When in Dome…

The Morehead Planetarium & Science Center Production Blog

Archive for September, 2009

When filming in a traditional flat screen medium,  one may use a variety of lenses to create certain dramatic effects. They can accompany these lenses with zooms and dolly moves to create the Oh-so-dramatic Zolly, where the characters world shifts around them. This video I found explains it pretty well, even though its a bit cheesy in style.

What’s covered are some classic filming techniques, but how can we translate them to the dome.

Unlike a window where you really only have one direction of z-space to sell, a dome is 360 degrees of z space. The viewer is fixed in the middle of a scene. In order for the environment to be correctly projected  on a dome, we’re stuck using only one lens setting, and can’t exactly zoom, because that would actually translate into a camera move.


Everything is based upon the 3d cameras proximity and placement within a scene, and its field of view has to remain a constant. The filming language we’ve grown to accept without realizing is subtle, and full of nuance.  The dome world is still building a shooting vocabulary, let alone a well developed visual language.

Text treatment can be pretty specific for flat screen, and even more so for working in dome space. Its always good practice to steer clear of serifs, as they can be hard to read on the flat screen. Television and Film this is kept in mind a lot, and should also be something to think about when projecting on the dome surface. We’re currently working on the creation of the credits for our conversion show The Magic Tree House, and learned a couple things from the experience. The distance the credits or text can play a big factor in ledgibility. The closer to the camera the more distortion we see. A good rule of thumb we’ve found is that if you keep the size of the text no larger than one of the cameras (a 90 degree section of the 360 dome), there isn’t much distortion. Another big part to remember is that the resolution of the dome can vary significantly from planetarium to planetarium. Although the text might look really nice and crisp in the 4k version, those planetaria that have 1k domes may not be able to make out the text very easily.

Often times I find myself being asked, “what do you do for a living?” and it’s never a short answer.

The response is usually, “I design Planetarium shows”. The conversation never stops there.  It’s usually followed by remarks of wonder, and enthusiasm, but never a sense of comprehension. So of course an explanation is needed to further fill out exactly what kind of planetarium shows that it is I design.

Explaining that Planetariums are no longer just planetariums is my first step, and introducing new vocabulary of Full Dome Video, is what follows. I usually explain that if they’ve seen an IMAX show, to imagine being inside the screen rather than looking at it.WorthamIMAX-1

We turn the entire surface of the dome into one large screen that uses modern animation techniques similar to that of the motion picture industry. Which of course makes for even more enthusiasm and excitement, and a little more sense of what it is I do.Print

This concept that Planetariums are no longer just grounded in space science has been something that most science centers, and planetariums are having trouble explaining to the public. We can do anything now, and seeing as this new spectrum of opportunities is wonderful, its equally troubling because the public’s expectations haven’t caught up yet. They come to a Planetarium to sit in the dark and see stars.  So of course “Branding” has become a central focus for newly converted domes.  Terms like SciDome, DigiDome and Dome Theater, are being used to get people to understand its not just a Planetarium anymore, but instead a Full Dome experience.  We here at Morehead are going through the same growing pains, and are currently in process of discovering what our new theater will be called once its upgraded.

As the medium continues to gain ground, and become more widely recognized, this will of course become a problem of the past. I’m excited to think that one day people will happily be able to go down to the science center not knowing what to expect, rather than expecting something they’ve seen before. That having a show about biology, or zoology will be just as excepted as seeing a show on the constellations, or our solar system. Who knows, maybe even one day going to the Planetarium looking forward to catch that new Hollywood blockbuster that has been released on limited dome screens.BATMANSUPERMAN

Maybe that last part is just a nerdy fantasy of being able to see Batman vs Superman on a dome, but a boy can dream.

In production we know that Particles are just darn expensive. They require a lot of meticulous editing, and a massive amount of time to render.

We had the challenge to visualize a Black hole, but had to do it in about a 2 week period.  So of course doing a scientifically accurate simulation using particles and immensely complex equations to describe the physics of a theoretical object for a kids show was a little out of the question. I instead went with using animated textures and alphas, on solid geometry to create an artistic representation.

Blackhole_grey copyBlackhole_wire copyBlackholeBlackhole_Paddimage

Working with our content expert, we reached a comfortable compromise and the final product is equally beautiful and terrifying as a result.

Morehead planetarium black hole test from Peter Althoff on Vimeo.

Now this is an example of keeping the target audience in mind. We know that this show is intended for children and families so it gives us some flexibility. Generally the public isn’t going to be all that concerned, or more importantly, notice a difference between something artistically visualized vs accurately simulated. If we were trying to generate something for scientific minds to analyze, we might not have gone this route.