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20 February 2012

Dynamic Earth: Behind the making of Spitz's new fulldome production

The NCSA AVL team, pictured in front of a Hurricane Katrina image on their ultra-high resolution stereoscopic display environment, used for interactively analyzing simulation data, and for the design and playback of visualization. L to R: Alex Betts, Jeff Carpenter, Stuart Levy, Donna Cox (AVL Director), Robert Patterson and AJ Christensen. Photo courtesy Robin Scholz/Illinois Alumni
Dynamic Earth is a new immersive digital dome ("fulldome") show that explores the inner workings of Earth's climate engine, using intricate visuals based on scientific datasets. It is the result of a two-year collaboration between Spitz Creative Media, the Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications of the University of Illinois, NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio, and Thomas Lucas Productions, Inc., in association with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) and NASA Earth Science. 

Distributors of the show are Spitz Inc. and Spitz's parent company Evans & Sutherland; both companies also market fulldome projection systems. Its world premiere took place on 4 Feb 2012 in Denver. 

IPM co-editor Judith Rubin posed questions to members of the creative team - co-producer Mike Bruno of Spitz Creative Media, director Thomas Lucas, and Donna Cox and Robert Patterson of AVL.
The visualization of Venus

Dynamic Earth is 23 minutes long. Is there a standard length for fulldome films tied to school group needs or optimal theater turnover?


Mike Bruno: Here in the U.S., most fulldome films tend to run 25 to 35 minutes. Dynamic Earth is intended for distribution to planetariums and science centers in major markets, where theaters typically operate on half-hour schedules, so 23 minutes is a good length. There are also practical budget issues to consider.


Digital dome cinema is leading edge technology. Are fulldome theaters in planetariums bringing in new audiences or helping generate more repeat visits?

 
Dan Neafus: Fulldome theaters such as the Gates at DMNS are certainly bringing in new audiences as compared to fifteen years ago. Gates has been particularly successful in expanding its evening offerings, including astronomy lectures and a very popular lecture series on “Earth from Space” covering geography and geology.

Dan Neafus
Because of the greater variety and more frequent rotation of programming the theater has seen a significant rise in repeat visits among its visitors. The Museum is also developing a plan to re-brand the ‘planetarium’ as the “Dome Theater” which better describes the wide range of programming offered to the public.


When converting research datasets to cinematic imagery, where do you draw the line between scientific accuracy and moviemaking?


Donna Cox: The research datasets that we work with fall into two main categories: observational and dynamical simulation. Simulations are now used throughout science to investigate the physics behind phenomena ranging from the climate, to supernova explosions, to the folding of proteins. For example in Dynamic Earth, the visualization of Hurricane Katrina represents the largest scientific computation to study the inner workings of this devastating storm. The purpose of using these sequences is to convey a scientific context, an understanding of how things work. The artistic choreography, camera paths, color schemes, and cinematic treatment are usually designed to enhance the drama that’s inherent in these data sets. In our experience, audiences are eager to learn the scientific context of these sequences.


Dynamic Earth utilizes a number of observational data sets. Since our goal is to convey the evidence, there’s no real line between art and science. In the case of our Venus sequence, topographical data is used to inform the visualization. Beyond that, the sequence is more of a vision of what the surface of Venus might look like… and it’s pretty frightening.


Is absolute scientific accuracy even an achievable goal when rendering data for this kind of digital projection?


Robert Patterson: In terms of visualizations, “accuracy” is always going to be relative. In terms of data visualizations, nature is always going to be far more complex than what we might render for a screen. If you are talking about observational data, visualizations are subject to the limitations of the camera or other sensor gathering the data. Rather than absolute accuracy, our goal is more to reflect as dramatically as possible the current scientific understanding. This approach converges the goals of science education with the drama of cinema.



Fulldome is still a very new production medium. What kind of learning curve was there from the creation of your earlier show, Black Holes, to Dynamic Earth?


Tom Lucas: While fulldome is a new and very different production medium, most cinematic rules and techniques that you can think of still apply. There’s a need to maintain a clear narrative line and a sense of visual orientation. However, with a fulldome program, the audience comes in expecting a great experience, so you can’t hold back on them. Our approach is to pack the shows with rich imagery, visual rides, and music that keeps them on the edge of their seats. That’s when you can also reach them emotionally.

 

Director Thomas Lucas
What are some of the primary ways that making a fulldome show differs from a traditional flatscreen movie?

Tom Lucas: Fulldome production certainly has its limitations. It’s not easy, for example, to place live-action scenes onto the dome. The fulldome screen can be very unforgiving, with any compromise in quality sticking out like a sore thumb. Generally, the resolution and the detail required for any given shot means that execution is hard. At the same time, the size and immersive qualities of fulldome screens mean that opportunities for making an impression on audiences are vast. It’s a lot of fun to watch an audience lean into a curved flight path or grip their chairs. It’s also great to see them pointing to different areas of the screen to make sure others notice the details.

Diatoms

How does this particular creative team work together in terms of conceiving, designing and producing a fulldome show?


Tom Lucas: The key to getting the most out this team is preserving the members’ autonomy, and allowing them to shape both the story and the visual style of the program. We work to design an overall story structure that allows the members to draw upon the unique databases and techniques that they have access to. Because there’s a great deal of mutual respect, there’s a lot of back and forth on framing and choreography. The best ideas always seem to win.

Having a fulldome theater must bring new challenges and/or opportunities for planetarium operators. What have you observed in that regard?


Dan Neafus: A digital dome theater offers fantastic opportunities that expand far beyond the days of slide projectors and star machines. The primary advantage of fulldome is the ability to exchange programming with other dome theaters. This breakthrough encourages the development of higher quality programming and, in particular, will improve the investment recovery for the Dynamic Earth production group.


From an operations perspective, reliable fulldome technology improves up-time significantly and frees technical staff to help with program creation.

How did you come to select this topic for the production?


Tom Lucas: The initial impetus for Dynamic Earth came from a desire to work with NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. That team has access to cutting edge databases, and their global views of Earth lend themselves to fulldome presentation. We also saw in this topic the chance to give audiences a perspective on Earth’s global climate that they rarely seem to get. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications also focuses on visualization of both atmospheric and climate change simulations. The presentation seeks to tie the major elements of our climate together, while exploring overarching themes of the story of why Earth is so conducive to life.


Is Dynamic Earth targeted to a particular age group? Was it created primarily for school group viewing, family audiences, or both? Is it designed to be part of a school science curriculum?



Mike Bruno
Mike Bruno: Dynamic Earth is designed to be shown in planetariums and science centers, where audiences are made up largely of families and school groups. We are targeting the middle grades with an educator’s guide tied to the new national standards. In general, though, we learned in the Black Holes production that we were able to aim high in terms of complexity. We found that kids in the lower elementary grades were still able to get quite a bit out of it in terms of learning basic concepts and relationships.

Does Dynamic Earth grapple in any way with the various controversies about climate change?


Tom Lucas: The overall thrust of Dynamic Earth is to explore the interconnection between major elements of the global climate. Though the program is not really about climate change, it does not shy away from reporting on major scientific findings. Our goal is that audiences understand these findings in the light of how the engine of the global climate works.


What's the next project?


Mike Bruno: Spitz Creative Media, Thomas Lucas Productions and Mirage3D are currently working in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on a new show called “Super Volcanoes,” due out in the fall of this year. It explores the geological origins and impact of some of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. For context, it also takes audiences to other volcanic worlds, including Neptune’s moon Triton and Jupiter’s moon Io.