by Judith Rubin, IPM co-editor
We attended the 50th anniversary celebration at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the Saint Louis Science Center in Saint Louis, Missouri. The planetarium currently has a Zeiss Universarium Model IX fiberoptic starball projector (installed in 2001). There is talk of acquiring a new, high-end, digital dome video (fulldome) theater system in the near future. Representatives of Carl Zeiss International, including Wilfried Lang (VP, Planetarium Division) and Ann Wagner, project manager were on hand for the event. Laura Hammonds Misajet (Sales Manager) represented Seiler, the local Zeiss distributor. Several members of the Seiler family were also present.
Also present were Bert Vescolani, President and CEO of the St. Louis Science Center, plus members of the McDonnell family. Since the James S. McDonnell Planetarium’s doors opened on April 16, 1963, more than 18.5 million people have experienced a connection with astronomy, space exploration and aviation through a visit to this iconic structure. James S. McDonnell, the chief executive of McDonnell Aircraft Corp., contributed substantially to the building costs.
The evening began with a private reception, followed by a public lecture, “50 years of Astronomy” given by Professor Charles Schweighauser. Following this crash course in astronomy and physics, there was birthday cake and coffee for all.
Wilfried Lang, VP, Planetarium Division, Zeiss was on hand to talk about the company’s history in the planetarium community, its products and the upcoming, 7th annual fulldome festival at the Jena Zeiss-Planetarium (May 29-June 1) in Jena, Germany which is the Zeiss headquarters town. He spoke of Zeiss’s pioneering role in the creation of the planetarium, beginning in 1923 with the Deutsches Museum in Munich and the company’s dedication to the facilities as “homes for education and training in astronomy and other sciences.”
Lang explained that the company viewpoint is that a truly complete fulldome system must combine the classic star projector with the digital playback and real-time systems in order to always have the option for real-time in any show and “the ability to communicate with the audience and answer questions on the fly.” Subsequently Zeiss fulldome systems integrate all three elements and support simultaneous operation, controlled by a single software program and console.
Student participation in the Jena festival is fostered as an important element for developing the medium. Lang points out that all technical high schools in Germany now include a media technology curriculum, and this is where many of Jena’s student contributors are drawn from.
According to Lang, Zeiss has invested some 4 million Euros to research and development of its Velvet Black fulldome system over the past 3 years, and the equivalent amount to each of 3 sizes of its classic starball projectors.
Other facets of the planetarium’s anniversary celebration include a return to 1963 prices for star shows (50 cents!) and a new exhibition, Gateway to the Universe: Celebrating 50 Years of the James S. McDonnell Planetarium – and…
Another highlight of the 50th anniversary celebration is the revival of LASERIUM® in a limited engagement. “It’s the one thing that I have been asked consistently since I first arrived in Saint Louis over a year ago.” said Bert Vescolani. LASERIUM first premiered at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium in the summer of 1975 and became an instant hit. “When you show that on the Planetarium’s 80-foot dome, you’re just blown away,” said planetarium director John Lakey. “LASERIUM was a huge sensation,” Lakey reported. Shows sold out all the time.”
The long lines and full houses for LASERIUM shows in the 1970s were a rejuvenator for many planetariums that booked the laser shows, introducing new revenue streams, new audiences and a new business model for the facilities. Those aspects have been getting renewed attention as more and more planetariums upgrade their systems to fulldome digital cinema and consider the new programming options available to them. At the 2013 IMERSA Summit in February
at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (IMERSA is a trade group devoted to promoting the uses of immersive media, with a special focus on fulldome), LASERIUM was celebrated in multiple ways. Its creator Ivan Dryer was the keynote speaker, and was presented with IMERSA’s first award for lifetime achievement, and its legacy of multimedia artistic exploration in the dome was robustly on show in the VJ programs and systems demonstrated by SAT, Laser Fantasy and Signal to Noise.
One of the first to see LASERIUM at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium was Saint Louis-based laserist (laser artist) Brian Wirthlin, who is a tech specialist with Seiler Instruments. (He gave us a hint about the pending return of LASERIUM during the IMERSA Summit in February, which he attended.) Wirthlin became not only a fan but also a student of the art and technology, and in reviving LASERIUM, he digitized the original analog tapes. The music selection is a mix of classic and rock, from Holst’s Neptune to Pink Floyd’s Echoes.
The revival of LASERIUM opened to the general public in Saint Louis on April 5, 2013, and shows will continue on selected dates through the summer.
Flight of the Butterflies, lovingly customized for the dome
The Saint Louis Science Center complex includes the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, a state-of-the-art Boeing Hall and a four-story OMNIMAX® Theater. As part of the 50th anniversary celebration for the planetarium, it showed classic giant screen space titles for one week in the OMNIMAX dome. Also showing there is Flight of the Butterflies, one of the standouts from the recent Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) Film Expo & Digital Symposium at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, and already booked on 100+ screens.
“Butterflies” initially premiered in September 2012, at the Johnson IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and is acclaimed as a success both in terms of filmmaking and in spreading awareness of the loss of habitat threatening the Monarch butterfly. Visitors have been snapping up the free packets of milkweed seeds (Milkweed is the Monarch’s main food) distributed in connection with screenings – some half-million seeds so far, according to SK Films.
Distributor SK Films is rolling out “Butterflies” across a wide range of exhibition formats, including fulldome as well as giant screen and conventional cinema. They took pains to create a series of digital intermediates to optimize each one and their process may well become a defining model for distributing a special venue title across a variety of educational markets and theater configurations, from science centers to planetariums to multiplexes. “We want everyone to run it,” says SK Films president Jonathan Barker.
Giant screen film dome operators have protested for a number of years that the dome format tends to receive short shrift. In the giant screen universe, the primary focus of producers and distributors in the past 10 years or so has been on the flatscreen 2D/3D markets. Added to the outcry from film dome operators is a growing awareness of the sizable planetarium market, where hundreds of digital dome (fulldome) systems are viable candidates for distribution of the science and nature documentaries that typically show in giant screen theaters.
[Our related article, Supercharged Digital Theater, makes the case that distributors could target some 400 additional theaters by planning for fulldome.]
Cross-platforming is an inexact science, and it’s challenging to make a film work across the board. Adding fulldome to the spread increases the challenge, and an effort to address this with specifications has led to the creation of DIGSS (Digital Immersive Giant Screen Specifications). GSCA has assumed stewardship of the DIGSS initiative and the committee includes prominent IMERSA members such as Ed Lantz of Vortex Immersion, and Martin Howe of Global Immersion. Christopher Reyna of New Paradigm Films – fresh from his role as technical director on Samsara – recently added his industry clout to the committee.
[Joe Kleiman digs deeper into the standards issues in his recent IPM story, Can You DIGSS It?]
All this is background for the enthusiasm with which dome operators hailed Jonathan Barker’s presentation at GSCA Dome Day last September at The Tech Museum in San Jose. “We showed what we had done to make the film look its best on the dome, with a side-by-side series of frames demonstrating the changes from flatscreen to dome. They were pleased with the trouble we went to,” he said. “We created the film from a variety of different image capture sources. Those were processed into three separate digital intermediates from which we filmed out: one for 1570 3D and 2D, one for 1570
dome, and one for 16 x 9 aspect ratio digital cinema. On the dome version, we took the flatscreen digital master as a starting point, and reframed it shot-by-shot to put the action in the dome’s sweet spot. Sometimes, the repositioning required that we extend other areas in the frame. We also put a grade on during the color timing process, meaning that we darkened the sides and top of the frame to reduce cross-reflection, because one of the biggest potential problems in the dome is cross-reflection causing light to wash out in the middle of the frame.”
“Butterflies” is already booked to show in the HD Digital Dome Theater at Telus Spark science center in Calgary (open since May 2012, the theater has a Digistar projection system and Spitz Nanoseam screen), and chances are it will soon be showing in many more planetarium domes. To ready it for fulldome, “Butterflies” must undergo another custom mastering process. Evans & Sutherland (E&S), a leader in adapting giant screen titles for fulldome exhibition, will collaborate with SK Films to create a series of Dome Masters, the accepted specification for fulldome.
Fulldome projection systems are designed to completely fill the hemisphere of the dome. The seating configuration and tilt of the dome correspondingly work to surround the audience with imagery as fully as possible. In comparison, giant screen domes such as OMNIMAX theaters fill somewhat less of the screen. According to Michael Daut, Director of Show Production/Marketing at E&S, a giant screen dome theater frame is 180 degrees wide by 135 degrees high, whereas a fulldome frame converted from giant screen will be about 200 degrees wide by 145 degrees high, filling about 70% of the dome.
E&S begins with SK Films’ digital files in the highest possible resolution and then applies its proprietary stretching and warping technique. The fulldome remastering task is made more complicated by the variations in size, tilt and seating from one dome theater to another. An impressive number of major giant screen cinema producers and distributors in addition to SK Films have signed on for E&S fulldome conversions of their titles, in order to address the sizable fulldome market. They include K2 Communications/Graphic Films, National Geographic Cinema Ventures, nWave Pictures and most recently, MacGillivray Freeman Films. Titles include Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure, Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure, Africa: The Serengeti, Fly Me to the Moon and Wild Ocean. In addition to Telus Spark, facilities that have booked such titles include Adventure Science Center in Nashville, A&M University in Commerce, Texas; the Earth & Space Science Lab in Frederick, Maryland; Missouri Western State University, PHM Planetarium in Mishawaka, Iowa; and Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
Copernicus – “Never stop dreaming”
At the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw, Poland, Maciej Ligowski has been deputy head of planetarium and show producer since June 2009. He chose the system, wrote a substantial portion of the tender and worked with architects to integrate the planetarium into the design of the building – a special challenge as construction was already underway at the time he came on board.
Ligowski studied multimedia technology at the Warsaw University of Technology and went on to work as a lighting designer. He spent time in Japan working toward a doctorate in semiconductors, but changed direction, attracted by the planetarium opportunity that suited his love of science and his technical and design skills.
The science center opened in November 2010, and in June 2011, The Heavens of Copernicus planetarium followed suit unveiling a 140-seat, 16-meter fulldome theater with a 17-degree tilt, outfitted with a hybrid system combining Sky-Skan definiti 3d stereoscopic video projection with lasers and a Megastar IIA projector. Visitors don Infitec glasses to view 3D shows. The science center currently draws about 1 million visitors per year and in 2012 about 25% of them visited the planetarium. Pre-rendered fulldome titles currently showing there are We Are Astronomers, Natural Selection 3D, Dawn of the Space Age 3D, and Secrets of the Sun.
The planetarium also produces its own content, with Weronika Śliwa overseeing creation of real-time shows and Ligowski in charge of fulldome shows. A custom, in-house, real-time 3D program, “Life 3D,” explores the possibility of life out in space and engages visitors in the storytelling. One storyteller talks to the group and another flies through the database, responding to audience suggestions. Under Ligowski’s direction, a new, animated fulldome show in stereoscopic 3D is now in production with the working title Dream to Fly. It was previewed in a short clip at the IMERSA Summit in Denver last February, and is scheduled for release this spring.
2013 was Ligowski’s second time attending the IMERSA Summit. As someone in the midst of producing his first fulldome show, he is on a learning curve and says that he benefits from IMERSA’s emphasis on information exchange in the areas of content creation and storytelling. “Storytelling is very difficult, and planetariums lean toward education. It was useful to have dialog about storytelling [at the IMERSA Summit] with media producers experienced in the world of animation. We can learn a great deal from them. We’ve made a serious investment in show production at our facilities [The Heavens of Copernicus Studio], with a render farm having more than 300 cores and 8 graphics stations. When the planetarium is closed, our theater computers switch over into render mode which gives us additional capacity.”
He summarizes Dream to Fly as being “about how the dream was born and how it came true. We are trying to show the whole story in a poetic way from the human perspective. The ultimate message is’ never stop dreaming.’ He regards it as an “animated film – not an astronomy show – making the best possible use of camera movement and the dome environment to create visual interest.”
Related stories from IPM:
Can You DIGSS It? (Joe Kleiman)
Supercharged Digital Theater (Judith Rubin)
IMERSA 2013: Exploring Challenges of Dome Convergence (Joe Kleiman)