When in Dome…

The Morehead Planetarium & Science Center Production Blog

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A few months ago, we officially retired the Zeiss Mark VI Star Projector at Morehead Planetarium. We’d had it for 42 years and it served us well. However, the ol’ Zeiss had been getting old and despite the heroic efforts by our Chief Technician, Steve Nichols, to keep it going the decision was made to put ‘er down. And since we added a digital system to our planetarium over a year ago, we were able to just roll on forward. However, before the Zeiss was dismantled, we thought we’d shoot some footage of it and put together a short tribute video. RIP Zeiss.

We just released the trailer to our newest show – Solar System Odyssey. We’ll be showing the trailer at ASTC this weekend during SkySkan’s after hours presentation.

Our story takes place far in the future with an Earth on the verge of environmental collapse. Billionaire Warren Trout thinks he can make a fortune colonizing the rest of the solar system and sends space pilot Jack Larson to find out where. But there’s one thing he didn’t count on – Ashley, Trout’s daughter, has stowed away on board the ship and has her own ideas.

Our intention was to make sure the show was filled with science, but to also have an exciting, entertaining story as well. Let us know what you think.

One of the things I discovered is that when you want to have a camera shake, normal camera translation doesn’t really work. Hardly any motion is perceived, unless the camera moves enormous distances. What I found to be the most effective approach is to rotate the camera, rather than change its position. This really makes the audience feel uneasy and unbalanced, which is exactly what we want the camera shake to portray.

Here’s an example of it from our new show, Solar System Odyssey.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the past, it’s that particles can be expensive in terms of development, implementation, and hardware resources. Though there are many effects that call for particles, and sometimes using them is unavoidable. A workflow we’ve come to use is a process where we generate a particle system in After Effects using the Trapcode Particular Plugin, then map that image sequence to a plane in 3d to get the look we need without spending hours tweaking a fluid or particle system in Maya.

You could even use the same principle with stock footage of bullet hits and explosions. This process is best for systems that have limited interaction with their environment, and that the camera sees them from a distance. Typically we’ve used this for bursts and explosions, and a few eruptions.

Now for the flat screen this concept of using 2d effects layered over your comps isn’t very new. Applying the idea to the dome world requires you match it by hand using one of the dome plugins for After effects, or map it to Geometry in a 3d Scene and render it with a 5cam stitch or fisheye. These passes generally take little to no time even at a 4k resolution because you’re essentially rendering a simple piece of geometry with a single image texture. The texture files are generally 2k, unless the situation calls for more resolution.

Now that we’re almost finished with our most recent show, Solar System Odyssey, we’re getting things lined up to start work on our next show. We’ve now produced a science documentary, a cartoon, a horror short and a show based on a best selling children’s book. Now we’re going to make a show featuring…giant puppets. Yeah, we like to keep things interesting.

We’re teaming up with the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, a local giant puppet group, to create a winter season show. Paperhand has a great following in North Carolina and their history began in 1998, when artists Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger, working out of an abandoned old gym in Saxapahaw, NC created the group to entertain and engage audiences by animating ancient fables and modern allegories with intricate shadow figures, larger than life creatures and everything in between.

To get a sense of what they’re really about, you’d need to see one of their shows (or hopefully, this planetarium show), but you can get an idea from the trailer to a documentary made about them called “A Puppet Intervention”:

What exactly we’re going to do is a secret, but we’ll be shooting lots of puppets on green screens and creating really amazing environments for them to play in. It’s going to be an interesting show…

We’re finishing up our latest show, Solar System Odyssey, and we’ve just released a teaser trailer on YouTube. Here’s a description of the show and the video:

Our story takes place far in the future with an Earth on the verge of environmental collapse. Billionaire Warren Trout thinks he can make a fortune colonizing the rest of the solar system and sends space pilot Jack Larson to find out where. But there’s one thing he didn’t count on – Ashley, Trout’s daughter, has stowed away on board the ship and has her own ideas. Learn about the solar system and the potential for human life on other planets and moons in a fun and exciting way. Ages 10 and Up. Produced with grant funding from NASA. Running time: 27 minutes

We’ve been really busy cranking away on our latest show, Solar System Odyssey, which we’re due to finish in 2 weeks. So we’ve been neglecting When in Dome a bit. But we’re almost there. Just putting some finishing touches on the visuals and working with master composer Mark Slater to finish up the score (which I’m really excited about). It’s been a year and a half long journey, but we’re finally seeing the light (and a much deserved break)!

Both Solar System Odyssey and our previous show, Magic Tree House: Space Mission are now available from Sky-Skan so go check them out. You can see a trailer and preview of Magic Tree House on Sky-Skan’s site or check out this post.

Stay tuned for a teaser trailer from Solar System Odyssey. I’ll be uploading it soon…

Our first fulldome short, Jeepers Creepers, will be showing at the Immersive Film Festival this weekend. This year’s IFF is taking place from April 29 to May 1 at Centro Multimeios Espinho, Portugal.

They’ll be showing a lot of full length shows as well as a group of competitive shorts including “Charting Course for the Unknown” by Morehead’s own artist in residence, David Colagiovanni. Both shorts are screening on Saturday. If you’re in Portugal or nearby, go check it out.

We’ve got a pretty amazing After School program here at Morehead. Kids from Kindergarten to 5th grade come over here after the school day is over and do all kinds of cool hands on science activities and field trips. We brought a few of them over to our studio to show them how planetarium shows are made. We even gave them a Wacom tablet and let them have at it. Better than being on the street, looting and pillaging or whatever it is kids do these days. Anyway, I was told it was their favorite field trip of the year. If they’d only just teach Maya in 4th grade, we’d have our next slew of interns. Here’s a few photos:

Well, we’re in the last phase of production for our latest show – Solar System Odyssey. We’ll be doing evaluations with students on a rough cut of the show in our dome during the first couple weeks of May and then we’ve got 3 months left to put on the final polish.

In the meantime, we were asked to put together a new trailer for our first show, Earth, Moon & Sun. Full disclosure – when we originally put together a trailer for the show, we thought our target audience would be kids and their parents who would see the trailers being played before other shows, much like they would during a typical film in a movie theater. Turns out that’s not the case.

The audience for planetarium show trailers are science center and planetarium directors and educators – the people that are actually going to lease the shows and bring them to their planetaria. So we added more science content from the show and more explanatory voice over to give a better idea of the focus of the show. This will let the directors and educators know that we’re hitting specific curriculum points for children in the 8-11 range. Keep all that in mind if you’re making a trailer.

We also found out that Earth, Moon & Sun was the best selling show of 2010 from our distributor! I might have mentioned that in a previous post but we’re pretty psyched so I’m leaving it up.

Here’s the new trailer in domemaster format: