It’s just after dawn and at the top of the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii, in the volcanic environment with the orgasmically rich vegetation, the figure of a young Greek emerges. The curious traveler who has come from the other side of the planet patiently carries tripods, video cameras, lenses and cables, connects the equipment, surveys the landscape with a director’s eye and presses the record button on his cameras, in front of the giant building that stands on top . THE Theofanis Matsopoulos, creator of films about planetariums – Planetarium Film Creator – Visual Science Communicator as is his full capacity – is a Greek with one of the rarest professions, a creator with a big dream, the “…to visit the rest of the world’s large telescopes that have played an important role in the exploration of the universe” as he explained speaking to the radio station of APE MPE, “Agency 104.9FM”.

But already up to now the Greek documentary filmmaker has achieved a lot in this, globally rare, specialty of creating audio-visual productions. He has created 15 feature films about planetariums and huge screens as well as documentaries about virtual reality masks, while some of Mr. Matsopoulos’s creations can be seen by the public for years in the planetarium and in the world theater of the Science Dissemination Center & Technology Museum NOISIS in Thessaloniki , except for Athens. Today, he either prepares documentaries that will be commissioned by observatories, the European Space Agency and research groups, or creates his own films that he promotes abroad and in Greece, such as a new film about the earth’s climate.

On the rarest peaks

Theofanis Matsopoulos was involved in the creation of educational documentaries for planetariums as well as night landscape astrophotography and the use of telescopes from a young age, but he soon discovered that moving images could become his main work. “Some of the most important experiences during my work are expeditions to various exotic parts of the world to take photos and high-resolution videos for display on giant screens and planetarium domes. Among these trips I single out the recent expedition to the top of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii where I have been twice, a special place located at an altitude of 4200 meters. This place is home to the world’s largest telescopes, such as the twin Keck telescopes with a diameter of 10 meters each, the Gemini telescope with a diameter of eight meters and other important telescopes, and I was there on an official mission of the US National Science Foundation as part of a of a new documentary that will be released in 2025. The conditions at the top of the mountain are very difficult, because there is a lack of oxygen and because of this all the activities are done with great difficulty…” explains Mr. Matsopoulos who in all these trips has to he captures images with the most demanding specifications since his creations will be shown in planetariums and IMAX halls.

“The difficulties in videography for planetarium screens and giant screens (s.s image Giant Screen) are great. I need to work with high resolution and color quality. The planetariums project in 4K by 4K resolution, video with a minimum resolution twice that of the cinema, so to get the desired result we use camera arrays or cinema cameras with resolutions greater than 6K and a 360 by 180 degree image. This makes video creation very demanding and difficult to edit, while each planetarium has its own, separate specifications depending on the screen, geometry, projection system it has, etc. Characteristically, the brand new “Sphere” planetarium in Las Vegas even has a 16K resolution!”, describes the talented Greek creator. “I learned all this by myself, at the beginning I didn’t have much information and with the tests I managed to create the first subject somewhere in 2015. For all documentaries of the genre the material does not exist and has to be created so this is where my work comes in. ..” explains Mr. Matsopoulos.

In order to achieve the best result, the Greek Planetarium Film Creator – Visual Science Communicator travels to the most remote parts of the planet since the most important telescopes have been installed there in order to avoid light pollution and atmospheric pollution and to optimize their observations. “Another place that impressed me is the Atacama desert in northern Chile which I have also visited twice. There the landscape is completely different from what we are used to here in Europe since it is very rocky and arid. One could say that it looks like the planet ‘Mars… In this desert, the European Southern Observatory in which 23 countries participate has already installed the Very Large Telescope (VLT). This telescope consists of four 8-meter diameter telescopes, which have the ability to work together to act as one giant 16-meter diameter telescope! In an adjacent location, the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) telescope is now being built, with a diameter of 40 in fact that will reach the meters. These are incredible facilities…” says Mr. Matsopoulos.

Theofanis Matsopoulos: The Greek astrophotographer who films the universe

Worldwide success for his creations

The beginning of this work by Theofanis Matsopoulos was made through some of his first personal works that were presented in special festivals for scientific documentaries where the work of the young Greek was noticed by people in the field, proposing collaborations. “It is a specialized job that, with a lot of effort, has fortunately brought significant success. My first job was with the European Southern Observatory which operates the aforementioned largest European observatories in Chile. They then suggested that I go to work for them and create new documentaries, new material for a new planetarium that was then being built at the base of the observatory in Munich. This was my first big job and since then I have prepared many productions. Today I collaborate with the American observatories in many productions. In particular, the dome documentary “From the Earth to the Universe” that I have directed and created, produced by the European Southern Observatory ESO, since 2015 has been circulating in planetariums around the world and has been translated into more than 30 languages. I even remember receiving an email in which they had sent me a new narration for this particular documentary in the Telugu language. At the time I didn’t pay much attention, but to my great surprise later I realized that this language is spoken in India by about a billion people!” recounts the Greek documentary maker.

Among the notable things I remember is that many of his documentaries have been shown at the historic Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in North Carolina, USA. “At this planetarium from 1959 to 1975, NASA astronauts trained in astronautics, the determination of spacecraft position by observing celestial bodies that is. It is a great honor for me that this historic planetarium, which contributed to the progress of humanity, screens my own films”, says Mr. Matsopoulos who does not forget the acquaintances he has made over the years. “By traveling to all these different parts of the world I had the opportunity to meet people with a different mentality from ours and I believe that this is a very great experience in itself”, he comments.

Theofanis Matsopoulos: The Greek astrophotographer who films the universe

The mentors and the situation

But how did a young Greek become a specialized documentary filmmaker? “The people who played an important role in my international career were my father who for 40 years was an astronomer at the National Observatory of Athens, in charge of the Visitor Center and who introduced me to the world of Astronomy from an early age. So I was given the opportunity to see the celestial bodies through many telescopes and to love astronomy. Although I did not become an astronomer, I did become a popularizer and creator of astronomical content. After school I started to be an active creator and so it ended up being my subject for the last 15 short years, first through astrophotography with exhibitions in many cities of Greece and then with the video that won me over. An iconic personality who played an important role in my success was also Dionysis Simopoulos, a teacher who gave me access to the world of planetariums and provided some guidelines. When he was the director of the Planetarium in Athens, he had encouraged me to get into documentary making and we had organized exhibitions of my photographs as well as premieres of dome films I had made. I owe a lot to both of them…”, emphasizes Mr. Matsopoulos.

The ambitious future project

The young Greek documentarian and traveler has in front of him the project for the immediate future on which he is currently working, which is a life’s work. “It is about the creation of a new documentary about the American Observatories. This documentary is made in collaboration with the NSF (National Science Foundation) and includes many technical innovations, such as the use of video in ultra-high resolution, so that it can be shown on a large hemispherical screen. In fact, this particular documentary will be distributed free of charge to all planetariums in the world, with the aim of spreading science, and I am anxiously waiting for it to be ready for viewing by lovers of astronomy, stargazing, and science in general from all over the world!”, concludes the active Greek who intends to look with his lenses at the stars and count the moments. Moments that will bring him again on another exciting journey, to another end of the earth that hosts huge mirrors and scientists thirsty for knowledge…