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Planetarium Production 

January 24, 2012

Envisioning an Immersive Environment

Welcome to the California Academy of Sciences Production blog! Over the next six months, we’ll bring you fun facts and sneak peeks into the world of the Academy’s own science visualization team.

For the inaugural launch of the blog, I thought I might skim through the visual design process required to bring planetarium shows to life—how we compose and design content to appear inside a 75-foot-diameter hemispherical projection screen.

Designing for a 180-degree view of the world poses some interesting challenges. Check it out! Imagine your favorite really big popcorn bowl. Now dump the popcorn out and pretend the inside of your bowl is a TV—welcome to “bowl vision.” A concave image fills the entire inside of your popcorn bowl. Hmmm… But now how do you watch the content? You have to wear that popcorn bowl on your head! Now you’re thinking like a planetarium show designer—our dome is simply a lot bigger than the popcorn bowl.


In this hemispherical world, the image fills your entire field of view, you feel much closer to the action than normal, with the combined effect of every detail being very “in your face.” That’s what we call immersive! “Immersive media” surrounds you and puts you in the middle of the visuals, so you may feel like you’re flying, moving, transported to another place entirely… But that presents some challenges. Imagine if the image in your “bowl vision” fades to black, and you don’t see anything at all. Yikes, the world has disappeared! Now imagine watching an MTV music video in your bubble with the fast cuts and fast action. Oh no, I’m feeling queasy! It’s far too much, too fast!

These examples help explain why careful composition plays a critical role in a planetarium show. A fade to black or a cut is too jarring to an audience literally surrounded by the experience. Instead, scenes flow into one another through a series of carefully crafted virtual camera moves. For example, dropping someone from Mars to the surface through a fast cut can cause confusion, so you might want to fly there, moving the audience from space, through the planet’s atmosphere, then down and along the planet’s surface.

This means crafting the entire show from start to finish with one continuous camera move in mind, carefully guiding the audience along on a leisurely ride through the Universe. The Director of the Morrison Planetarium calls this a “narrative journey,” and you can read an article he wrote in 2005 that describes some of his thoughts about the medium.

Don’t take our word for it—come to the Academy and check out the current planetarium show, Life: A Cosmic Story. See if you can spot a cut or fade to black in the entire show. Post your favorite creative transition from one scene to another below.

Now it’s time to explain to your family why you are sitting around wearing a bowl on your head!

See you next time to continue the journey of creating a Planetarium show, when we’ll introduce the latest work-in-progress of the Academy’s visualization studio!

Filed under: Creative Concepts — khammond @ 2:08 pm

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