When in Dome…

The Morehead Planetarium & Science Center Production Blog

Archive for the ‘ Production ’ Category

As most of you know there are not very many production tools out there specifically designed for us Fulldome folk. So often times we have to get creative with what we have. Early on in my experiments with working in Fulldome, I created this little project. (download AE project here).

It takes the 3d space of After Effects and funnels it through several different cameras and then in a master comp stitches them together using the After Effects plug-in from Sky-Skan, DomeXF. I’m sure it can be done with the AE FullDome plug-in, just some of the settings will be different.

At the root is a 3d Scene.

This one scene is placed into 5-6 comps, then each of those comps gets a different camera.

The key to remember is to check the “Collapse Transforms” mind sweeper looking button on the layer in each camera comp.

These are the settings for each camera in each comp. Each Comps Dimensions should be 2048×2048 if you’re trying to create a full 4k final output. You could make them smaller, ie, 512×512 to make a 1k… as long as they’re a 1:1 ratio.

Now you just point the cameras in their respective comps based on these settings.

Now that you’ve got  your 5-6 different views of the AE3d Scene, you move those into 1 master stitch.

Each comp now a layer gets the DomeXF plug-in, with their respective settings, and then you’ve got a fisheye image of the 3d space in after effects.

Now something of note, I haven’t gotten the Down camera to work with the DomeXF, but I believe it works with the FullDome Plug-in.

I’ve recently started playing with some expressions so I can link the attributes of the DomeXF settings on each layer so I can adjust the dome tilt, though if you’re using the FullDome Plug-in that’s that’s pretty easy. You just link the dome tilt field  on each of the layers to either a slider, or to one common layer.

Hope this is helpful.

As the storyboarding phase is drawing to a close, I thought I’d touch on a couple things that I’ve learned.

Our new show, Solar System Odyssey, is heavily driven by story. Characters are continually interacting with each other, both in dialogue and action. This brings up challenges that haven’t been issues in shows prior to this one. In previous shows, interactions between the characters had been strictly though dialogue. Many of the voices were heard without seeing exactly who was doing the talking. In our first show, Earth, Moon and Sun, the main character, Coyote, would converse with a narrator that the audience would never see. Coyote could simply reply to the narrator by facing towards the audience. On the other hand, when more than two characters can be seen on screen, all interacting and talking to one another, things were a bit different and sacrifices needed to be made.

One of the great things about the dome is being able to be immersed in the environment. Current best practice would typically say that if you’ve got the dome real estate, use it. However, what we really want to showcase during these segments are the conversations between the characters. The audience needs a focus and we want to discourage their eyes from venturing around. Sure, the inside of the ship may look pretty and the viewer’s eye will want to look around it, but it’s truly a secondary element. We want their eyes focused on the character’s faces and body movements.

What’s all this leading to?

This map I affectionately call the “Dance Chart”.

For each scene I’ve created, I’ve drawn a chart in which I map out the character’s key points in the scene, as well as the location and front direction of the camera. I’ve been very careful to allow for good staging for the characters at most times, and the immersion comes from the deliberate and timed movement of the camera moving through the environment. The audience becomes like a fly on the wall, watching the scene unfold in front of them. While the characters are generally in the front half of the dome the majority of the time, by keeping the camera in near constant moving and framing, an immersive sense is developed and maintained.

When creating a Dance Chart, some key elements to think about are these:

•   An element of focus (Character, Object, Follow the bird)

•   Lots of play with foreground, midground, and background elements

•   Don’t move the camera too fast. Keeping a focus point helps, but only to a certain degree.

The element of focus allows for the camera to move without there being much motion sickness. Having foreground, midground, and background elements shifting and moving helps to sell the environment and reinforce the camera movements. The camera speed should maintain graceful elegance with its motion.

When you want to encourage the audience to look around, keep the camera still or moving slowly and deliberately. It’s our experience that people favor movement that compliments the direction they’re already looking.

We’re smack dab in the middle of storyboarding out our new Solar System show so that means it’s time to start on the audio.  Which is good because I’m tired of sitting back, lighting cigars with flaming $100 bills and laughing manically. First step is to get some scratch tracks of our characters down so when we move on to animatics we can have some idea of timing. It’s also proving to be helpful for us to have an idea of how things will sound and how they should be acted when we get the real voice actors in on the job. In the meantime, we grabbed some great amateur voice over actors from Morehead and let ‘em loose on the script:

Jonathan Frederick as Space Captain Jack Larson

Peter Althoff as Billionaire Warren Trout

Carly Apple as Ashley Trout

Jim Kachelries as Beemer the Robot

Laura Walters as Capcom

For the past year, Morehead’s been working with an Artist in Residence, David Colagiovanni, who has been not only creating new content for the dome, but thinking more in-depth about how we use and interact in the dome environment.  David’s a professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill Art Department and we’ve stolen him away to work on dome stuff in his free time.

Last month, he presented his work on the dome to a packed house and we’ve convinced him to stick around for another year and push some of his ideas even further. Meanwhile, we asked one of our multimedia students, Colby Ramsay, to put together a short documentary about David and his work on the dome. And for all you gear heads, yes, he’s using the RED Camera. Check it out:

Conjure the image of a cloud, shouldn’t be too hard… Except now take that white fluffy cloud and try to imagine it “cartoony”, this became a bit more of a challenge. We are going for a non photo-realistic rendering (NPR) style aka Toon Rendering for this next piece. This created a challenge for developing atmospheric effects such as clouds. Bellow are a few of the screen tests we’ve done to determine which look and feel we’ll go with.


This is a digitally created representation of a very real looking set of clouds.


this is a similar, yet slightly altered state of realistic clouds. In it we pushed the fluffy askpects and made them more solid


This is what we are calling “painterly” clouds. He we are playing with what feels like a cloud, even though they don’t look realistic.


This is “cartoony” representation of clouds, that is close in style to the other hard surface elements of the show.

Although the “cartoony”  clouds are the most consistent with the visual style, we are leaning toward the painterly set. The issues that exist with moving through the cartoon clouds would result in hitting  hollow point inside these empty objects. Not to mention they’re rather resource intensive. They contain millions of polygons, that when rendered take up valuable processing time. We also realized with the painterly clouds we want people to feel as though they’re traveling through the familiar into this flat “cartoony” world, and since they feel like a real cloud, they will be accepted as such.


We just finished up our second full dome show called Magic Tree House: Space Mission. The show is based on the popular children’s book series Magic Tree House and is written by Will Osborne. We’ve been showing an analog version of MTH at Morehead since 2004 but it’s so popular that we decided to convert it to digital.

The audio track remains similar, although we added a few new SFXs, switched out one of the main character’s V.O.s and mixed it in 5.1 surround. But we didn’t do a typical digital conversion for the visuals. We essentially rethought the visuals from scratch, making the show much more interesting to watch and utilizing the full capacity of fulldome video.  The trailer is coming soon!

We just finished production on our latest show, Magic Tree House: Space Mission and now it’s time for the surround mix. While we usually do the sound design in-house, we decided it would be much more efficient and cost effective to send off our surround mix to an outside house. So we send it off to Alex Markowski at Audio Kitchen Post who does a mix in his studio and then comes over to our dome, plugs into our surround speakers (and brings his own) and does a final mix.

If you’re new to producing digital content and don’t know some of the details of what to do once you’ve finished the sound design (or if your surround guy is new to planetarium mixing), here are some tips:

1. Exporting for the mix – OMFs

Because your sound mixer may not use the same platform or application that you used to do sound design, you’ll probably be asked to export an OMF.  You may be thinking, “WTF is an OMF?” An OMF is basically all of your sound clips and timing information in a generic format that other programs can use in one large file. Your mixing person can take this file, import it into his application and tweak away.  *IMPORTANT* – Apple’s Soundtrack does NOT export as OMFs (it does export AAF’s but that’s a different story). I’d suggest just using another program if you’re using a Mac such as ProTools LE, Logic or even just Final Cut.

Before you export, make sure your tracks are organized in groupings (dialog, VO, music, sfx). Levels, pans and filters cannot be exported as part of an OMF so it is important to have a….

2. Guide Track

When you send your mixer your video domemaster for reference (make sure it’s not 4K or it’ll be a pain in the butt – shrink it down to 1K), export your audio (the guide track) as an aiff and attach it to the video or send it as a separate file so that the mixer has a good sense of what you’re trying to make the audio sound like.

3. VO in the dome

Normally when you mix VO for 5.1 surround in a movie theater, you put the voice in the center channel and then just a bit in the left and right. However, in the dome, it’s usually good to bring the VO up in the left and right (about -3db from the center level). This way, when sitting in the left part of the theater, it prevents the VO from sounding like it’s coming from the right part of the theater and vice versa. Let your surround guy know.

4. Do the final mix in a dome

Don’t trust your headphones or your fancy-schmancy Alesis monitors. Things sound very different in the dome. There’s a lot more reverb and subtle sounds can get totally lost, especially in a big dome. Have your sound guy set up a computer in the dome and plug it into your surround system or set up his own speakers. That way you’ll get the real deal.

5. The Final Files

Here’s what you need from the final mix:

  • 5.1 surround mix (6 files – Center(C), Front Left(L), Front Right(R), Back Left (Ls), Back Right (Rs) and Low Frequency (Lf))
  • stereo mix (2 files – L and R)
  • a 5.1 dialog and M&E (music and effects) mix  – this is so you can hand it off to a planetarium in a country that speaks another language and they can replace the dialog track with their native language.

Is there anything else you’ve had to deal with or keep in mind? If so, let us know and we’ll add to the list.

As we get deep into preproduction and asset creation for our next Fulldome show, a key piece of equipment they’ll be using in the reality we create is their ship. After a long period of distilling down ideas from classic rockets, to the more realistic shuttles… We settled on something reminiscent of a fighter jet mixed with a flying saucer. ShipSketchblockedOut

The big issue we’ve been considering is scale… Just how big should it be. Originally the thought was that it shouldn’t be much bigger than the existing shuttles that go into space. But proportionately the cockpit would have been just under 18 feet wide as displayed in this first drawing.


We quickly blocked out the dimensions and started some camera move tests. It was just feeling too cramped. So we went bigger.


Changing the diameter of the cockpit to something closer to 30 feet gave us a lot more space for the characters to be able to move around, and allow our camera to move a little nicer through the scene. With larger more graceful motion paths.  Also allows us to mix up where the characters will be standing in the environment, and giving us a little more bang for our buck. Who says you can’t fly a skyscraper of a ship into space… it’s the future, right?

We’re putting the finishing touches on converting our theater to a 4K digital fulldome system from SkySkan. As far as I know, we’re now the largest fulldome theater in the Southeast US. We’ve been waiting for this day since I started working here three years ago. And it’s been talked about for over 10 years! In fact, it’s been so long that the guy who started talking about 10 years ago, Holden Thorp, was then the director of the Planetarium. Now he’s the Chancelor of the entire school of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Our official reopening is going to be February 5th. On the docket is “Astronaut” from NSC and “Black Holes: Journey into the Unknown” from Museum Victoria. We’ll also be playing our own homegrown show, “Earth, Moon and Sun” and a live show called Carolina Skies. We’ve also got the Domefest 2009 shorts that we’re going to play during special occasions AND we’re weeks away from finishing our second show, “Magic Tree House: Space Mission” and a domefest short entitled “Jeepers Creepers.”  Yeah, it’s a bit busy, but we’re pretty psyched.

Starting on our new show, we begin with our most favorite (mine anyways) portion of the production process:


With our script getting a coat of finishing wax, our characters have been essentially locked down. With no major changes to be made to them, we can begin our character sketches! The following are some examples of our rough character concepts. The next step would be to make more locked down turn-arounds when we move onto the modeling in our 3d program of choice.