16 August 2012

Vignettes from the 2012 meeting of the International Planetarium Society in Baton Rouge

Fulldome frame from "Natural Selection"
Article by Judith Rubin. All rights reserved.
Many thanks to the International Planetarium Society and the organizers of IPS 2012, which took place in Baton Rouge July 22-26. This trade gathering takes place every 2 years and is a rich combination of sessions, exhibits, screenings and of course networking. IPS 2014 (June 23-27) will be held in Beijing. -- J.R.

Lean, Mean and Greenscreen
Robin Sip's Mirage3D is a successful business model for the industry

Founded by Robin Sip in 1999, Mirage3D, based in the Hague, Netherlands, stands today as an example of how a small, independent business can achieve success in the field of digital dome media production (aka "fulldome." The company now has 8 employees, a custom-built fulldome production studio that includes the 100-square-meter Chromakey greenscreen studio and 15-ft-diameter testing dome. At IPS 2012 Mark "State of the Dome" Petersen of Loch Ness Productions ranked Mirage3D as the second most popular fulldome distributor.

Sip entered the field in 1988, gaining experience in the Omniversum Space Theatre in the Hague, at Evans & Sutherland and the London planetarium. He's made 13 fulldome shows over the past decade, three of them self-financed Mirage3D titles and the others for third parties, including a number of popular favorites and financial successes, including Two Small Pieces of Glass, Dawn of the Space Age, Origins of Life, Natural Selection, Power of the Telescope and Supervolcanoes. The recent title Cleopatra's Universe, produced for the Daniel M. Soref Planetarium at the Milwaukee Public Museum, to accompany the eponymous traveling exhibit, earned back its investment in 3 months, according to Sip.

Sip is a creative as well as a business leader - a pioneer in the application of 3D production processes for the dome as well as a risk-taker when it comes to subject matter. He reports that Natural Selection is now in 50 theaters worldwide, since its release 2 years ago. And that contrary to expectation, it is doing very well in the southern US, with distribution in Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Florida. "It's almost doing better in the South than in the North!" says Sip. "So it's not true what people said to me - that a show about evolution won't sell in the US."

He's recently embarked on a new venture to expand the distribution of Mirage3D content by reformatting it for the giant screen cinema exhibition platform: Natural Selection will show in flatscreen 2D and 3D, at DCI-compliant 24 frames per second, at the next Giant ScreenCinema Association conference.

Mirage3D is following up Natural Selection with Dinosaurs at Dusk, which is receiving some funding from Goto and will be released in about 6 months. His signature approach, both economical and effective, composites live-action filmed characters into computer-generated environments. Everything except the sound is done in-house. While Sip can and often does turn out a show in 3-6 mos, for in-house productions he often takes 18 months to 3 years because "I like to give them time to evolve."

He starts with storyboards rather than a script. "I choose subjects that fascinate me and that I feel confident about from my background with planetariums. I don't shoehorn in astronomy if it isn't a real fit with the story." He gathers imagery and then creates a simple 3D storyboard, which becomes the basis of an animatic that helps determine speed and camera movement. "At this stage it's visual eye candy, emotion, and feeling. Music starts to come in there, too." The story grows while the backgrounds are being created. "Right now I have animators making trees full-time for Dinosaurs at Dusk. I didn't know anything about trees before." The incubation period is part of the creative process. "I start to see a thread. There's a lot of intuition in it. I love to take 3 years; to keep researching, being exposed to music & reference material. I'm really happy when it clicks."

Sip originally trained as an electrical engineer, then became an animator. He has no formal art background. "When I started working in a planetarium, I knew my future was there. I like to push the limits of technology. I don't feel like an engineer; I am a director, but only of fulldome shows. I just try to recreate reality in as much detail as possible, and to convey emotion in graphics."

Sip plans to create future Mirage3D shows to maximize the cross-platform distribution potential. "We're going to 24/48 frames per second instead of 30/60 fps in order to be DCI compliant. It was time consuming to make a good [flatscreen] conversion of Natural Selection. We ran into artifacts and had to make a new, shot-by-shot edit. At the lower frame rate, we can skip that step next time." Because of its size and amount of information, the fulldome frame is an ideal master for extraction to other formats, he points out. "Everyone should start there." http://www.mirage3d.nl/

Mark Slater conducting for film
Mark Slater - Music as a learning tool
With 20-40 minute run-times and an educational mandate, it isn't surprising that fulldome shows are sometimes considered a bit "talky." Composer Mark Slater suggests that more music and less narration could achieve the goal more powerfully.

The classically trained Slater, a native of the UK now based in Los Angeles, writes scores for movies and documentaries as well as background music for visitor attractions. He has scored several fulldome shows, including Two Small Pieces of Glass, Solar System Odyssey, Natural Selection and Planet Earth - Expedition Green.

He wants fulldome producers to see music as more of a learning tool. "It engages mind on different levels. It can improve memory of the material and focus the attention. Music can be used to change the pace of the narrative, clarify and intensify the significance of visuals and words, and provides a link between screen and audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience."

Slater wants more producers to trust the power of music. "Music helps you say what can't be said in words. What scientists work to convey, music can telegraph," he says. "Music accomplishes the scientific goal - it doesn't get in the way of it." The right music, that is. He adds, "It is a challenge to find the appropriate music for a show - something that suits the voiceover and provides the right transitions without calling attention to itself."

Slater's musical pedigree includes a father who is a professor of music and conductor, a degree from the London College of Music and a background as a cathedral chorister at Oxford. He no longer sings but plays piano and cello. He is fond of many styles of music, including rock, jazz and opera. "Wagner and his peers would be writing music for film today," says Slater, who named Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Ennio Morricone as some of his favorite film composers.

Currently, Slater is working with E&S on the music for some visitor attractions in China, and with Mirage3D on the music for Dinosaurs at Dusk. "A dome, like a cathedral - is a very special space, a place to feel connected, to sense the wonder of the natural world."

He feels that museums and institutions can harness music for good results in more ways than they currently do. It can help drive repeat visitation, making people want to see a show more than once: "The emotional resonance of music creates a positive association." It can create a sense of arrival in the facility: "Start the experience sooner in museums and planetariums, and make it more immersive. Help visitors feel they are on an adventure. That creates active engagement and excitement." http://www.markslater.net/

Turning on the kitchen light at night:
The creatives behind Jeepers Creepers

DomeFest2012, held immediately following IPS 2012, bestowed the Domie Award for Design on Jay Heinz, Peter Althoff, and Jim Kachelries for the UNC Morehead Planetarium's 2011 short subject, Jeepers Creepers. It is distributed by Sky-Skan.

JeepersCreepers also had an enthusiastic reception when screened at the 2012 IMERSA Summit in Denver. The animated, 2.5-minute show lightheartedly depicts what we all hope not to see when in the kitchen in the middle of the night - an ever-more-numerous assortment of insects and spiders, silhouetted on a light globe.

Jim Kachelries (digital artist, Morehead), who has a degree in media arts and animation and has been with Morehead about 4 years, confirmed that the lumpy critter is a caterpillar. "There's a single fly, cockroaches, spiders, caterpillars and pillbugs. They were all rendered in 3D except the fly, which is 2D." He animated the cage and its texture along with the lights, the fly and the spiders (all the same spider) and their movement cycles.

Research included consulting an entomologist about leg movements. There was also close observation. "We videotaped bugs on a translucent surface," says Heinz.Kachelries described how Peter Althoff (digital artist for Morehead) animated the pillbugs using crowd simulation. "They start at the ground, migrate toward the center, and climb on top of one another." At one point they were progressing too quickly. "We sent them along an invisible 3D plane to give them something to do."

Kachelries, Heinz and Althoff
Heinz (digital production manager at Morehead) and Kachelries report that Jeepers Creepers is a popular show at film festivals although ironically hasn't been shown many times at Morehead. According to Heinz, the idea for the show originates with Morehead Fulldome Theater Director Richard McColman. As Heinz related, McColman told a story about a past IPS meeting where someone turned a glass bowl upside down on a table over some cockroaches, shone a bright light through it and projected it onto the dome.

The output of Morehead's creative production trio includes Earth, Moon & Sun (2009); Magic Tree House Space Mission (2010) and Solar System Odyssey (2011). The goal, says Heinz - who has been with Morehead 5 years, and whose background includes a Master's in documentary journalism and work at Lucasfilm and the Washington Post - is to "keep pushing boundaries and making shows, each one different from the last one." Currently in production are a giant puppet show for the winter holidays, and a special Grossology show supported by a grant from NIH.