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Can small planetariums produce their own fulldome digital content?

Whether you call it tradition or necessity, the fact is that in the planetarium community, especially among the smaller venues, in-house content production is common practice. Upgrading to fulldome digital technology is not going to change the planetarium DIY culture, nor should it.

Even with a skeleton staff and a shoestring budget, a planetarium with a fulldome system has several options for staying in the pilot’s seat when it comes to creating content and customized programming, whether both real-time or pre-rendered, to suit one’s particular audience.

Going all digital boosted Vattenfall Planetarium attendance and revenue

“We gave up films completely,” saysKai Santavuori, manager of the Vattenfall Planetarium at Heureka science center in Vantaa, Finland. Vattenfall is part of Heureka’s theatre unit, which is responsible for all the science centre’s audiovisual tasks in addition to the 135-seat planetarium’s operations, development, maintenance and programming. Santavuori’s immediate superior isLea Tuuli, Director of Communication.Per-EdvinPerssonis CEO.

Since a comprehensive renovation in 2007, Vattenfall employs a Sky-Skan definiti digital dome video system with two Sony SXR 10 HD 4K projectors with custom lenses, LED Cove Lighting for 17.5 meter diameter dome screen, and 5.1 digital surround sound. Heureka dismantled and sold the film projection system, an Iwerks 870 that shared the space with a Zeiss fiberoptic Universarium Starprojector. The dome made by Zeiss, and the Starprojector were retained with new seating installed.

Public response to the renovation was overwhelmingly positive and enabled the planetarium to open up programming and simplify operations in lucrative ways, reported Santavuori. “Before the renovation, we only had two giant screen films at a time in our program due to lack of technical space. Now we show four different planetarium films every day and, for example, a school teacher can also choose shows from the library. Everything is on hard disks and loading a show takes less than a minute. The length of planetarium shows, 25 – 35 minutes, has made a more flexible schedule possible. There are now more screenings and customers have more time to visit the exhibitions.”

The change enabled Heureka to add a new entrance ticket package for exhibitions plus three planetarium films. “Before the alterations, the ticket sales situation was only, as it were, a side product which was taken if the subject was interesting or if it suited the visitor’s schedule. Now customers arrive inspired by the planetarium, not only the exhibitions. In my opinion, the reasons include shorter shows (children’s interest is kept up throughout the show), the enhanced thrill of the guest experience when the image covers the entire 500-square-metre dome, the versatility of our program, good marketing and sensible ticket packaging.”

Santavuori reported that during the first year, the planetarium saw a 20% increase in attendance. “Now as the planetarium has been in use for 2.5 years, we have been able to keep the attendance at the first year’s level.” He credits the quality of the programming paired with the shorter run times. “We have tried to listen to our customers’ and schools’ wishes as regards to the program and show schedules.”

Vattenfall’s programming has included Cosmic Collisions, Infinity Express, The Search for Life, Are We Alone?, Passport to The Universe, Kaluoka’hina, Black Holes – Journey into the Unknown and an interactive live show exploring the evening sky. “Cosmic Collisions has been the most popular show with more than 135,000 viewers. He noted that most visitors during the week are schoolchildren, that families visit on weekends and the program is designed accordingly. Finland is a bilingual country (Finnish and Swedish) and Heureka observes a three-language policy with all exhibitions, brochures and notifications in Finnish, Swedish and English. increasingly they are also translating materials into Russian to serve a growing number of Russian tourists.

Vattenfall also hosts special events. “We have created live performances in accordance with the customer’s wishes. Company events have been on the increase, and as the majority of them take place after hours, they have not affected our normal operations. Income from these events has also been on the increase.”

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“Our future looks bright,” says Santavuori. “We have established our position as
the leading planetarium in Finland. “Several people working in the planetarium field abroad have visited us to look at our renovation. We will continue to invest in a high standard program. Staff training is planned and carried out together with the Sky-Skan personnel. We have started planning our own show production and hope to open the first during 2012. “Changing from the giant screen film technology to an up-to-date digital planetarium was the right thing to do.”

Bugs! and the leveraging of giant screen resources

One of the big successes in the giant screen film sector is Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure. This 2003 film, produced in stereoscopic 3D by Principal Large Format and executive produced and distributed by SK Films, had a long and productive main release in 70mm giant screen formats (2D flatscreen, 2D dome and 3D flatscreen) and has been finding its way to ancillary successes in other formats, demonstrating the typically long shelf life enjoyed by the best titles in this film genre. After studying the digital dome market, which included consulting with Paul Fraser of Blaze Digital Cinema Works, SK Films and Principal decided to invest in a high-resolution master scan for digital dome conversion. Bugs! will shortly be released in both 2D and stereo 3D for the digital dome, by arrangement with Evans & Sutherland and Sky-Skan, who will be distributing it.

Principal Large Format CEOPhil Streathercalls it “sweating the asset.” He andJonathan Barkerof SK Films indicated that the lucrative exploitation of such assets – so that content can cross over from giant screen cinemas to planetariums and vice versa - is a promising direction that has only just begun. Streather had been impressed by a presentation at the 2008 conference of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) by Jeri Panek of E&S and IMERSA co-founder Ed Lantz. “They pointed out that a giant screen film is the best place from which to take existing material for a digital dome show. Material that originated in 1570 or 870 can be scanned from original negative at a resolution that does justice to filling the dome. Then we looked at it on a business plan level.” Their conclusion: “The digital dome represents a genuine ancillary for giant screen filmmakers.”

The proven track record of Bugs! as well as its visual quality were factors. “It’s obviously a very solid film in its genre, and it played very well in film domes,” notes Barker. “We were able to make some decent business projections based on that. Not every film will necessarily make sense to incur the expense of the hi-res scan. Certainly there are a lot of giant screen films, especially 3D films, made without any expectation of ever playing in a dome.”

The rapid growth of digital dome theaters in planetariums and science centers signals an exponential and very welcome increase in the potential distribution market for creators of educational content for special venues. In addition to the relatively small and finite Imax/70mm theater network they can now have the much larger, and rapidly growing, network of digital domes in mind. For that reason, going forward “it is always a good idea to have a hi-res scan be part of your overall planning,” says Barker. “I advise anyone making a production for the giant screen to maximize all potential revenue streams.” He pointed out that a hi-res scan is most economical when it is part of the initial process.

The large number of digital domes tips the balance toward domes, when it comes to educational special venue formats. SK Films and Principal Large Format have this in mind as they prepare to follow Bugs! with Flight of the Butterflies. “One of the things we’ve been addressing very, very seriously is to shoot and be 100% certain this is going to work on domes. We’re thinking harder about how it is going to play on a dome now than we might have 10 years ago,” says Barker.

Moving toward a common digital specification

Museum plannerJohn Jacobsen, president of White Oak Associates and long an active player in the giant screen cinema industry, launched the nonprofit White Oak Institute in 2007 to look constructively at problems facing the museum field. One of their initiatives is DIGSS, which stands for Digital Immersive Giant Screen Specifications. The first step is DISCUSS (Digital Immersive Screen Colloquium for Unified Standards and Specifications) an invited conference funded by a grant from NSF, which will convene giant-screen experts and leaders to establish specifications and standards for a digital equivalent of giant-screen film exhibition.

The DIGSS team includesChristopher Reyna(founding president of the Large Format Cinema Association, now part of GSCA),Andrew Oranof Fotokem,Ed Lantzof IMERSA (a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the uses of digital dome video and immersive media),Victor Becker(a specialist in theater geometry),Mark Peterson(director of theater analysis for White Oak) andJeannie Stahl(White Oak’s expert in museum economics).

Others contributing their industry expertise to Jacobsen’s digital brain trust initiatives includeGreg MacGillivrayof MacGillivray Freeman Films,Mark Katzof National Geographic Cinema,Toby Mensforthof Smithsonian Enterprises,Doug Kingof the St Louis Science Center andJames Hyder, publisher of LF Examiner. (MacGillivray, Katz, Mensforth, King and Oran are all members of the GSCA Board of Directors.) A two-day meeting will take place at White Oak headquarters at Marblehead, Massachusetts in June. The resulting draft specification will be published online and open to commentary by all giant-screen and digital dome professionals later this year. Project principal investigator Jacobsen says, “One of the things we’ll do is look at findings on Maya Skies, the digital dome show funded by NSF. There will be a report on what our field is finding out about learning in immersive environments – how the human brain receives the information and whether it is more memorable than other teaching formats, in terms of retaining what you learn.”

The ultimate goal is to establish a specification that would be adopted by GSCA and result in a network of DIGSS compliant theaters, which would facilitate the production and distribution of content. “A key question,” says Jacobsen, “is how many theaters globally have to become DIGSS compliant for there to be a sustainable network of theaters to support four or five high-budget productions a year. We want to build standards that fit big museum theaters that are 2D, 3D flatscreen and dome.”

Jacobsen indicated that the International Planetarium Society (IPS) is active in the venture and has designatedDr. Jeffrey Kirschof the Reuben Fleet Space Center as a representative. (Kirsch also sits on the GSCA Board.) The Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) is also involved. Jacobsen defines his venture as a “new opportunity for operators of planetariums and science centers to work together and think about ourselves in a larger world. This is a process by which we can be involved in what the specifications are. It’s a stepping stone for the convergence.”

IMERSA and IPS in Alexandria

IMERSA will spearhead several events, demonstrations and meetings specific to digital dome (“fulldome”) systems, productions and related issues in the context of the upcoming IPS conference, 26-30 June in Alexandria, Egypt.

This article first appeared in The Planetarian, published by the International Planetarium Society [http://www.ips-planetarium.org] (IPS). Reprinted on IMERSA.org with kind permission.

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