow-moving entities that gradually attract, fuse and repel, creating a pair of still-spinning galaxies with coloured clouds and even greater depth.

In 3-D, the effects are still subtle, but one gets a better sense of scale when the blue center drags clouds of reddish matter across the dark, almost clinically sanitized background which becomes a canvas for the spreading matter. Farah uses keyboard, piano, and soothing bass pulses that similarly spiral through each other, sometimes repeating prior segments or restating them in differing configurations.

“Future Sky” (6:37) forms the B-section of the couplet, and simulates a single camera angle through an oval vignette of the same interactions. Unlike the prior angles which gazed frontwards, we see the interactions from a wider side view, with streams of fine white particles resembling nighttime fireflies buzzing close to a bright central lighting core. Farah’s music is more kinetic here, and contrasts low retro synth drones and high-range keyboards with their own degree of wavering and vibrato. The second angle is more head-on, but it’s seen through a circular vignette.

The longest segment is “Galaxies in Collision” (7:53), and features several angles as galaxies smash into each other, accented by Farah’s shift in tempi, jazzy keyboards and techno percussion. Chunks of each galaxy fly off and are sucked back to a central cloud, pushing inner matter outward. Dubinski offers several angles, each with its own coloration, and like prior simulations, the magic lies in the detail of every illuminated moving dot. If you trace any single light, the motion pattern is never repeated. The animation pulls in and then out, but the simulation is rooted in nature: it’s similar to walking into several clouds of swirling snow which descend in clusters, and periodically push a few snowflakes inches from or directly into the eye in one blurry splat.

Gravitas is a truly elegant creation. Visually, each segment is moving digital art that’s even more hypnotic when projected onto a large wall. Should Dubinski and Farah upgrade everything to high-def video and a Dolby 5.1 audio mix, the experience would resemble a kind of home planetarium (which, admittedly, this DVD already simulates).

“Cosmic Cruise,” “Galactic” Encounters,” “Swarm,” “Klemperer’s Dream,” and “Spiral Metamorphosis” have optional commentaries, and in the first three, Dubinski explains the core of what he’s simulating (quite handy if you haven’t read his dense liner notes in the DVD’s foldout booklet/poster); composer Farah talks a bit about his music scores, and takes over the commentary in the final two segments.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

DVD / Film:  Hubble: 15 Years of Discovery (2005) — Hubble 3D (2010) —  Solarmax (2000) — Space Station 3D (2002)


External References:

Official WebsiteComposer Website


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