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"We want to excite children about the world of science and the Molecularium program is a tremendous tool to ignite their curiosity." Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Molecularium® Project’s mission is to expand science literacy and awareness. We aim to excite audiences of all ages to explore and understand the molecular nature of the world around them. We do so through compelling stories, experiential learning and unprecedented visualizations in immersive and interactive media.

The Molecularium® Project is the flagship outreach and education effort of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Nanotechnology Center - bringing audiences worldwide into the amazing nanoscale world of atoms and molecules.

The Molecularium Project has created a number of ground breaking productions:

Molecularium - Riding Snowflakes is the Digital Dome Experience that takes young audiences into the magical, musical world of atoms and molecules! A 23-minute immersive show for digital domes and planetariums released in 2005.

Molecules to the MAX! is the 3D Giant Screen Adventure for family audiences. Join Oxy and her crew of the Molecularium ship to boldly go where only atoms have gone before! A 40-minute Large Format feature film released in 2009.

NanoSpace is a web-based, virtual theme park for children of all ages! Explore the world of atoms and molecules with games, activities and short animations in a fun-filled amusement park and learning environment launched in 2012.

"If only one idea had to be passed on the next generation, it is the concept of atoms and molecules, and that everything is made of them." Richard Feynman, Physics Nobel Laureate

In 2001, Dr. Linda Schadler was looking for new ways to get elementary school students interested in atoms and molecules, as part of a new NSF-funded nanotechnology center, when she had the idea to use a planetarium to explore the nanoscale world. “If you can go to the stars, why can’t you go down to the molecular level?” Schadler asked.

Her colleague Dr. Shekhar Garde was inspired from the moment he first heard the idea. “Galaxies, to me, are very far away and I don’t think about them every day,” said Garde. “I drink water every day and thought wouldn’t it be fun to jump into it at the molecular level and see what it looks like?”

Pilot Show

In 2002, they produced a seven-minute pilot show for the local planetarium called “Molecularium”. Despite its simple vector graphics, the show was very popular at the museum. It proved that atoms and molecules could be captivating to kids. Assessment data showed that audiences were learning a lot.

"It was clear that it worked even in a very crude format," says Dr. Richard W. Siegel, the director of the nanotechnology center. The scientists knew they were on the right track, but the basic show was not what Schadler envisioned. “We needed full color Hollywood-style animation.” The team was determined to take their idea to the next level.

Riding Snowflakes

In early 2004, Schadler, Garde, and Siegel were awarded a U.S. National Science Foundation grant to make a new Molecularium show for digital domes. They brought in the filmmaker and experience designer V Owen Bush to bring the idea to life.

Bush founded the production company Nanotoon Entertainment to realize the new project. He enlisted his friend, writer and inventor Kurt Przybilla, to help develop the show as a character driven story. They proposed a thrilling adventure of atoms flying a ship called the Molecularium through nanoscale worlds. The scientists loved the idea and collaborated with them on the development of the script.

Riding Snowflakes

With Bush directing and Przybilla producing, they recruited and assembled a small team of creative and technical professionals to produce Molecularium - Riding Snowflakes, a digital dome adventure. Chris Harvey, creative director of AMNH’s SonicVision, signed on as art director. Blake Holland and Joshua Minges, core members of special effects legend Douglas Trumbull’s team at IMAX Ridefilm, signed on as technical directors to meet the challenges of bringing this unseen world to the screen and Steve Rein, a professional computer animator for over twenty years, signed on as lead character animator to bring the atoms to life.

In February 2005, the team debuted the 23-minute experience. The show created a sensation in the digital-dome planetarium community for its entertaining story, technological innovations, and unprecedented repurposing of the planetarium. Riding Snowflakes has garnered awards and accolades around the globe, and continues to thrill young audiences worldwide in several languages, including Arabic, Korean and Turkish.

Molecules to the MAX!

“If you are doing something that makes a positive impact, it drives you to keep pushing that idea further to reach broader audiences,” says Siegel, a world-renowned nanotechnology pioneer. He was amazed at the transformation that one screening of Molecularium had upon his young granddaughter. After viewing the film, she seemed to be looking for atoms and molecules everywhere, and seeing the world around her with new eyes.

With the success of Riding Snowflakes in digital planetariums, the team quickly set their sights on creating a longer, much more ambitious large-format film sequel, Molecules to the MAX! for Imax® and Giant Screen Theaters.

Molecules to the MAX!

Curtis R. Priem, co-founder of Nvidia Corporation, saw the original digital dome show and was inspired. “The Molecularium Project is a perfect example of how highly technical information can be communicated in a simple, accessible form that even children can understand.” He threw his support behind the project with a generous gift to make the giant screen Molecularium film a reality.

The opportunity to make a giant-screen 3D film was an exciting, but daunting challenge. “Everything, from the simulations to the story and animation, had to be bigger, better and much more complex for the largest film format in the world,” says Przybilla. The team knew from the outset that it was a massive undertaking and production began in 2006 with a much larger team, now a grassroots animation studio.

In the recruiting process, Bush and Przybilla scoured the web for highly skilled professionals who would be available and willing to relocate to Troy, New York, where Rensselaer is located and work in a supervisory relationship, mentoring the small team of highly motivated novices and student interns. Eventually Nanotoon had as many as 10 guests visiting Troy to work on the project from locations as far-flung as Canada, California, and Alabama. When Nanotoon was not able to recruit artists with the specialized skill-sets they needed, they would work remotely with the best in the business, using video-conferencing and other networked collaboration tools.

The production pipeline for Molecules to the MAX! emulated the process of an Hollywood animation studio. A typical shot would go through a series of departments- from concept art to storyboards, to blocking, to animation, to lighting and shading, to compositing, to high resolution rendering , and eventually to 3D render.

By the end of the production, the team had a render farm at Rensselaer with over 400 processors and over 60 TB of storage. But even this was not enough to complete the job in time. Fortunately, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is also home to the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, one of the largest supercomputers in the world, and the Molecularium team was given access to even more processors to get the job done.

In 2009, Molecules to the MAX! was completed and premiered to the Giant Screen Cinema Association. In 2010, the 3D version of the film premiered. Since then, it has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic and shown in large format and IMAX theaters around the world.

NanoSpace

Once Molecules to the MAX! was successfully in distribution, the Molecularium Project team chose to focus on the small screen for their next effort. The goal of spreading science literacy and reaching as many people as possible made a web-based production a natural next step. They wanted to create a place full of interactive games, activities and animations that would teach kids of all ages about the nanoscale world of atoms and molecules.

They came up with the idea of making NanoSpace, a virtual theme park for the Molecularium cartooniverse that would be a fun place that kids could go to learn through active participation, exploration and play.

A small team of artists, animators and web developers was assembled to design, develop and build the park and all its attractions. In the end, NanoSpace would have over thirty games and activities, as well as five new animations when it launched in 2012.

Molecular Simulation

The dynamic nanoscale molecular environments in Riding Snowflakes and Molecules to the MAX! are derived from accurate, state-0f-the-art molecular simulations. The location, movement and trajectory of each atom in these shots were painstakingly simulated by Dr. Shekar Garde’s team of researchers at Rensselaer. To create believable nanoscale immersion required simulations of massive scale and complexity. Visualizing the plot twists of the story within accurate simulations posed a host of new creative challenges for the collaborators that led to the invention of many creative simulation strategies by the Garde Team.

Data Driven Animation

Translating massive amounts of atomic simulation data onto the giant screen posed unique technical challenges for Nanotoon’s animators. To process and render the millions of atoms in most scenes required the invention of new procedural animation techniques to create the ultra-high resolution frames of Molecules to the MAX! and Riding Snowflakes. Justin Rosen, Nanotoon’s Technical Director developed a custom conversion software within the Autodesk Maya API that allows the massive simulations to be instantly and flexibly visualized. The result is atoms and molecules rendered in cinematic realism, with reflections, refractions, lighting, motion blur, and atmospheric volume. With this new simulation/animation hybrid, we can now reveal the nanoscale universe as never before visualized.

Omnidirectional Projection Systems

In 2004, when Riding Snowflakes went into production, the digital "fulldome” projection systems were in their infancy. The development of single projector systems with an Omnifocus™ lens radically reduced cost and complexity, and created a rapidly growing number of small digital-dome systems worldwide.

Virtual Fisheye Lens

Molecularium - Riding Snowflakes was developed in a digital dome with a single lens projection system. Inspired by this innovation, the Molecularium team developed its counterpart: an omnidirectional fisheye lens for a virtual camera. The omnidirectional camera captures an entire immersive world in a single frame. This is a significant innovation, as it allows for streamlining and ease of production in the emerging digital-dome medium.

Audio Innovations

In creating the soundtrack for Molecules to the Max! a number of innovations were made in the realm of sound spatialization. As the characters and objects fly throughout the immersive CG environment that is presented onscreen, their voices and sounds move to corresponding positions in the giant screen (e.g. IMAX) surround sound-field. Sound designer Jesse Stiles collaborated with the Lead Technical Director, Justin Rosen, to create the "Space-o-Matic" system in which the animation platform Maya automatically passed location information of objects and characters to the sound spatialization system. Using the "Space-o-Matic" allowed for the sounds in the film to be automatically spatialized in realtime with a high degree of position accuracy.

Executive Producer

Linda S. Schadler

Linda S. Schadler is the Russell Sage Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer. Her research focuses on polymer nanocomposites with emphasis on tailoring the mechanical, electrical, and optical properties by engineering the nanoparticle / polymer interfaces. She has published over 100 articles. She has won many awards and honors including the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award (1994), the Geisler Award by ASM International (2000), and was elected a Fellow of ASM International in 2006. Most recently she won the coveted 2008 Outstanding Professor Award by the Rensselaer School of Engineering.

Executive Producer

Shekhar Garde

Shekhar Garde is the Elaine S. and Jack S. Parker Chaired Professor and Head of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer. His research focuses on understanding the role of water in biological systems using tools of molecular modeling and simulation. He has published over 60 articles. He has received several awards including the prestigious NSF CAREER Award (2001), School of Engineering Research Award (2003), and Rensselaer Early Career Award (2004).

Executive Producer

Richard W. Siegel

Richard W. Siegel is the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and the Director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center and its NSF-Funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures. He is a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology. His research focuses on the synthesis and processing, characterization, properties, and applications of nanostructured materials, including ceramics, metals, composites, and biomaterials. He has published over 275 articles, edited 10 books, and has presented over 500 invited talks worldwide on nanotechnology and related areas. He has received several international awards including an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Senior Research Award (1994), a RIKEN Eminent Scientist Award (2001), a Deutsche Bank Prize (2003) and was named a Materials Research Society Fellow (2010). He is a charter member of the Giant Screen Cinema Association.

Writer and Director

V Owen Bush

V Owen Bush is a designer, producer, and filmmaker who uses immersion and participation to create transformative social experiences. His works are presented in venues such as live concerts and events, digital planetaria, IMAX3D, broadcast television, mobile devices, and the web. He is a member of the Omnisensorialist Federation and Immersionists. V has had a principal role in notable projects including: Pseudo Programs Inc., MTV’s AMP, QUIET!/We Live In Public, SonicVision at the Hayden Planetarium, and the Molecularium Project at Rensselaer. As a freelance motion designer, V has developed broadcast television promos for NBC, MTV, VH1, PBS, Nickelodeon, Showtime, Discovery, History Channel, NY1, and others. V is a co-founder of Glowing Pictures, a company whose work includes televised concerts, music videos, commercials, multimedia operas, and visual environments. Glowing Pictures’ clients include Vh1, MySpace, the Beastie Boys, the Creators Project, Eyebeam, the American Museum of Natural History, Imagination and Lincoln Center, among many others.

Writer and Producer

Kurt Przybilla

Kurt Przybilla is an inventor, educator, writer and producer. He invented Tetra Tops®, the world’s first spinning top with more than one axis of spin. These award-winning toys have been featured in the New York Times, Popular Science, Baby Einstein, Child and Discover Magazine, as well as at the Smithsonian Institute. In 2005, he co-founded the Bamboo Institute to develop innovative ways to utilize bamboo’s potential to help solve a wide range of problems facing our planet. Kurt taught in New York City for over ten years. He also taught in Japan for three and a half years where he studied Japanese archery, flower arrangement, language and poetry. Since 2004, Kurt has been working with Nanotoon Entertainment on the Molecularium Project.

Art Director and Production Designer

Chris Harvey

Chris Harvey is an Emmy Award winning art director who has created designs for an international roster of clients including MTV, VH1, NBC, ESPN, Vox Germany, Viva-Plus, The Smithsonian Institution, Hearst Publications, and The American Museum of Natural History. Additional awards include a Peabody, three Broadcast Design Association Awards, as well as recognition at film festivals in Chicago and New York. As art director for MTV, Chris generated countless on-air graphics for the network, moving on to direct broadcast design for Curious Pictures and Lee Hunt Associates in New York City. In 2003 he was creative director for the Hayden Planetarium's full-dome animated music show SonicVision. Chris has also provided visual support to pioneer composers of long-form contemplative music, producing imagery for La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and David Hykes. Making art since childhood, Chris has shown paintings, drawings, and multimedia installations at galleries in New York City, Philadelphia, Korea, and the New York Capital Region.