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Pixeldust created a series of stunning space CGI for Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science, which was aired on PBS NOVA. These animations helped to illustrate several complex phenomenon and cosmic events. For this three hour program, Pixeldust ensured scientific accuracy by working in close collaboration with renowned American physicist Alan Lightman and director Geoffrey Haines-Stiles. These animations included (but were not limited to) the formation of the stars and our galaxy, unimaginably powerful explosions, and a curious astral phenomenon known as galactic fountains. Having over a decade of experience producing realistic space animations, Pixeldust was well equipped for this task. 

CG/VFX Supervisor: Samar Shool

Producers: Elizabeth Andrade, Emily Vitek

Animator: Andy Hencken


For this star formation sequence, Pixeldust’s CG Supervisor Samar Shool was tasked with the challenge of visualizing thick gaseous regions inside galaxies, which collapse under their own weight, becoming dense and hot enough to create nuclear reactions. Pixeldust utilized state of the art visual effects software to engineer the creation of the complex gas behavior requred for this animation. With careful attention to detail, as well as a precise control over the motion of the particles which make up the animation, the CG team successfully produced these complex photo-real 3D renders. 


NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory captured an iconic image of a supernova remnant known as Cassiopeia A. Pixeldust was provided with these still images, in which different colors represent the various elements which are being spewed through space. Pixeldust’s CG supervisor led the effort to transform these still images into a realistic animation which re-enacts this dazzling supernova. This animation captures the explosion in all its glory with a heightened sense of drama, all while remaining true to the original capture from NASA.


Galactic fountains describe a large-scale cosmic event which is the result of multiple supernovas exploding at the same time, where gases shoot away from the galaxy (in this case, our Milky Way), and rain back down onto it. Pixeldust utilized well-rehearsed visual effects techniques to simulate this complex phenomenon to scientific accuracy.


Pixeldust was tasked with simulating the expansion of a gaseous planetary star, known as a red giant. Pixeldust spent considerable effort in ensuring the surface of the star was scientifically accurate. A sense of scale was also of critical value, since the great amount of negative space found in outer space can often lead to confusion as to whether the star is growing or the viewer is moving towards it. Pixeldust succeeded in creating this sense of scale by utilizing a variety of camera angles, as well as including nearby planets which become engulfed in the red giant’s expansion.


Throughout these series of space animations, Pixeldust utilized the best available industry standards for carrying out the complex simulations required for accuracy. In order to engineer this complex behavior of gas matter at a very large scale, we developed vfx tools using Houdini. This vfx program offered precise control over the motion of the particles rendered as gases and was able to handle large volumes of particle simulation. For rendering we devised a pipeline where Houdini particle data would be piped into realtime rendering solution in Unreal Engine for speedier photoreal rendering of this level of complex animation. The result, the team hopes you’ll agree, was nothing short of spectacular. To see the series, visit SearchingForMeaning.org