Whether you call it tradition or necessity, the fact is that in the planetarium community, especially among the smaller venues, in-house content production is common practice. Upgrading to fulldome digital technology is not going to change the planetarium DIY culture, nor should it.
By Judith Rubin
Even with a skeleton staff and a shoestring budget, a planetarium with a fulldome system has several options for staying in the pilot’s seat when it comes to creating content and customized programming, whether both real-time or pre-rendered, to suit one’s particular audience.
The ever expanding list of options, tools and strategies includes:
•• Real-time sky shows using digital databases and navigation software
•• Domecasting: remote streaming of live shows
•• Digital production tools customized for the dome, proprietary and open-source
•• Recruiting affordable animation talent as needed
•• Acquiring new skills in production workshops
The Power of Real-Time
“Interactive, real-time 3D digital projection is returning us to a situation very similar to the way planetariums were run in the 1920s, only it happens that now we can simulate flying away from the surface of Earth,” says David McConville, who is director of Noospheric Research at the Elumenati, makers of the
portable GeoDome recently seen at President Obama’s stargazing party on the White House lawn in Washington DC.
“We have brought back the storyteller/narrator taking the audience on a trip, thanks to the astronomy and Earth science visualization platforms provided by software such as Uniview, Digital Sky, and Stellarium,” he explains. “We can now simulate flying into the night sky and beyond it, seeing constellations
from different perspectives. We can tell not just the story of the night sky, but a much bigger picture cosmic story about Earth’s place in the cosmos.”
Used in an educational context, real-time navigation makes the planetarium into a stateof-the-art digital classroom. In a public setting it creates a dramatic multimedia show. McConville reported that two shows at the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco were filled to capacity when he presented “Perceiving Home: An Ecological Tool of the Cosmos,” in which his live narration was accompanied by a live viola
performance. “Whoever sees this as a dying art hasn’t seen it as an art form,” he observed.
The Elumenati trains users of its GeoDome system on how to use the Uniview data visualization platform, which can be controlled with a game controller or mouse. “It’s not nearly as complicated as Photoshop,” he says. “Some people get it in a couple of hours. The biggest issue is knowing the science, and planetariums already know the science.”
Created by SCISS AB, Uniview is packaged with NASA’s Digital Universe Atlas, and users can import additional databases via the Internet from the servers of NASA, NOAA and other science organizations.
Domecasting is another area for which the Elumenati provides support. One live story can be broadcast remotely to eight theaters at a time, via an Internet connection using Uniview’s Octopus networking feature. Carter Emmart (AMNH), David Herring (NOAA), Joel Halvorson (Minnesota Planetarium Society)
and Matt Linke (University of Michigan) are all prolific domecasters, according to Mc-Conville.
Ott Planetarium installed its Konica Minolta Mediaglobe-I fulldome system in late 2004. The 30-foot, 60-seat dome theater has been open since 1969 at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. “We replaced our old starball and old projectors, and said, ‘let’s make stuff ourselves,’” says Ron Proctor, production coordinator. Using 3d Studio Max, in 2005 Ott produced Great Space Race. In 2006, NASA enlisted Ott to create a curriculum-based fulldome series. To make the most of the available funds, the decision was made to produce with Blender open-source software.
“Since switching, we’ve become a poster child of open-source software in planetarium production,” notes Proctor. “We like it because it makes things accessible to all the little guys. It took quite a bit of work to transition over, but it’s free and the updates are free. The capabilities are approximately the same as commercial 3d software, and we’ve come up with ways to make it work for fulldome that get better over time.
“We designed an apparatus that works in blender as a fulldome camera. It is a reflective hemisphere camera that uses a ray-tracing render pass to render a 360 degree-by-180 degree picture of a scene. In simple terms, it makes a fisheye in one render step. You could make a scene in Blender and then fly a camera through it, play it as a video file or run live through it using the Blender Game Engine. We use it primarily to make pre-rendered shows.”
Ott’s recent production, The Nature of Science Science, has been licensed to about 10 planetariums and released in a DVD version for schools, and is being well received. The 20-minute prerendered show was fully animated in Blender.
“It took three months of working about 60 hours a week to get it done,” notes Proctor. “They gave me an office and a computer with a 30-inch monitor, so I was pretty happy.” Ott recently presented a short demo at SEPA thatwas fully produced in Blender. “We’ve produced content up to 4k resolution, and we’ve
had success on a wide range of equipment.”
Planetarians and media producers interested in learning Blender for fulldome can attend Ott’s summer workshops, or hire them for an in-house training session. The workshops are weeklong, hands-on intensives. “They go from knowing little or nothing to having produced several minutes of finished footage,” says Proctor. This next summer there will be two consecutive sessions, a beginner’s workshop June 8-12 followed by an advanced session June 15-19. The session pair will be repeated the following month, July 20-24 and 27-31.
All Astrophotography by Richard Johnson
Homegrown in Nebraska
Learning to use new digital tools is a challenge that Jack Dunn of the Mueller Planetarium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln readily embraced. But then, Dunn also built the planetarium’s fulldome system himself— a spherical mirror projection system put together with guidance from Paul Bourke of the Western Australia Supercomputing Project (part of the University of Western Australia at Perth). Like many planetarium operators, Dunn is used to wearing a lot of hats, and trying new things.
Dunn is the first to point out that the fulldome material he produces for the Mueller’s 32-foot dome, combining animations and images from scientific sources such as the Hubble Telescope with “amateur astrophotography” and other imagery, is not aiming for the kind of production quality of the bigger budget pre-rendered shows. But it serves the goals of the institution.
“You can do a lot with beautiful 2D images using the ‘Ken Burns effect’—panning and zooming. For the viewer or audience to see those images covering the whole dome is quite different from seeing them flat.”
“I’m a staff of one and I don’t have a staff of animators,” says Dunn. So far he has worked mostly with Adobe Premiere and After Effects. He is looking ahead to improving his production capabilities and output by learning Blender, and by partnering with nearby King Middle School, where Dunn’s colleague Jack Northrup has set up a render farm for student projects (Dunn and Northrup are, respectively, president and executive secretary of the Great Plains Planetarium Association).
“We’ve discussed a project in which the students would take an old slide program and render some of the images into fulldome,” says Dunn.
The Mueller kept its opto-mechanical star projector, a Spitz A4. “I tend to use the fulldome system for playing clips and movies, and the star projector for the
night sky,” says Dunn. “I’m running outside programs [licensed pre-rendered shows] but I also put together clips.” A recent piece he assembled centers on Clay Anderson, the first Nebraskan to become an astronaut.
“He’s very well known in the state now, and people like seeing his pictures. I did a short piece showing him, his flight, and a collection of the pictures he took of Nebraska from the space station.”
Dunn is upbeat about fulldome but acknowledges the learning curve. “Planetarians still have to adjust to some different ways of producing programs. I did a lot of homework to look at what would work in my theater and what I could afford.
“One thing I’m really happy about is the dome master standard that allows us all to start out with something that makes sense. In the days of slide projectors and the older systems, there was a huge variety of hardware setups and no formatting standard at all. Dome masters allow me the potential that the show will look essentially the same as it did for the producer.
“What it comes down to is that fulldome is just another tool. I’m totally fine with the fact that I’m not going to be able to create a show that has the graphics power of someone with a big budget and a lot of animators. It still has to be about telling a good story.”
Dunn noted that the Western Alliance of Planetariums will hold its 2010 regional conference in Omaha next August, and there will be a side trip to the Mueller Planetarium.
About animation and storytelling
“Planetariums have always done their own thing in the past. They still want to do that moving into fulldome, and a lot of them have the capability. It is a different technical skill set, but it is still really all about being able to craft and deliver a good story,” says Brad Thompson, lead animator at Spitz Inc., which
provides the SciDome system (about 50 installations to date) and also offers a library of prerendered shows such as The Zula Patrol: Under the Weather.
Thompson cited the National Space Centre in Leicester, United Kingdom, which has a Digistar-3 system, as a good example of a planetarium that has honed their in-house abilities and is now turning out world class shows such as Big and Astronaut. Spitz provided some initial training when the Centre first purchased its fulldome system. “They had the right kind of people on staff,” says Thompson.
Thompson’s observations back up Jack Dunn’s example. “A place with very small staff needs multitalented individuals. What you produce may not necessarily be a show that is distributable on a large scale, but still a great show that will work very well in your local market.”
Frequently the operator of a new fulldome system will start out using the real-time tools to develop shows, then start experimenting with creating pre-rendered shows. “You have to know some kind of animation software, and how to go from the pictures in your head to the pixels on the screen,” he says. “But it is not an insurmountable task—and there are tons of new graduates with degrees in digital media, so it is also not difficult to find help.”
If the show is being created for distribution, it must be rendered to a high resolution such as 4k by 4k, which requires large amounts of storage space and rendering time. Other issues that must be considered in media production for the dome are cross-scatter and how to make the most of the immersive qualities. “There’s a whole newcinematic language being developed for the dome,” says Thompson, “and there is a place for the smaller producer.”
Once a year, Spitz offers its weeklong Digital Institute, an intensive fulldome training course for planetarians and media producers.
Quality, skill and cost
All forms of digital media production and their production communities can gain from crosspollination, including fulldome.
Carolyn Collins Petersen of Loch Ness Productions, a very active provider of fulldome shows, remarks that “Multimedia production today is something that you see produced at many levels of quality and skill. Look at some of the mashups on YouTube. You can see incredible potential. You can also see incredible dross. That’s part of the potential of any medium, not just fulldome.
“The theater is not the issue. Ability, budget, time and talent are.”
Some Loch Ness industry favorites are Larry Cat in Space, MarsQuest, and The Cowboy Astronomer. But, “In terms of sales, our most successful
fulldome show so far has been Hubble Vision 2,” remarks Petersen. She and business partner/spouse Mark Petersen have also traced a learning curve.
“Our first dozen fulldome shows began as repurposed classic (slide-based) planetarium shows. The stories were good but the visualizations needed work to bring them into the fulldome age. We did a lot of animation work on what was essentially 2D artwork. Our new shows going forward will have more 3D animation, etc., but not all visuals are going to come to us as ‘3D-able.’ So, we (and any other producer) will have to be creative about how we show flat 2D images from Hubble, for example.”
What does it cost to create a fulldome show? “We get that question a lot,” says Petersen. “The answer is the same as what a construction person would ask when you ask ‘how much will it cost to build a building?’ and they ask in return, ‘How big of a hole do you want to dig?’” The cost of a show depends on such factors as: running time, availability of source material, whether the show is 2D, 3D or stereo 3D, who will create the visualizations and what they will charge, amount of research required, who will write/narrate/animate/do the music and what they will charge, and so forth.
“We’ve heard of fully produced shows that cost more than a million dollars to produce and as little as tens of thousands,” says Petersen, “and in-house production budgeting can be complex: a museum or science center may not have to count staff salary or overhead as part of a show budget, whereas if an independent producer hires somebody, that gets counted as an expense for the show.”
This article was first published in The Planetarian, published by the International Planetarium Society. Reprinted here with kind permission.
The investigating creatures of Zula Patrol: crafting and telling a good story. Images courtesy Spitz, Inc.
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