When in Dome…

The Morehead Planetarium & Science Center Production Blog

Archive for the ‘ Production ’ Category

When we started producing dome content 4 years ago, we were working on two different 3d platforms, 3ds max and Maya, and still doing a 5 camera stitch with a hemi-cube. We used the 5 camera stich to create our first two productions, “Earth Moon and Sun” and “Magic Tree House.” On our most recent production, “Solar System Odyssey,” we knew we wanted to try something different. Since we were doing a character driven piece, I took it upon myself to learn Maya. One of the greatest achievements in our recent production was the proper implementation of the DomeAFL shader for mental ray, created by Daniel Ott.

This opened up new doors for rendering and camera techniques. The reduced time of manually stitching together comps freed us up to try and tackle more challenging aspects of production. One of the new features we’d be able to render was an Ambient Occlusion pass that gave our elements new depth.

We no longer were fighting to fit disjointed pieces together before running out of time, but instead were able to refine our work from a rough state to a more polished product.


Recently we upgraded our software from Maya2008 to Maya2012. In that upgrade the shader stopped working. Fortunately, I was able to locate an updated version. The work these fine folks are doing is taking the shader to new dimensions by creating stereoscopic imagery (via Roberto Ziche on http://fulldome.ning.com/forum).


In a previous post Jim talked about doing a believable shake on the 3D camera itself. With motion blur turned on this can get a bit expensive as far as render times. Sometimes we lean on After Effects to push a shake to even greater extremes.

In this example you’ll see a 2D shake added to enhance the launch sequence. Now on the flat screen the shake doesn’t seem to be all that extreme, but on a dome it feels much more intense. In the last shot of the sequence I did a 3d Camera shake, and felt it needed to be pushed more. Rather than re-animate, we used After Effects and did a 2D wiggle on top of the existing shake to get the desired look.

I do this by using the Wiggle Expression in After Effects. [wiggle(a,b)] where a= frequency of the wiggle per second, and b= how much or amplitude.


I link them to sliders so I can animate how much wiggle I want. Now that I have a wiggler ready to go, I wiggle a null. The location of the  null will be the center point of the wiggle. Once you’re ready to go, parent your footage to the null.

Now depending on how comfortable you are with After Effects I might have lost you. So feel free to watch the following tutorial about wiggle, and its various uses.

For a long time I was a 3ds max user, and only in the last year have I switched to Maya. One tool that 3ds max had that was incredibly useful for building hard surface or objects that repeat themselves was the array function. Thankfully, I found a script developed by Ed Caspersen that brings this functionality into Maya.


I used this tool to produce the following model of a launch tower in less than 2 hours.

With this you can build a small section of geometric detail and control how it is replicated in any direction, and even set it to get gradually smaller. Working in a 4k immersive format, you can only get so close to textures before you start to see the individual pixels or see the resolution soften. Having the extra geometry helps break up the visual landscape and make up for those instances where textures start to fall apart. It’s perfect for building repeating shapes quickly and adding the much needed detail that the fulldome format demands.


One of the dangers we run into during our productions has been object distortion. It’s most frequently seen when you fly towards or away from a moon or planet. That dreaded bulge is caused by the closest part of the sphere being much closer and therefore much larger than the farther parts of the surface. We have been actively trying to avoid these situations in our shows, as it tends to break the illusion of immersion. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable, either through demand of the script or storyboards. It is in these cases that we try to make these close-to-camera actions happen as quickly as possible so as not let the mind start to think, “Boy, that really looks strange!”

Here’s an example I quickly threw together showing various distances.

Before diving in, I realize that some of you may not have even heard of the word “previz”. “Previz” or “pre-visualization” is a step in production after storyboarding and before final animation where simple models are laid out in 3D space, basic animation is done and camera moves are locked in place. This allows the director to get a better idea of what the final shot will look like before any intensive work is done on the models or the scene. It also allows camera moves to be changed without needed to do extensive rendering.

Lets back up a bit and put this in context.

Our production process has 4 major steps:
1. Scriptwriting & Concept Art
2. Storyboarding
3. Animatics & Voice-over
4. Previz & Sound Effects
5. Final animation & Score

The difficult moment in any film/tv/dome production is how to move from the animatics phase (essentially a flipbook storyboard with scratch audio) to the final animation stage without really knowing what the shot will look like. A good example of this would be a scene in our latest show, Solar System Odyssey. In the scene, our two heros are trying to escape from the radiation belt around Jupiter, which is causing havoc to their ship. This is what the original storyboard/animatic looked like:

As you can see, there was a lot of proposed camera movement in that shot. The difficulty was knowing how much movement would be most effective to make the scene interesting and tense, but not make the audience confused or nauseous. So we took low-poly renders of the characters, did basic animation on them and put them in a basic textured, low-poly environment. This is what it looked like:

By doing the previz stage, we got some great intel back. We realized that the shot felt dead. There was very little tension in the shot with the current camera moves. And since it’s difficult to build tension through editing, like in a flat screen film, we realized that we’d have to make the camera moves more dynamic. We did this by making the moves faster between rest points and adding dutch angles to the pause points. This was the final product:

Previz is becoming very popular in Hollywood, typically with action shots. We already find it an integral part of our process. Not only does it allow us to more clearly visualize the final look of a shot, but it actually speeds up the production process by preventing us from needing to go back and re-tweak an already rendered shot. For a great video about the importance of previz, check out this video about how it’s being used in Hollywood:

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.

When we started this project over a year ago, I had a very limited knowledge of Autodesk Maya, and was primarily a 3ds Max user. We made the commitment to do a character driven show so I had to learn this new tool, and I don’t think I could have if it hadn’t been for the training materials we got from Digital Tutors.


I started with their intro to maya DVD set and then moved on from there into more complex and production specific tutorials.


In Solar System Odyssey I had to make a space ship, terrains, eruptions, rocket exhaust, explosions, and even a futuristic Mega City full of flying traffic.

I hope to address how most of these effects were created in the coming weeks with more blog posts. For the mean time if you haven’t checked out www.digitaltutors.com I would highly recommend them. They offer training on a variety of software platforms.

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…