By James Hyder, LF Examiner
On Oct. 22, more than 60 people gathered at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond to attend a demonstration of “8K” fulldome projection, organized by the Giant Screen Cinema Association. The demo immediately followed the annual conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers in Raleigh, NC, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the south, and a number of ASTC delegates traveled on a bus the GSCA chartered for the purpose.
The museum’s theater opened as an IMAX Dome theater in 1983, with a 76-foot (23-meter) dome and the world’s first Digistar digital planetarium system, from Evans & Sutherland. The planetarium system was upgraded to Digistar II in 1997. Late in 2013, the museum dropped the IMAX brand (but kept the projector, which it owns outright) and in March 2014, after being closed since the first of the year, reopened with the latest Digistar 5 8K fulldome system and a new Spitz NanoSeam 180-degree screen.
The Digistar 5 features five Christie 4K DLP digital cinema projectors, each outputting 25,000 lumens to yield an overall image that is 4 foot-Lamberts, and can project 3D at 60 fps using Xpand active glasses. With edge blending, the 8 million total pixels of each of the five projectors actually display about 6 million unique pixels for a total of 30 million unique pixels on the dome. The system uses E&S’s proprietary auto alignment and auto blending software to create a seamless and uniform image across the dome. It has a real-time digital astronomy package and the ability to present pre-rendered fulldome shows, including the 40 giant-screen films that E&S has scanned and formatted for fulldome theaters.
The GSCA’s demo featured the first-ever side-by-side shootout between 15/70 film and digital content on a dome. The source material was scanned at 4Kx3K and digitally warped to the 4Kx4K fulldome format. Evans & Sutherland technicians masked the various projectors so that film was projected on the left half of the dome and digital was visible on the right. The IMAX projector was synchronized with the Digistar 5 and trailers from four GS films were screened: Flying Monsters, Space Junk, Pandas: The Journey Home, and Sea Rex.
As in the shootouts in held at Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX, in 2011 and 2012, the digital image was surprisingly good in comparison to film. Although slight color differences were visible, they weren’t significant or objectionable, and resolution and brightness were very close between the two. The film image had somewhat more contrast, but overall, digital was close enough to film that most people could not see a significant difference.
Having seen Sky-Skan’s 8K system in Boulder, CO, in March (see LF Examiner, March-April 2014), and now seeing E&S’ system, I feel that 8K dome projection can now be a worthy replacement for 15/70 film. Scanning GS material at rates higher than 4K would probably yield noticeable improvements, but the GS conversions we saw in Richmond were very good.
And the quality of native 8K production at 60 fps was even better. Although we did not see an entire 8K show in Richmond, the clips presented there, and Sky-Skan’s 8K 60 fps show, To Space and Back, which I saw in Boulder, proved to me that digital is capable of surpassing film imagery in the dome.
Fraser on Convergence
Paul Fraser, of consulting firm Blaze Digital Cinema Works, presented the results of the survey of dome theaters he conducted earlier this year and summarized in the Summer issue of LFX. He also moderated a discussion among operators of three dome theaters: Gary Monti of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY; Craig Blower of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, CA; and the Science Museum of Virginia’s Terri Rose. All three were built as IMAX Dome theaters, and added digital fulldome system in the past few years, keeping the 15/70 film projector while dropping or de-emphasizing the IMAX brand.
Monti (who recounted his theater’s experiences in the September 2013 issue) said that the bad experience of trying to show Hollywood DMR films had led the museum to re-examine and expand its mission, and that, as an air and space museum, adding planetarium capabilities to its dome theater made perfect sense. Partnering with National Geographic for 15/70 content has been “a very good fit for us,” so he hasn’t shown repurposed GS films on his Global Immersion fulldome system yet, but may in the future.
Rose said that the museum plans to retire the 15/70 projector in January, in part because the digital versions of GS films have “received nothing but positive reviews.” The move will allow the theater to reclaim about 20 seats that are now taken up by the film projector’s “doghouse.” In terms of content, she said that “we do our best work when we have an educator help us explain the content and really bring it to life. Visitor responses to that kind of thing are always higher.” So the museum has launched “Cosmic Expeditions,” a combination of a 25-minute recorded fulldome show and a 25-minute interactive star show with a live presenter who takes audience requests and answers their questions.
Blower was noncommittal about removing the film projector, saying that “we’ve always had both, since we opened 41 years ago with our starball and our [IMAX] 15/70.” A Sky-Skan fulldome system was installed last year, but they don’t use it to screen converted GS films. “Why would we? If it’s available in 15/70, we’re going to play it in 15/70. The light output for our current system isn’t close to the IMAX system.” The Fleet’s schedule is about 70% film, 30% fulldome.
New Digital Content Realities
Former GSCA chairman Toby Mensforth moderated a discussion about the vast array of content that is now available for digital systems of all kinds. He said that science education is the “critical element to the creation of all content for the industry,” and recalled that the conversation about convergence between the fulldome and giant-screen worlds began in March at a workshop before the IMERSA Summit in Denver (see LFX, March-April and May-June 2014).
Ryan Wyatt of San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences said that his digital planetarium, with a 30-degree tilt, 290 seats, and a 75-foot (23-meter) diameter dome, is “very similar to an IMAX Dome.” But as the previous executive director had said, “the planetarium is bigger than the universe.” So the museum creates its own shows that incorporate not only astronomy, but earth science, biology, and ecosystems, taking advantage of the Bay area’s plentiful supply of visual effects talent. But every public show incorporates a segment with a live presenter in the middle. The Academy has several other digital theaters or presentation spaces that all run on the same software.
Planetarium veteran Ian McLennan said that a well-done live presentation provides a level of engagement that recorded programs can’t, and that “by its very ephemeral state it achieves a type of theater that we all really should be striving for.” He said that some of the most exciting new work he’s heard about is being done at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto and at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, where very young children are being exposed to planetarium programs. “The educational objectives are extremely limited: you’re not trying to impart any particular set of information. You’re simply trying to create an environment where the kids will be comfortable in the dark…and have a positive experience of the sky above. If you do that for a two-and-a-half-year-old kid, you’ve probably created a planetarium goer for life.”
E&S’ Michael Daut said that although early fulldome shows have borrowed their linear structure from films and TV shows, “there’s a uniqueness to the immersive medium, and the theatricality of [live presenters] makes it come alive” in ways that other media can’t achieve. “The dome is the closest thing we have to the holodeck in Star Trek. You’re transporting audience to different places. And if you go to someplace new, what do you usually have? A guide of some sort.” The live aspect of fulldome shows can be a powerful differentiator. “We don’t want to just be another screen. There are so many screens with so many different brandings on them that sometimes you get lost in the shuffle. As content creators we need to learn how to make it special.”
The day’s offerings included a repeat of the “Bring Back Our Wide Shots” test of digital cameras presented by cinematographer James Neihouse at the GSCA’s conference in Toronto (see coverage starting on page 1), a demonstration of the 3D capabilities of the Digistar 5, and a presentation on the various ways GS images can be digitally warped to fit on a dome. Two young presenters on the staff of the museum showed how they can liven up live astronomy shows for young people with interactive games and audience participation. Another staffer showed off the Digistar’s powerful showbuilding capabilities that allow users to assemble and animate elements—whether the digital 3D universe and the thousands of objects in its database, still images, 3D models, or audio recordings—for use in a live show, or as a completely pre-recorded show.
© 2014 by Cinergetics, LLC. First published in the Oct.–Nov. 2014 issue of LF Examiner. Used by permission. Visit www.lfexaminer.com.