Canada’s Science North and Denmark’s Experimentarium have collaborated on a unique and highly interactive film theatre.
The film’s cutting edge technology and creative innovation is proving hugely popular with audiences. The theme is the human condition in the 21st century and the project also uses a potent blend of physical interaction to pull visitors in.
Kim Gladstone Herlev, CEO of the Experimentarium, and Guy Labine, CEO of Science North, spoke to Blooloop about their respective institutions, and the genesis of the Interactive film theatre.
Both films revolve around a world where a fog, born of humanity’s inertia and screen-addiction, rolls in. It can only be vanquished by action so visitors battle to save the main character’s family. The films challenge the audience physically as they dodge, twist and jump for their lives. The fog will only dissipate if visitors are active from the beginning right to the end of the interactive film.
The primary target group is families with children aged 8 to 14. The film creates a great opportunity for dialogue and collaboration. Nevertheless, it is also a popular teen and meaningful corporate activity.
Science North’s feedback demonstrates over 95 percent satisfaction with the experience, the content of the show, and the way it has been presented.
The technical prowess that powers the cinemas
The main film and the digital interaction elements are led by nine laser projectors, screened on the main screen and on the floor. The theatre’s main canvas is 20 m x 4.5 m and is installed at a 160 degree angle. The audience’s interactions during the film are registered by seven Kinect cameras placed in the theatre. The running of the film and special effects happens through the Show Control programme, and are fully automatic. In addition, the technology is PC-based, running on a Microsoft platform. The film’s audio is in digital 5.1.
The Experimentarium – sparking an interest
Kim Herlev was originally a teacher. He has been at the Experimentarium for sixteen years, and has spent the last three as its CEO. It is his avowed intention to turn the Experimentarium into one of the top five science centres in the world. “The mission is to spark, to create an interest in science and technology, among all the Danish population, and with a special focus on young people,” he says.
The Experimentarium has experienced some extreme challenges over the last few years. It was undergoing reconstruction in 2015 when a fire broke out on the building’s roof, quickly spreading through several floors. Fortunately the building was in the process of being renovated so there were no staff present and most of the exhibitions were being housed in central Copenhagen. “The fire took the water exhibition, and the stage,” says Herlev. “It gave us the chance to make a 2.0 water exhibition.”
However, it also meant that re-opening was delayed by five months. The existing building schedule had to be abandoned after the fire, having a large impact on the work and the staff. “It was very demoralising,” says Herlev. “There have been difficult times, and it is wonderful to be open again.”
Combining Canadian and Danish competence
The concept of the interactive film theatre was mooted around 2013. Herlev met with Guy Labine from Science North in Canada. “We had known each other for some time. So we decided we wanted to do something new, something different, something that has never been done before,” says Herlev.
“We stand on the shoulders of people who have created different kinds of technology, moving sensors, Kinect technology, and so on,” Herlev continues. “We have used technology, put it together in a new way, and we have created this interactive film theatre.
“At Experimentarium we had some very fine story telling people. Science North had technology for ‘object theatres’, an alternative kind of theatre in which there are no living actors, but moving objects.
Initially they didn’t have a clear idea about what would come out of the collaboration. “We simply planned to do something new with our different competences: Canadian competences and Danish competences in different areas,” says Herlev.
Queuing up in droves
The idea of an interactive film theatre evolved through various meetings and discussions. Finally Herlev and Labine came up with the broad brushstrokes. “We came up with an idea where people would have a great experience, doing things together: the social aspect was extremely important,” says Herlev. “Another aspect was health – being aware of the importance of moving your body. All in connection with having fun.
“But, to be honest, I found it very hard to believe that there would be a real product from this. I am so thrilled about it, because it turned out to be something for which our visitors queue up in droves every day. The great idea has been realised, it works, and it’s great. It is a totally new idea; a genuine innovation.”
The whole audience is called on to help
When visitors arrive, they queue up outside the cinema. Nearby is a screen showing famous characters from Danish TV reading the weather forecast. This draws the audience into the experience before they even enter the cinema. The forecasters talk about a fog or smog that is spreading over the country, making people tired. Some of the TV people start falling asleep.
Visitors then walk into the cinema. It contains no seating – just a huge curved screen. 20 people at a time can fit in. “You find a spot to stand on,” explains Herlev. “The movie, a cartoon, is projected on the whole floor and the whole wall, so you are embraced by it.
“You get involved in a story in which a girl seems to be alone in the city. The smog is coming, making everyone and everything invisible. Something is very wrong in the city, but she has no-one to talk to. Everyone is on their devices, watching videos, TV, busy with social media, mentally absent.
“So everybody [in the audience] is asked to help her.”
Science North – inspiration and education
Guy Labine has been at Science North, in Sudbury, Ontario for 16 years in total. He has been its Chief Executive for the past six years.
Prior to that, his work was in economic and community development at different levels of government, both federal and municipal.
Sudbury is a relatively small community, with a population of 162,000. However it is home to both the second and eighth largest science centres in Canada. Science North is the second largest. Dynamic Earth (around 7km away) is the eighth largest.
“I was recruited in 2000 to come to Science North and lead two areas: the fundraising and government funding portfolio, and also our external sales portfolio,” says Labine. “Both elements are important sources of revenue.”
Science North is an agency of the Ontario government, labelled an ‘operating enterprise’. Labine calls it “a bit of an arm’s length agency”. This means that, while it receives funding from the Ontario government, it operates autonomously with a board of trustees that sets the strategic vision and mandate of the organisation.
“We have an operating agreement with the interior government to make sure we fulfil the objectives that they have in terms of science, engagement and cultural work,” says Labine.
Aiming to make people better able to appreciate, understand and be inspired by science
Last month [June 2017] Science North started its 34th year of operation.
The science centre alone receives about 110,000 visitors a year. Around 380,000 admissions are sold to all of Science’s North’s attractions: the science centre, Imax theatre, digital planetarium, and temporary exhibitions. Science North serves an area of northern Ontario that stretches about 500,000 square km – an area bigger than Texas. Yet it has a relatively sparse population of 800,000 people.
“Our vision is to be the leader amongst science centres, providing inspirational, educational, entertaining science experiences,” says Labine. He points out that it does not necessarily tie into a particular age group or geography. “Making people understand the science of what they find in everyday life is really the core of what we do,” he says. “We’re not dissimilar to many other science centres around the world who have an interest in informal science learning and also increasing science awareness.
“We want to make people better able to appreciate, understand or be inspired by science. We do that with the two physical science centres that we have. However we also have a mandate to serve northern Ontario with a programme of outreach and activities related to what we do here at Science North.
“July and August are the school breaks. So we do week long summer camps on a variety of topics for different age groups. This summer we’ll have over 3,000 kids, so that outreach element is a significant part of our focus. It creates a science centre that is mobile and allows us to go into specific communities.”
Object theatres – the origins of interactive film theatre
Labine says the origins of the ground-breaking interactive film theatre reach back a long way. “When Science North first opened, about 80 percent of our funding came from the Ontario government,” he comments. “While about 20 percent came from earned sources, primarily the selling of food and retail items.
“In about the fifth year of operation, the organisation, wanting to grow and increase, hired some pretty creative individuals.”
One particularly creative force was the founding director of the science centre, Dr Dave Pearson. From 1980-1986 he was the Project Director leading the creation of Science North. Dr Pearson was Professor of Earth Sciences and a Climate Change Specialist with the Cooperative Fresh Water Ecology Unit at Laurentian University.
“He was a great science communicator,” says Labine. “Our staff wear blue lab coats, so they are called ‘bluecoats’. They engage with the visitors on science topics. Visitors can spend a minute or an hour talking about a relevant topic that is important to them. At the same time we had hired an individual who had an interest in the film industry. We wanted to use film based experiences augmented with objects, special effects and scripted stories to convey a topic on science to audiences.
“So 25 years ago we began the development of object theatres: theatres with multiple video screens, special effects, lighting, sound – and objects that get illuminated during the show to highlight a particular part of the topic.
“That started our work in creating these multimedia theatres.”
Collaboration started with Labine and Herlev’s predecessors
The former CEO of Denmark’s Experimentarium, Asger Hoeg, and Guy Labine’s predecessor Jim Marchbank started the process. The two men had developed a close friendship when they met at a science conference in the late 80s. They often discussed collaborating.
“Asger visited Science North and Jim visited Experimentarium,” says Labine. “Asger was quite fascinated by our object theatre technology. He thought it was a great way of conveying and impacting; a way of making people aware and understanding informally about a particular topic.”
Six years ago, before they became CEOs of their respective organisations, Labine and Herlev met at a leadership programme together. As with their predecessors, a friendship was formed. When the two became CEOs, they talked about collaborating on a new immersive multi-media experience.
“We agreed on a topic,” says Labine. “We wanted both our teams to work jointly so it was an equally developed project in each of our science centres. 95 percent of the content is the same in each of our venues.”
Developing the concept in the future
Labine sees several ways the concept could develop in the future. “The first is the ability to duplicate the shows for other science centres, museums or attractions,” he says. “Probably the most successful multi-media show object theatre we created was the ‘Climate Change’ show that we first developed 15 years ago.”
Climate change was a relatively new topic at the time. However Labine says audiences were willing to learn about the science behind it and why they should care. “We created a 20 minute show on climate change that uses an animated sheep wearing rubber boots, with a well-known Canadian comedian as its voice,” he explains. “Shortly after we opened the show here, we sold a copy of it to the Glasgow science centre in Scotland, a science centre in Singapore, and one in Connecticut. It was also customised appropriately for each location. In the UK for example, the voice was a Scottish actor.”
Updating the software
He points out that they could “absolutely do the same thing” with Ready, SET, MOVE!
“Secondly, when we develop an object theatre we try to think about how the content may change, and what upgrades we may want to make. So five years ago we made a new version of our Climate Change show called the Changing Climate Show. This focuses more on the impacts of climate change and mitigation efforts. This time we have four sheep, one from the Caribbean, a Scottish sheep and a sheep from East India, as well as our original Canadian sheep.
“We talk about the impacts of climate change, rising sea levels, melting of glaciers, locks on the Thames and the impact of rising sea levels on the Caribbean. The premise and infrastructure of the shows are the same, but we’ve been able to update the software to be able to make that change.
The Benefits of Co-Production
“Again, there’s an opportunity to do the same with Ready, SET, MOVE! down the road. I’m not sure what the change would be, and what the new content would be, but the platform is still there. We can recreate a new experience using the same infrastructure.”
“This has been a very interesting project for us at Science North,” says Labine. “This was also the first time we had to release some of the creative direction of the project. We needed to rely on Experimentarium and accept that this was a co-production. “I think the result, which is probably more complex, with a bit more effort required, is much better than us having done this alone.”