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Making Movies That Zoom Into Foreign Worlds

Aug 3, 2012
Originally published on August 3, 2012 2:29 pm



You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Ira Flatow. A little later in the program, we'll be talking about NASA's landing of its new probe, Curiosity, to the Martian surface. But with us now is Flora Lichtman with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: This is a soothing...


FLATOW: I mean, I saw the video pick. It's so soothing, although it's on a topic that you wouldn't think is soothing at all.

LICHTMAN: It is a little bit soothing. We are going to the movies this week. So sit back, relax, and the stars of these films usually have one cell.

FLATOW: One cell.


FLATOW: Not like a phone. In the old days, we talked about cells...

LICHTMAN: The analog...


LICHTMAN: Yeah, we're looking at how people make movies through a microscope. And I hadn't really thought about this much before this week, but there's a sort of long history of this, and there have been a few real pioneers of this field. And one of them is a guy, a photographer called Roman Vishniac.

And you may know this name because he's famous for sort of a very different kind of photography. He took portraits. He has a picture of Einstein that's pretty famous. And he is famous for documenting Jews in Eastern Europe for World War II.

But it turns out that he also was this huge science buff, and he made these educational movies funded by NSF and others for classroom use, and a lot of them featured his micro-movies, these movies that he did in his New York apartment through the microscope with, you know, pond scum that he collected I don't know where, my guess would be Central Park, just looking at some of the footage.

FLATOW: Right, and so then he trained - this moviemaker trained his camera into the lens of the microscope.

LICHTMAN: Yes, that's right.

FLATOW: And took some gorgeous video, right?

LICHTMAN: They're very abstract. I talked with Heather Heckman, who's at the University of South Carolina Libraries, and they loaned us some of this Vishniac footage. And she was, like, it's almost like avant-garde film because, you know, you look at these oyster larvae pulsating, and you don't know what they are. They're just - but it's really beautiful.

So we talked - so we learn about Vishniac and also sort of figure out how things have changed since the '50s, '60s and '70s, which is when he was doing his work. And we spoke with Wim van Egmond, who's this Dutch photographer who wins all these Nikon Small Worlds contests. I think people who follow this will know his name. But he makes these beautiful, microscopic videos and videos through the microscope and photos, too.

FLATOW: And they're all one-celled creatures?

LICHTMAN: Not all of them.

FLATOW: Not all of them?

LICHTMAN: So for example we show a hydra, which has multiple cells, but the resolution is so good on this...

FLATOW: It's stunning.

LICHTMAN: That you can see the single-celled creatures cruising around on top like, you know, like they're on a highway, on these little lanes.

FLATOW: It's gorgeous.

LICHTMAN: It's gorgeous.

FLATOW: It really is. I mean, the fact - and he uses the microscopes that I used as a kid, right, from the '60s because those must be Bausch and Lomb or something like that.

LICHTMAN: The Zeiss microscope.

FLATOW: Zeiss microscope, different company.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, right. No, he said that actually if you want to get into this, you know, the cost of one of these microscopes from the '60s or '70s is about that of a computer, but it'll last you a lifetime.

FLATOW: Forever. The optics are just terrific.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, and they haven't - you know, that's good enough, and really the advances have come with these digital cameras.

FLATOW: Yeah. So he looks through the lenses of the microscope, and he looks at these - and you made it as your video pick of the week. You put together a montage of all these gorgeous images.

LICHTMAN: It was a fun one to work on.

FLATOW: Yeah, because I know that is your passion also.

LICHTMAN: Microfauna, can't get enough.

FLATOW: Microflora and fauna.

LICHTMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: Excuse me, I just thought of - wow, and was this something he started out to do, I mean, as a scientist?

LICHTMAN: No, so Wim van Egmond is an artist, and he was trained as an artist. He was a painter at first, and he was really into painting from these scientific illustrations, biological illustrations from hundreds of years ago. And he said, well, you know, I could just do this myself. So he purchased his first microscope about 20 years ago and since then has been kind of perfecting the technique.

But when he started, you know, he was also working with film, like Roman Vishniac. And, you know, when he had to look up what he was looking at, these organisms, he was looking in reference books, things that are just unthinkable these days, of course you would just Google.

So he said that, you know, progress has gotten much faster because now you can just look and see your result immediately. You don't have to develop your film, and - you know, and so he's gotten - it sounds like he's gotten - he's sort of refined his techniques much more quickly in the days of the digital camera.

FLATOW: Now I know you like to limit the size of your video pick to like three or four minutes.

LICHTMAN: This one could not be limited. It called for a double feature.


FLATOW: There is no little announcement in the middle to go take your seat.

LICHTMAN: Intermission.

FLATOW: The little curtain coming - no, it's not there. But it's actually, it's really beautiful, and I'm surprised, you know, of the lighting. You know, you look at these things, how do you get the lighting so pretty?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I think this is a main component. That's what Wim van Egmond said. And these new digital cameras require less light. The film really required a lot of light to illuminate it, but of course there are - you know, they're backlit, and I think getting that right is challenging.

And the other thing he said is that the key to getting a good image is also preparing the slide in the right way.


LICHTMAN: So you want the organism - it's like taking a portrait, that's sort of how he thinks about it. But of course your microorganism doesn't see it that way.


LICHTMAN: So you have to figure out how to get them to sit still, and that requires sort of propping up the cover slip with little dots of Vaseline. That's his trick. But you want to sort of squish it just enough so it doesn't move but not too much so that you run it over, essentially.

FLATOW: Well, you don't want to kill the...

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that's the - you don't want to kill it.

FLATOW: All right, that's Flora Lichtman and our Video Pick of the Week. It's microorganisms that are under the microscope.

LICHTMAN: Micro-movie stars.

FLATOW: Micro-movie stars, and are there any outtakes we might get later on?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, you know, I think what I'll post a little later is one of the full versions of the worlds of Dr. Vishniac. These are these educational films that he made. Look forward to that.

FLATOW: All right, there it is. It's up, our video pick of the week, up on our website at Thank you very much.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.