Dome Lab 2010

Recently, I  had the privilege of attending an immersive cinema lab in Perth, entitled DomeLab 2010. It was a one week intensive residency on live-action content-creation for ‘Full Dome‘ , or ‘Planetarium cinema’, presented by the Australian Network for Art and Technology.

I was interested in attending the residency for it’s immersive potential, and being a media and sound artist was intrigued about the possibilities for a high-definition cinematic experience.

The workshop was a hectic 6 day experience, meeting upwards of 30 artists, designers, technicians, tutors, producers, writers, filmmakers and creatives from a huge range of disciplines.

We first met at SCITECH, an educational science centre which incorporates the Horizon Planetarium. Being an 18 metre high dome the experience is certainly captivating, but not without its shortcomings.

Straight off the mark I was a little puzzled by the vividness of the image in the dome, which to me seemed somewhat dull. This was something I noticed a few months earlier at the Beyond the Frame info session at Melbourne Planetarium. In 2010 we’ve all become accustomed to HD Projections and Super Bright Plasma and LCD screens, so the experience in the fulldome cinema seems to fall short, perhaps by the fact that it is based on multiple projection systems.

Unlike in a traditional cinema where a singular projector is beamed onto a front facing screen, FullDome often uses upwards of 5 or 6 projectors mapped out around a dome to complete the full hemi-spherical image, the light from each projector bleeds and bounces across the screen, dulling down contrast, sharpness and colour vividness. It seems that the traditional content for Fulldome – astronomical presentation – is perhaps best suited to it : small pinholes of light against the black backdrop of Space cause little spill in the dome.

But Alas, I digress – the screening of the lab tutors work with full dome was varied and interesting:  Peter Morse presented his work in Antarctica with panoramas (which due to high brightness and whites did lose a lot of detail). Paul Bourke (from a scientific visualisation background) presented his 3d macro visualisations of various compounds and organisms. These worked well as they were predominantly translucent coloured models on black background, but were otherwise graphic representations for scientific study unintended for narrative cinema.

Hue Walker presented her more abstract, animation pieces which involved 3d and 2d explorations of dome space, using a variety of media and compositing techniques, exploring what she termed ‘the Intangibles’. I enjoyed Hue’s approach to the dome, and felt more in-line with this type of work and way of approacing. She spoke of the dome as being particularly well-suited to fantasy worlds, and I can’t help but agree after seeing her work.

Warik Lawrence also presented a range of works created for Melbourne Planetarium, in particular how the Melbourne Museum deals with utilizing masses of 2d content spatialised to create full dome shows. I enjoyed Warik’s description of putting people ‘inside a world’ with dome cinema, as opposed to viewing one from the outside.

One impromtu presentation of bird flight path data presented by Carley Tillet, the Horizon’s coordinator, was perhaps the most exhilarating and rewarding piece, a sentiment shared with other participants I spoke with at the Lab. Carly’s piece was set to a black backdrop, and consisted of simple lines that roatated and moved in 3d, creating an immersive, spatial experience.

These initial presentations formed an early perception of dome cinema for me.  I think the dome space needs a little more than it’s ability to be peripheral to be a succesful cinematic medium.

When you consider a Domes primary function is to exhibit astronomical imagery, then the issues surrounding the image clarity become scarce – since space is dark – a black background – and a lot of the graphics are stars – pinholes of light, this type of of content makes the most sense to get the best quality image out of the dome.  But there are many other problems associated with full dome content, such as issues of composition, framing, cameras, and also the fact that there is no standard in the world for presentation in planetaria. Every dome is different, the angles of the floor and the horizon line change, and this requires a dome content producer to have specific tailored versions of dome films for each venue where they are presented.

Inside an Inflatable dome with MirrorDome System

Having said all this, these problems are challenges, and the dome space, both as a venue and concept, is an entirely nascent field. I had a brief conversation about some of these issues with Jeff Skinner, one of the Lab participants, and he told me his ideas and plans for LED domes, which definitely sounded interesting, and are likely to tackle some of the image issues facing fulldome at present (tho I don’t know how comfortable it would be sitting inside a giant radioactive plasma bowl!).

The bulk of the DomeLab workshop was then held at the Centre for Learning Technology at the University of Western Australia, where we were exposed to a range of domes including 2 types of portable inflatable domes, and the vertical iDome based at the University. The function and theme of the DomeLab workshop however, was to create ‘live-action’ content for the dome.

Often it’s not entirely clear how a workshop will function until you attend it, but I perhaps underestimated the focus with which this agenda was to be pursued over the course of the week. To my surprise we were actually supplied with actors to work with during the Lab, with which we were to experiment with using various cameras, scripts, filmmaking techniques, and genre conventions. The first and second day involved some intial presentations by Peter Morse on his filming techniques in Antarctica, and a LadyBug camera demonstration by Paul Bourke.  Ben Shedd presented some screenings and described his process and thought behind his film “Tropical Rainforest”, while Jonathan Strawn shared some of what he does with domes at ArtsLab in New Mexico. We were then divided into 5 separate production groups to begin experimenting with various equipment.

It was challenging being put into groups and having to work together to achieve an end, but on the other hand this method of activity perhaps prevented participants from developing further relationships with participants outside of their pre-selected group. This was probably the most rewarding aspect of the whole program for me – being surrounded by so many different creatives – yet groupwork mean’t that I left the lab having only exchanged a few words with many other participants. Granted, it was probably necessary to move from initial camera tests, and to develop a team workflow, but there was a nagging feeling inside me that this was a somewhat restrictive format to engage within such a diverse and opportunistic group of people.

We worked with Full Spherical Fish Eye lenses attached to Canon 5D Mark II’s and other Canon Camcorders – where the 5D’s often gave the best results. Each group had its members asigned to specific tasks: a Producer, DOP, audio operator, script writer and director. I decided to focus on audio for our groups piece. We spent several days testing and experimenting with various assignments.  At the end of a hard and often late day, we spent the evenings over dinner and conversation at restaurants in Subiaco, and the city centre, with much deserved swim and beach dinner on the 3rd day at Fremantle.

5D’s with Spherical Fish Eye Lenses

By the final day of the Lab each team had created a short film production for the Dome under extremely tight and intensive circumstances, and the results were surprisingly entertaining, hilarious, professional and finished.

I took away a lot from the week in Perth, most importantly for me was the connections and relationships I made with all the amazing people I met there. Although not the purpose of this lab for ANAT, if given another opportunity to work with FullDome in a similar context, I’d be keen to explore more of the “Intangibles”, as Hue Walker mentioned. Exploring the Dome with more computer generated content and footage more heavily processed by software. Given the restraints of the timeframe in our Lab, the teams who chose to do more compositing and computer generated effects had the most trouble fully realizing their projects. That said, I found these particular pieces the most exciting and successful. A general conclusion for me then was that, as far as live action is concerned, live action mixed with computer graphics provides an exciting and unique experience in dome cinema. I look forward to making such a piece in future!

Photos online at the flicker group here:

And ANAT Documenter Eva Sprenkelders blog on the event here:  http://filter.anat.org.au/issue-75/domelab-2010/

More Photos up soon,

MT/

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