Press Release

Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123


Original all-digital production combines scientific visualization with movie-making magic;
highlights Earth’s special place in the Universe as the only known haven for life

SAN FRANCISCO (September 18, 2008) — When Morrison Planetarium opens on September 27 as part of the new California Academy of Sciences, t he premier attraction in the new dome will be the immersive digital video productions designed by the Academy’s visualization studio. The inaugural production will be Fragile Planet, a 30-minute virtual journey from Earth to the outer reaches of the Universe and back—a journey that reveals how special Earth really is. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver and interwoven with talks by a live presenter, Fragile Planet begins inside Morrison Planetarium, lifts off through the roof of the Academy, zooms outside the atmosphere, and gives audiences an astronaut’s view of Earth. The journey then continues to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Milky Way to search for habitats that might host extraterrestrial life. The show’s theme—that Earth is the only known haven for life, and thus is important to protect—echoes the themes of biodiversity and sustainability that run throughout the rest of the Academy’s exhibits.

The visual foundation of the show lies in scientific visualization, utilizing observed data as the starting point for the imagery in the program—more than three dozen researchers and institutions provided data in support of Fragile Planet. Their contributions range from high-resolution satellite imagery of Earth to the positions of galaxies more than 50 million light years distant. From the three-dimensional terrain of Valles Marineris on Mars to the locations of extrasolar planetary systems in interstellar space, everything audiences will see in Fragile Planet has a basis in astronomers’ best understanding of the Universe. Scenes that required extrapolation from known observations were developed with the assistance of researchers with expertise in the relevant topics.

Fragile Planet was written and produced by the Academy’s visualization studio, staffed by a team whose collective credits include work at the American Museum of Natural History, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Pixar, and Lucasfilm Animation. For two sequences in the show, the Academy’s visualization studio collaborated with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and separately with San Rafael-based digital studio element FX. Additional associations make Fragile Planet a truly international endeavor. The Swedish software developer SCISS AB provided support for creating accurate renditions of planets based on current NASA data, and the company teamed with Academy technical directors to create a reliable interface between their specialized astronomy software and tools used by computer animators. The German software company Xfrog worked closely with Academy botanists to replicate the native California plants that carpet the roof of the virtual model of the Academy building. Display specialists from U.K.-based Global Immersion also partnered with the Academy’s visualization studio to refine techniques for planetarium production, and technical consulting was provided by U.K.-based Visual Acuity.

The spectacular visuals are augmented by an audio environment that is as immersive as the imagery. Composer and sound designer Michael Stearns has composed for numerous large-format films, including Chronos, Ring of Fire, and To the Limit, as well as for traditional theatrical releases including Baraka and Titanic. Stearns brings particular expertise in creating soundscapes for immersive environments, having worked in both planetariums and “ride films,” such as Back to the Future at Universal Studios and Star Trek: The Experience for Paramount .

Fragile Planet opens September 27, 2008, and plays seven times a day, seven days a week. The planetarium show runs every hour on the half hour, beginning at 10:30 a.m. daily.