When in Dome…

The Morehead Planetarium & Science Center Production Blog

Archive for the ‘ Shows ’ Category

Fulldome Fest Honorable MentionWe just heard the news that Earth, Moon & Sun earned a 4.0 rating (out of 5) at the 4th Jena Fulldome Festival, an international showcase in Germany. EMS also received an honorable mention for best use of humor. Not too shabby for our first fulldome show!

Next stop on the festival circuit is the Fulldome Film Festival that follows ASTC in Honolulu in October.  We’re planning on entering Earth, Moon & Sun and our newest show, Magic Tree House: Space Mission.  I think I’m going to mail myself out there with the hard drive.

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!

DF09_smFor a bunch of reasons, we weren’t able to make it to Domefest 2009 this year. Missing it, as you might guess, really sucked. After being so inspired by all the great content we saw in Chicago in 2008, we were really looking forward to the 2009 gathering. We saw all of the finalists on the Domefest vimeo channel, but it’s just not the same on a flat screen.

So instead, we’re bringing Domefest to us. Morehead is taking place in UNC’s CHAT Festival (CHAT is “Collaborations: Humanities, Arts & Technology”) this year. As part of that we’re going to be showing the Domefest 2009 winners on Morehead’s dome on Wednesday February 17 at 7:00. If you’re local and want to check it out, let us know.

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.

fulldomefestival09We just entered our first production, Earth, Moon and Sun, into the 2009 Fulldome Festival at the Zeiss Planetarium in Jena, Germany. This year, they’re allowing full length shows to be entered into the competition. Previously, the competition was limited to shorts under five minutes, just like DomeFest. I seriously doubt our show will dovetail into their theme this year, “Bauhaus-in-the-Stars,” but we’ll give it a shot anyway.

The english version of the site is a bit confusing and has some dated material, so the best place to get clear info about the festival is actually on the Zeiss website here.

wall-e-poster1-big copyIt takes a little more than grit and perseverance, although that probably helps. In the analog days, at least at Morehead, planetarium shows were put together using about 60 slide projectors, 3 video projectors, a slew of opti-mechanical do-dads, a computer to time everything out and a huge star projector that sat in the middle of all of it. The production staff consisted of two people, an outside contractor to do some artwork and a music composer.

Now that we’re in the process of going digital, it will be very different within the planetarium dome itself. The plan is to have two huge projectors that will project a 4000×4000 pixel image onto the screen. To put that in perspective, it’s roughly 8 times bigger than High Definition television. But the production staff is fairly similar. We’ve now got a producer, a director, two main animator/compositors/creative directors, the same music composer we used for the old shows, support from the Morehead staff and others here and there.

It takes this 4-5 person crew anywhere from 9-15 months to create a 3D animated 25 minute dome show, depending on the content and situation. To put that in perspective, it took Pixar up to four years, at least 400 people and $180 million to make Wall•E. Compared to that, we’re definitely coming in under budget.

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.

red_ceremonial_scissorsQuick cuts on the dome? Within a scene? MTV style!? Heeeeeellll no. Are you crazy?


Well, that seems to be the current golden rule of dome production. Quick cuts or moving from a wide to medium to close shot would kill the immersiveness of the dome environment. It would also be too jarring for the viewer. So everything lumbers along slowly and epic-ly. Don’t get me wrong, I like the epic reveal of the sun cresting above the earth as much as the next person. We’re actually doing a couple of those shots in our current production.

But are we locked into this medium-shot, slow camera pan or push with all of our scenes?  It’s visually tedious. Coming from the flat screen world, we want to cut. Cutting allows the viewer of a flat screen to see the entire environment – something that’s not necessary with a dome. But it also creates tension, builds emotion and gives some much needed visual variety.

Has anyone experimented with this? Are there any good examples out there of why it absolutely doesn’t work?

Pixar has done it again with another amazing short. No dialog, just wonderful character animation coupled with very tight storytelling.

Often times we fall prey to the documentary style show production on a dome. The format being a heavy handed narration and visuals that directly correspond to concepts discussed by the disembodied voice of the narrator. This short as I said has absolutely zero dialog, just the characters reacting to their environment, and each other, but a touching story is still told.

Often we talk about the dome as an immersive environment but the flat screen can be equally immersive. The only distinction is how well we get our audience to empathize and become enveloped in whatever it is we show them. Surrounding someone with an environment doesn’t place them in a scene, but getting them emotionally involved in what it is they’re seeing makes it an experience. A concept that I’ll be trying to understand and emulate in projects to come.

One other thing that I thoroughly enjoy about this short and the most recent release “UP” is there use of clouds, fog, and sky. Still grappling with getting volumetric fluids to look good and work correctly on the dome.