The animated art of space

By Phil Plait | April 5, 2011 11:50 am

Not surprisingly, I watch a lot of TV shows about astronomy. Some are good, some, um, not so much. Probably my biggest beef with them is that the visual art is inaccurate or used badly. I’ve seen countless shows where the graphics are simply wrong, misleadingly showing some astronomical event incorrectly. Sometimes that’s no big deal, but sometimes it gives a false sense of what’s going on.

But some shows have fantastic imagery: beautiful, accurate, and in incredible detail. Such as, for example, The BBC’s "Wonders of the Universe", a terrific show hosted by physicist and dreamy science popularizer Brian Cox*. The effects from the show were done by Burrell Durrant Hifle, who has posted a video featuring 15 or so minutes of these amazing shots [make sure you set it to HD and make it full screen, too]:


I particularly like the pulsar about 9 minutes in, and the incredibly dramatic supernova sequence right after. Some of these events are depicted exactly like I picture them in my head, and do a great job of showing you what the Universe is like.

I could quibble about some of the objects shown in the animations — planetary nebulae, for example, would look very different up close than they do through a telescope — but these worries are very small compared to the impact of the overall video and I don’t think detract from the real science. Chalk ’em up to artistic license.

My only real complaint is that the animations aren’t titled. I’m pretty sure I know what’s what — it’s kinda my thing — but titles would help the casual viewer understand what they’re seeing here. And I expect this video will get a lot of viewers!

You can find more videos by BDH online, too. They really are quite lovely.

Tip o’ the 3D glasses to Doug Troy.

* I’ve known Brian for a few years now, so I have first-hand knowledge of his dreaminess.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, TV/Movies

Comments (58)

  1. Missy

    I’ve been watching the re-airings of Wonders of the Solar System and I can’t wait to see Universe air in the US. I keep checking my Time Warner listings for it.

  2. Chris

    So… when the sun turns into a red giant, will the continents still look like that?

    Wait… is the sun supposed to turn into a red giant on THURSDAY???

    Sorry. Seriously, you’re right. Great stuff.

  3. It was a great series (and Wonders of the Solar System). I do have a couple of quibbles:
    1. the classic – sound in space
    2. I don’t understand the insistence of putting effects in to make it seems as though you are actually viewing footage made with a camera – lens flares and droplets on the lense. I want to view these wonders without such distractions! If it were filmed through a camera, you’d be wishing you could get rid of these things, and here’s someone putting them in!

    But apart from that, stunning.

  4. Adolfo R. Brandes

    Beautiful. I’m one of those who believe nothing has ever topped Sagan’s Cosmos, but this stuff beats it hands down in terms of visuals. Gonna checkout Wonders of the Universe, though, it seems I might like it.

    (But I second Matt Roberts’ quibbles above, especially number 2: what’s with the droplets? The whole purpose of CGI in documentaries is presenting a CLEAR view of something we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise)

  5. Michael Swanson

    @2. Chris

    “So… when the sun turns into a red giant, will the continents still look like that?
    Wait… is the sun supposed to turn into a red giant on THURSDAY???”


    I can’t wait to get home and watch the whole thing. I was only able to skim a few seconds here and there, but it looks very nice. I’ve been watching the History Channel’s “The Universe,” and while it’s pretty enjoyable the graphics leave a lot to be desired. Did you know that the Moon orbits at only twice its own diameter?! :)

  6. Ray

    I’ll use my first post ever to say…Epic!! 😀

  7. Chris

    So… could anyone please make a timestamped list of shown phenomenons?

  8. Sawdust Sam

    ” . . . it took nearly four billion years for the light from the explosion to get here.”

    So this happened when our own little planet was a stripling of half a billion years and with no sign of life.

  9. Dale

    @ No2 (Chris) Sound in space is obviously a no no, but remember this is for a TV show, and TV is pretty lame without sound. In addition Cox already had a bit of a tiff with the BBC over the choice and sound level of the music in Wonders, so they had to use something to give that sense of awe.

  10. Lorne

    Speaking of TV shows, what ever happened to Bad Universe on Discovery?

  11. My biggest gripe with shows about the cosmos is the incredibly boring narrators that are often used. Dr. Cox provides a fresh voice and honest enthusiasm that is sadly lacking in many science-based programs. Some people may poke fun at him, but we need people like him, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Mythbusters crew, and yourself Phil, to help make learning about science cool, interesting, and more engaging.

  12. Horseman

    Another confirmation that science is always more fun to watch when there are explosions.

    So is there some astronomical phenomenon that you’ve just never seen done right at all? There have been enough shows that I’d imagine pretty much everything has been done at least once, and at least with so-so CGI, but is there one that has always been portrayed incorrectly?

  13. Alia

    I have had a mad crush on Brian Cox for years now!! ;P Like everyone else… he really IS dreamy *sigh*..

  14. I know what you mean about seeing something portrayed in the media, and it just bugs you so bad that you can’t enjoy it. For me, it’s pretty much anything aviation related…

    Can’t wait to get home and check out the video.

  15. Christine P.

    Wow. Just … WOW

  16. Carey

    I think it’s time we put lens flares to rest. Technology has existed for years to prevent them in real cameras, so it is no longer necessary to add them in to computer generated images to make them look more “authentic”.

  17. Bk

    I had totally forgotten about this show… I really enjoyed Wonders of our solar system, and got all happy when i heard about wonders of the universe…

    Great reminder, thanks!

  18. Sawdust Sam

    #8 – Sorry – wrong thread – should be under “Astronomers may have witnessed a star torn apart by a black hole”.

    “Wonders of the Universe” is first class.

  19. Nemo

    @Chris #2:

    Yes, the continents will have been put back that way by the National Trust.

  20. It truly has been an amazing series, and I loved this, but I’m with 7.Chris could someone more expert than me please do a timestamped list of the phenomena shown.

  21. Invader_Protos

    What’s happening at 12:06? If the star apparently went supernova, why is there anything left to pull material back in, as shown at 13:16?

  22. HvP

    Re: Lens flare and image artifacts

    Let us not forget that Joss Whedon (hallowed be his name) even had newer camera lenses replaced by older equipment because he wanted the lens flare that otherwise would have been considered a flaw.

    Sometimes it’s simply an artistic – ahem – flare.

  23. Thameron

    I find this to be a strange complaint considering that a hefty percentage of astronomy pictures are done in ‘false color’ and/or using exposure times to get an image no human eye could ever match.

    Perhaps all those beautiful photos should come with a disclaimer, something like – ‘Even if you were at the right spot in space you still wouldn’t see this’.

  24. HvP


    I believe this is meant to be a high-mass supernova that resulted in the blackhole seen at the end.

  25. Bip

    This was indeed a good treat for both eyes and ears, not to mention sleepy, dreamy mind. Appreciated

  26. Invader_Protos

    I guess it just looked a little odd since the object left behind after the supernova looked so star-like. Perhaps I’ve been groomed by popular illustrations of star cores and neutron stars that depict a somewhat less turbulent-looking sphere.
    Also, I totally agree with the use of lens flares/grittiness. They add a lot to the effect of conveying what a messy experience an uncontrolled stellar explosion is.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Excellent – superluminous (beyond mere brilliance) even! Thanks. 😀

    The BBC’s “Wonders of the Universe”, a terrific show hosted by physicist and dreamy science popularizer Brian Cox.

    Wait, there’s a Wonders of the *Universe* series too now? 😉

    The other week I saw the last of the ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ episodes -that was a superb series – hope we soon get to see what I guess must be its sequel of sorts. :-)

  28. sascha

    Excellent video but once again an example of how bad music takes down the experience. Why did they slam such poor 0815 orchestral massware soundtrack under it? Instead try the following: turn off the video’s music and play Steve Roach – “The Ancient Day” and “Looking For Safety” to it while watching on fullscreen! 300% more enjoyable!

  29. Themos Tsikas

    I’m afraid I found most animations on this programme rather annoying. Apart from the silly lens flares, there was absolutely no narration about what was on the screen, whether it is artistic licence or a scientific simulation, which visual cues were meaningful and which were not. But that’s just me, I guess.

  30. Tim

    At first the ‘window’ effect on the virtual lens annoyed me, but then I thought it was actually pretty cool. We’ve had all four episodes here in the UK now and let me tell you – I Sky+’d them (something like your Tivo, I guess) and I’ll be watching them again.

    Over here we (some of us) moan about having to pay for the BBC (we don’t get adverts during or after shows) but when they pull something like this out of the hat you have to think that the license fee is worth it! (It amounts to about £1.30 per month for several TV channels, bucket loads of Radio stations and no adverts on their website/iPlayer).

    Top marks to ol’ Coxy – look out for his stint at 5 G’s – LOL!

  31. Jake Behan

    I’ve seen all four episodes and its well worth the watch, this video is just a combination of the visual effects throughout the show, and it is well narrated by Cox in the actual series. I’m looking forward to the blue ray versions and throwing it up onto a big HD TV and watching it in the dark and looking at it in awe.

    He’s filming a new series in September called “Wonders of Life”, But if it is anything like the previous two series I’m highly anticipating it.

  32. flip

    #3 and #4, #16

    I would hazard that the addition of water droplets etc is about making the viewer feel less like they’re watching a 2D screen and more like they’re really there. (Breaking the fourth wall as it’s known). It has nothing to do with CGI looking ‘fake’ and everything to do with atmosphere. …Exactly the same reason they have noise in space.

    Personally I don’t mind that; although the constant flickering through random shots of images annoyed me. We get it, we don’t have to see the image 10 times per episode in flashback mode!

    Other than that, I found the series to be very good, but a bit too disjointed for me. They kept hopping back and forth between concepts in each episode, I felt like they needed a better scriptwriter.

    Although definitely counteracted by Cox’s dreamy distracting face. 😉 And looking forward to the new series showing here in Oz. (Still waiting for Bad Universe! Wah!)

  33. Themos Tsikas

    “when they pull something like this out of the hat you have to think that the license fee is worth it!”

    I would expect rather more for 4 billion a year.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Invader_Protos (26) said:

    Also, I totally agree with the use of lens flares/grittiness. They add a lot to the effect of conveying what a messy experience an uncontrolled stellar explosion is.

    Wait, what?

    There are controlled stellar explosions?

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Well, I can’t view that video from work, but I have seen Wonders of the Universe, and I can heartily recommend it. It is brilliant.

    And I love the fact that Brian Cox doesn’t mince his words. There’s one point where he comments something along the lines of “and the most amazing thing is that we don’t have to speculate or guess about this. We know.”

  36. Shatner's basoon

    Watching that makes me want to ….not be the man you think I am at home. Oh no no no, to be a….Rocket Man

  37. IsobelA

    Brian Cox was on the front of Shortlist magazine yesterday, under the headline (paraphrased) – ‘Master of the Universe – How has Brian Cox got us all talking about Supernovas and stuff’.

    I really do think he’s doing an amazing job of giving physics and astronomy some mass appeal, and it would be wonderful if we see an increase in people studying physics at A-Level as a result.

  38. Stan9fromouterspace

    They should have sent… a digital matte artist.
    And Steve Roach.

  39. Dave Jerrard

    “Probably my biggest beef with them is that the visual art is inaccurate or used badly. I’ve seen countless shows where the graphics are simply wrong, misleadingly showing some astronomical event incorrectly. Sometimes that’s no big deal, but sometimes it gives a false sense of what’s going on.”

    I’m one of those guys that does these kinds of animations. In fact, I animated the series of seven Kepler launch animations found at and I agree 100% with this statement. Unfortunately, erroneous animations happen for several reasons:

    The animator/director doesn’t understand what’s being animated: To be honest, this stuff IS on scales that most people just can’t comprehend or dealing with physical aspect that are completely alien to most people. A Roche bridge for example, is a pretty weird phenomenon that wouldn’t make sense to the majority of people out there.

    The animator/director thinks something would look “cool”, usually because they’ve seen someone else’s “cool” effect elsewhere: You need look no further than Armageddon & Micheal Bay to see how wrong this can get.

    The animator/director doesn’t care about accuracy because they’ve heard/read something they liked that’s completely wrong: Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence. I had the (mis)fortune of working on a project where the producer complained that a wrong type of missile was being used and proceeded to berate the animators for not doing their research, and the proceeded to cite the above travesty – Armageddon – as an example where “experts” were consulted to get the science right. Let that sink in for a bit…

    And in rare occasions, the director/animator understands the physics but needs to enhance something so it can be more clearly seen: This takes several forms, most often with lighting, but also over simplifying things for the sake of story-telling.

    Then there’s the nearly anal-retentive types that want to get this stuff as accurate as they can, but are frequently limited by technical issues or time constraints. If they can get it right, they will. If not, they’ll get it as right as they possibly can.

    I recently did an animation of the K-T impact, and while I tried to get it as accurate as possible in the time I had (about 1 week), I had to cut a few corners. I couldn’t get the nice buttercup blast area that I wanted, or the dome of rock vapor inside it, both due to time constraints and direction. If it was entirely up to me, I would have had both. I would have also shown an explosion on the other side of the planet where the shockwave recombined (and possibly be the first animator to do this). I did however, add nebulous rings of debris around the Earth for a few shots that took place days & weeks later, that eventually faded out of existence over time, which the producers had added to the script after seeing the shots.

    We’re not all out to tick scientists off with this stuff. Some of us actually care about quality and accuracy, and sometimes, we even learn something that’s awesomely cool. And if we’re lucky, we even get to teach someone something that’s awesomely cool. The nice thing is there seems to be more of us lately, based on the plethora of new science shots like Bad Universe, Wonders of…, Through The Wormhole, The Planets, etc.. (none of which I’ve worked on, though I have seen a couple familiar shots on one or two of them from time to time.)

    He Who Does Some Cool Stuff, Which Is Pretty Awesome.

  40. Teshi

    I watched Wonders of the Universe when it aired here in

    The only problem I had with it is that it, occaisionally devolved into “Brian Cox stands on high places and looks dreamy” of the Universe. There were even BBC articles and, I kid you not, a twitter argument, on how ridiculous it had become.

    I wanted there to be more scientific content and less spinning camera, not that I am against wondering, just that I don’t want it to become overtly and distractingly obvious.

  41. Matt B.

    That is some grade-A astroporn. I love the view from just outside the galaxy; it makes me wish Celestia had emission and absorption nebulae.

  42. Michael O’Brien

    @Michael Swanson, #5.

    “Did you know that the Moon orbits at only twice its own diameter?!”

    Orbits WHAT, pray tell, at only twice it’s own diameter? Please elucidate!


  43. Emoryy

    It seems that the video is taken down.
    Has anybody got it saved?

  44. Runi Sørensen

    I wonder that too Emoryy, I wish I saved it at the time :(

  45. Finder

    The video is now at this link:

    Or just search for “Burrell Durrant Hifle cosmological fantasia” on google.


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