In the pleasure dome

Erik Roberts on planetarium cinema

Andy Gregory, Astronaut, <br />National Space Centre, Leicester UK”></p>
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National Space Centre, Leicester UK

In July more than 300 members of the International Planetarium Society assembled in Melbourne for their 18th biennial conference, the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, to see the latest dome productions, listen to a wide range of papers and presentations by full-dome experts, compare alternative projection systems and put an interactive simulation of the known universe through its paces.

The crackling sound of electricity fills the void of the planetarium theatre as countless sparks of reddish light ignite, arcing and discharging across the dome. Now the whole screen lights up as the all-enveloping soundtrack grows louder and more frenetic. Electro-magnetic energy races like lightning along branching pathways forming the vast network of neurons with which we calculate each action and interpret every event. What first appeared to be a dynamic, circular, abstract work of art is actually a 3-dimensional representation of the human brain. The percussive, electronic soundtrack intensifies as we swim through the blood stream and enter the beating heart. Suddenly, everything stops. A moment later we skip dimensions and emerge outside the body of an astronaut far out in space looking down at the distant Earth.

Astronaut, the latest full-dome show from the National Space Centre in Leicester in the UK, received its world premiere in the Melbourne Planetarium as one of the highlights of IPS 2006. In less than 25 minutes, Astronaut takes you through the gruelling training program that astronauts endure and explains some of the dangers they face while conducting research on the international space station. Without a word of narration or any sign of text, the 4-minute prologue pins you to the seat, not so much because of the subject matter, story or the quality of the computer graphics, but rather the expansive continuity of the hemispherical screen, the strange fisheye perspective and the tactile sound environment all combining to transcend any conventional multiplex experience. Written and produced by Andy Gregory, Astronaut demonstrates how far the full-dome video medium has evolved in its first 10 years of technical and artistic development. The score is a series of short tracks by Pip Greasley, one of the UK’s most intriguing sonic artists. Combined with Will Penney’s highly original soundscape, just to hear Astronaut is well worth the price of admission.

In the second half of the show, Ewan MacGregor’s likable, deadpan narration becomes the foil for an hilarious animated sequence involving an evil scientist and a bunch of hapless astronauts all called Chad. Each replica of the rather blokey Chad is disposed of—to a catchy salsa beat—in a series of catastrophic experiments that serve to underline the potentially fatal nature of space exploration. Drawing inspiration from England’s theatrical and stop-motion animation traditions, Gregory and his team of designers and programmers at the NSC have taken full-dome storytelling to new heights by using cinema-in-the-round as a form of total entertainment based on solid, scientific facts.

The International Planetarium Society is the largest professional body of full-dome users in the world. IPS conferences are held every 2 years in different host cities, a movable feast of scientific visualisation technologies all focused on the dome. Digital video made its first tentative entry into the planetarium arena in Osaka at IPS 1996 when Japanese star projector manufacturers Goto demonstrated their advanced Virtuarium video projection system. At IPS 1998 in London, Sky-Skan unveiled the first full-dome video playback system heralding a new era of digital planetarium production.

Today, there are more than 200 full-dome theatres and hundreds of portable inflatable domes dotted all over the globe. Statistically, Australia has more dome theatres per capita than any other country. Creatively, it is making a contribution to full-dome’s on-going development in a number of significant ways. Brisbane was the first Australian city to acquire an immersive video system for its charming, medium-sized planetarium in March 2004. Soon after, the Scitech Discovery Centre’s Horizon Planetarium in Perth opened, equipped to produce immersive video in-house for their 6-projector video system. The Melbourne Planetarium has also successfully entered the full-dome market, producing several projects in fairly quick succession. Conveniently, all 3 Australian full-dome planetariums are equipped with similar Sky-Skan projection systems. Australian large-format film director John Weiley premiered Heart of the Sun, his latest full-dome at IPS 2006. An intimate, 20-minute portrait of the sun mostly shot on IMAX stock, it will screen for many years to come in major and minor planetariums around the globe.

Some of the leading projector manufacturers and practitioners of immersive cinema were at the conference. Ryan Wyatt, Science Visualiser at the Rose Centre for Earth and Space, headed a small team of representatives from the American Museum of Natural History. As well as chairing an entry-level, 2-part seminar called “Full-Dome 101”, he was also present as the principle producer of a stunning range of full-dome AMNH productions—Passport to the Universe, SonicVision, The Search for Life and Cosmic Collisions. Wyatt was the recipient of the Experimentation Domie award for his short hand-drawn full-dome work, Dome Sketch, at last year’s Domefest.

Domefest is the brainchild of David Beining, director of the Loadstar Astronomy Centre at the University of New Mexico, who was also at the conference. The festival attracts a wide range of entries in all full-dome genres, from interactive games and abstract animation to mind-boggling scientific visualisations and realtime simulations of complex data. The international jury’s selections in each category are showcased at Siggraph and licensed to dome theatres worldwide by Sky-Skan. Through global co-operation and the common desire to see the full-dome format reach its potential, the international planetarian community is at the forefront of immersive projection technology and a totally different way of engaging with the moving image.


International Planetarium Society, 18th Biennial Conference, Carlton Crest Hotel, Melbourne, July 23-27

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 19

© Erik Roberts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006