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21 August 2012

Pioneers of special venue 3D cinema: Robin Sip (Mirage3D) and the late Dominique Benicheti

Robin Sip's Mirage3D 
begins to cross-platform dome shows 
for flatscreen exhibition
by Judith Rubin

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 the International Planetarium Society's 2012 meeting in Baton Rouge, Mark Petersen of Loch Ness Productions ranked Mirage3D as the second most popular fulldome distributor, based on Petersen's 2011 "State of the Dome" report. 

Fulldome frame from "Natural Selection." Courtesy Mirage3D.
Fulldome projection systems have since the 1990s been replacing legacy opto-mechanical (starball) projectors in planetariums. The total number of fulldome systems in planetariums and science centers is now estimated at well over 1,000 worldwide. (See IPM's article by Bayley Silleck, "Digital Dome-Ocracy, for more information.) Fulldome systems have also found their way into other kinds of venues for entertainment and education: some recent examples are the Bubble Theater at City of Dreams, Macau, which shows the custom production Dragons Treasure; and the new Turtle Trek attraction at SeaWorld Orlando.

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."
Video clip: Natural Selection

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 Screen Cinema 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."
Image from Dinosaurs at Dusk, now in production

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/


Dominique Benicheti
Lawrence Kaufman, president of the National Stereoscopic Association, wrote the following article about the late Dominique Benicheti. I was fortunate to meet Dominique at Futuroscope in 1994 and see some of his films there. He was a brilliant, lively person who instantly engaged people in deep, fascinating conversation. --J.R.

Benicheti
I was saddened to hear of the passing of Dominique Benicheti last year. I received the news very late, when a friend of a friend passed it along. Dominique had worked on "iDance Machine - Nothing Personal" with Bruce Austin. I recently saw this music video at 3D-Con, which is planned to be turned into a feature film. Director Dan Harris said Dom was a pleasure to work with. He storyboarded the entire video for 3-D. Director Harris also said that on the shoot, he had at least three stereographers, which he was likely not to do again. Dominique was always trying to get more depth and one of the other stereographers was always trying to decrease the depth. I have not been able to find too much about Dominique's life or passing. There seems to be very little information in the Internet about Dominique.

I did find out from French Film director and producer Pascal Vuong, through Olivier Cahen that Dominique died of a violent and sudden cancer. He was buried at "Pere Lachaise Cemetery" in Paris at the end of July 2011. “During the ceremony, many testimonies and tributes from all over the world have been gathered and told, all telling how great was Dominique, not only professionally but humanly.”
La Revole, French Musical, A Fairy Tale

I met Dominique Benicheti in 1999 when he visited the United States of America trying to find releasing for his 3-D short "La Revole." Dominique was very lively, interesting, fun and excited about 3-D, so we became fast friends. I was able to see this film at a private screening at the Sunset Screening room following the Large Format Cinema Assn. (LFCA) annual conference, which Dominique was attending.

He visited again in 2000 with a 5/70 mm print of "La Revole," which was shown at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre during the LFCA annual conference. La Revole is the popular term for the feast of the last day of wine harvest in the Beaujolais region. “La Revole,” was called the first French 3-D musical. Running 18 minutes, it was shot with the Stereovision lens. I had recently visited Futuroscope, Dominique had worked there and on many films. He told me to look him up when I returned, but I never did make it back.

Bruce Austin, Eric Kurland and Ray Zone are planning a tribute to French 3-D cinema perhaps featuring "Pina" and a tribute to Dominique.

What I know about Dominique:
Dominique was a producer, writer, director and technician, he directed and/or produced more than 40 films; documentaries, scientific and animation. He may best be remembered for his very first film, a 1972 feature film "Le Cousin Jules (Cousin Jules,)" which won the Special Jury Prize and The Ecumenical Jury - Special Mention Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival and the Interfilm Award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) only lists that film: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0071165/

He studied at the National School of Applied Arts, National Superior School of Fine Arts and High Cinematographic Studies in animation film. He had taught documentary film making at Harvard University for two years and was there for three more years as research associate in engineering at the Jefferson Laboratories for experimental physics, developing a human-appearance robot for television.

Dominique had written and directed at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, producing a 30 minute video “Light Games: 5 Experiments About the Inverse Square Law” to initiate the teaching of astronomy in US high schools and colleges. He also wrote screenplays for "Little Lady Chip," which had been planned for a 3-D feature and a treatment for a planned large format 3-D fairy tale musical "A Double."


La Revole Photo Strip:
1) It's us, the Grape Pickers!
2) I'm Ceres, Goddess of Wine Harvests...
3) Blackberry, violet, cherry, cassis Moulin-a-Vent year eighty-six...
4) Take the cluster in your hand, but you don't crush the fruit!
5) And when the baskets are full, we have to call up "Jarlot!"
6) Oh! This Bocuse pumpkin soup!
7) I would happily give two months of my lifetime, to have this Beaujolais in my glass right now. 
8) I was holding my word, you were so impatient... 
9) Do not drink milk tonight!
10) In a pretty country, All embroidered with vines...

He went into special format films with Futuroscope (or Parc du Futuroscope,) the French theme park based on multimedia, as director, writer or consultant on 3-D movies and large format films. He wrote and directed “The Price of Freedom,” a 20 minute, 360o film about the Normandy Allied Landing of June 1944 for the 50th anniversary, shown at International Space Theatre Consortium (ISTC) in September ’94, held in Poitiers, France; it is currently at the Museum of Arromaches in Normandy.

He worked on a 20 minute double 70mm 3-D ride in pixilation about the 34,000 year old Chauvet Cave. He directed the documentary part of a 70mm 48 frames-per-second film about Poitou and he worked on the production of “Pathe-Baby,” a 3-D feature mixing fiction and reality, filming at least half of it with the Stereovision lens.

Dominique was preceded in death by his sister; Dom never married and had no children, so he left no heirs. Cedric Thomas is Dominique’s ‘spiritual’ son and is the executor of his estate.

Partial filmography: Dominique Benicheti
  • “Safari 3D” Opticals; double 35mm 3-D, post-production
  • “Peugeot 3-D” Storyboard, stereography, post-production, opticals; 15 min., 3-D commercial
  • “Miko 3-D” post-production, opticals
  • “The Price of Freedom” Writer/Director; 20 min., 360o - Arromaches Musee du Debarguement
  • “Poitou” co-director; 20 min., 70mm 48 fps
  • “La Revole” Writer/Direcotr 3-D musical short
  • “Pathe-Baby” Writer/Direcotr; 3-D feature (completed?)
  • “La Grotte Chauvet” Writer/Director; 3-D ride, double 70mm, (completed?) 
  • "iDance Machine - Nothing Personal" stereographer, music video, planned feature.
More about the French Film “La Revole”
In the opening shot of the film, a sixty-ish traveler has fallen asleep reading a newspaper in the compartment of a train. A headline of the front page of the newspaper reads that a wind vane in the design of Ceres, ancient Greek Goddess of the grape harvest has mysteriously disappeared the night before in a famous village in Beaujolais.

While the train comes to a stop in the sunny countryside for apparently no reason, a beautiful young woman appears magically in the compartment and sits in front of the traveler. The train takes off and the traveler awakes startled. He sees the young lady, apologizes for having fallen asleep and introduces himself. He is Christian Marin, a well-known actor, invited to Beaujolais to share supper of the La Revole, prepared by Paul Paul Bocuse and presided by Bernard Pivot, his pals and very famous French figures.

He is very surprised to learn from the young woman that she is no less that Ceres, the real Goddess of harvest and that every year she comes down from her wind vane to check on the grapes and help humans to make the wine good. Charmed, the traveler invites Ceres to join him and his friends for supper of La Revole, fearing nonetheless that “They will never believe you’re a Goddess!” “Well then, we will tell them that I’m only your niece!” She answers back to him.

Meanwhile, a group of you grape-pickers are going to the vineyards, signing, laughing and having fun, as well as a young kitchen helper coming back from market, singing with his horses. Then in the kitchen of Paul Bocuse, Ceres mischievously gives a blind-tasting wine lesson to these knowledgeable older men, who are very surprised. But later she will be the one to take a lesson from Paul Bocuse himself, to prepare his famous Poularde a la Bocuse with a recipe read in verse by Bernard Pivot.

The last day of work completed, the grape[pickers come back for the famous supper. While waiting for Paul Bocuse, Christian the actor, Bernard Pivot, Ceres and others play riddles. Impatient, Bernard Pivot expresses his feelings.

“I would have very willingly,
Given up two months of my lifetime,
To have in my glass right now
A sip, a taste of Beaujolais Nouveau!”

Referring to Pivot’s famous TV show about books and language, Ceres takes his word for it and magically, to everyone’s surprise overnight and all by herself, she makes the Beaujolais Nouveau.
Lawrence Kaufman