Matt Blackwell

Matt Blackwell, the Academy Visualization Studio’s project lead on Spark, found working on the planetarium team to be a great way to build on his Ph.D. in chemistry and experience at Industrial Light and Magic, where he worked on visual effects for Star Wars and Star Trek movies and more.

After receiving his PhD in chemistry, Matt was looking for a science-adjacent role and applied for a job at Industrial Light and Magic, the LucasFilm studio that has produced the visual effects for more than 300 films, from Back to the Future to the Harry Potter series to Marvel movies. Over 11 years working there, Matt grew from his initial “tape monkey” role backing up data into executing sophisticated visual effects. Some of his projects included working on the Star Wars prequels, the first Iron Man movie, and dust effects for Winona Ryder’s fatal scene in Star Trek (2009). In Matt’s words, that Star Trek work is what pushed him to find a different job. His joke: “I left ILM when they made me kill Spock’s mom.”

Matt loves his current role on the Visualization team as a way to be both creative and scientifically accurate. One of his favorite parts of the job is designing the visualizations for productions. After the Viz studio has a general storyline, they reach out to scientists for primary literature and data to include in the show. Matt enjoys “turning these numbers into a pretty picture”: He takes the data and creates graphics that are both accessible and scientifically accurate.

The Viz Studio always shares their graphics with the same scientists, who often use the visuals in their own talks and research. In fact, one of Matt’s exciting moments was when scientist Mike Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, said he gained new insight about planetary orbits from watching the visualization.

Matt’s favorite planetarium production was the award-winning Big Astronomy show from 2021. Matt enjoyed both the technical and people-facing aspects of the production experience. While filming over four weeks in Chile, the team had the chance to get to know many people working at the various observatories they visited. Matt spent months learning about creating timelapse videos with fisheye lenses, and even captured a small earthquake from one of the many cameras he set up during filming.

One of the most rewarding–and challenging–parts of Matt’s job is how open and creative it is, he said.. Everyone on the Viz Team rotates through the project lead role, tasked with focusing both on their individual piece of the production and how all the sections fit together. Matt, who took on the project lead role for the first time with the Academy’s new show Spark, describes this process as “initially slow, then exponential.” Figuring out the pieces and storyline can take a while, like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, then suddenly everything comes together.

One of the big technical learning curves for folks new to Viz productions is the dome itself. As Matt describes it, some things that are really exciting on normal screens just don’t work for domes.

For instance, because the planetarium requires using fisheye lenses for filming, you have to get really close to a subject, which doesn’t work with wild animals. Also, some motion effects like a camera shaking or zooming in can be exciting on a flat screen, but downright nauseating in the dome. The team always has to check their productions in the dome to make sure there isn’t too much motion

Matt Blackwell sets up camera for night shoot.

Matt Blackwell sets up his camera for a night shoot.


Spotlight snippets

Academy anniversary: May 11, 2009

Favorite Academy animal: Spiny lumpsucker. Matt likes these “tiny, clumsy-looking fish” partially because of their name, and partially because they “can’t swim worth a damn.”

Surprising fact: Matt used to be licensed to operate a nuclear reactor, and still has the certificate at home!

What Matt is reading and watching: Reading Subdivision and watching TaskMaster.


About the author

Larissa Walder is Senior Associate of Teacher Professional Development.