How Physicists Produced a State-of-the-Art Planetarium Show

By Michael Barnett

There were plenty of skeptics.

  • How could physicists make a show for students and the public?
  • How could they succeed in the strange format of a planetarium dome?
  • How could they finish with much less funding than standard planetarium shows?

And yet, it has been quite successfully done! Phantom of the Universe: The Hunt for Dark Matter shows audiences how scientists are searching for dark matter in underground experiments and at the Large Hadron Collider, as well as the early evidence for dark matter in astrophysics. The worldwide showings have already brought in wonderful reviews.

An essential element was to get a great director, screenwriter/producer, and animators. Then for narration, we hired an Academy Award winning actress, Tilda Swinton, and for sound an Academy Award winning team at Skywalker Sound. We also worked closely with planetarium directors. Given the curved projection surface (the dome), creating a planetarium show is quite different than a show on a flat screen.

The physicists were in Michigan (Reinhard Schwienhorst), Texas (Kaushik De), and California (George Smoot and me), director in Geneva, producer/screenwriter in Los Angeles, animators in Spain, narrator in Scotland, etc. Including a couple years of fundraising, the process took over six years. Most of us had full-time jobs and had to squeeze this work into overtime.

We met at various times in person, often at planetariums so we could see if our efforts worked on a planetarium dome. We also had many Skype calls. Our director, Joao Pequenao, was constantly calling our animators and visiting them in Valencia, reviewing progress. I spent a day in Nairn, Scotland recording our Academy Award winning narrator, Tilda Swinton, as our producer (Carey Ann Strelecki) Skyped in. Another two days were at Skywalker Ranch as the sound effects were produced and mixed with music and narration.

What actually made it possible for "amateurs" to produce this show, besides sheer determination, was the use of film professionals, though we never gave up creative control.

If you are interested in getting your local planetarium to present Phantom of the Universe, please contact me at Our website is at:

I close with some of the praise from planetarium directors in five countries:

  • "People love the show!"
  • "… a compelling planetarium show, … accessible to a wide variety of audiences"
  • "…science center staff, high school students, and university students … were all extremely impressed with the show."
  • "It looks great, there are some amazing ‘wow’ set pieces, and it communicates a lot of complex science in a really accessible way."
  • "…a great experience with middle school boys who were very engaged throughout the show. The visuals caused them to break out into cheers, and I had thoughtful questions afterwards."
  • "It was a real success. The people were all amazed by the quality of the show."

Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton recording Phantom of the Universe

Animation team in Valencia

The animation team in Valencia (plus the director and executive producer)

Vienna premiere

The German-language premiere in Vienna.