Reflecting on One Kind of Reality for Fulldome

This month I and my Loch Ness Productions colleague Mark C. Petersen had the opportunity to see the last shuttle launch of Atlantis from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center. We were accredited newsies, covering the event for Sky & Telescope online, and I also wrote a story for Yahoo News.

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By Carolyn Collins Petersen, Loch Ness Productions

In May, we did the same thing for the Endeavour launch, also getting the chance for imagery of the rollover of Atlantis, the astronaut walkout, and the Rotating Service Structure retract — all in fulldome. At both launches, we captured stereo sounds of the roar of liftoff, to add more to this depiction of reality we were recording. It was well worth it. Even now, as I watch our scenes in the dome, I am taken back to the sights and sounds — and, since I was there — the feeling of the events.

A few other fulldome-producer colleagues also set up gear to record these experiences for posterity. Some were more adventurous than we were, setting up remote cameras in the mangrove swamps closer to the pad. During the time we waited for the various launch-related events, we all chatted about our gear, our filming, and what we hoped to accomplish with our imagery.

And so we all gathered the last images of an era of spaceflight with some of the latest technology available to shoot time lapses for fulldome — full-frame 4K resolution at 30fps or greater is still just beyond technology limits. And, I wondered how future audiences woview of space shuttle launch kennedy space centeruld receive these scenes in all their immersive glory. I suppose it depends on people’s ages and perceptions of human spaceflight history. Young ones would see them as quaint reminders of an earlier epoch. People who grew up with the space shuttle flights — me among them — would think of the amazing things they enabled for the space station, for Hubble Space Telescope, and other missions. To be sure, these scenes represent what WE thought people should experience about space shuttle launches whenever we use them in our productions. They reflect our vision as filmmakers, our decisions about camera placement and sound. We did what we could, because someday we will want to share that experience with our audiences–to give them that same vantage point we had and experience some of the sights and sounds of the final two launches of space shuttles.

As we waited for the liftoffs, I thought about how these would look in the dome. We were at the water’s edge behind the countdown clock at the press site, three miles away from Launch Complex 39A — as close as audiences were safely permitted to be. Through a fisheye lens with no zoom, the images spread out across the dome, the shuttle and its launch looked smaller than one would expect, at first.  To the unaided eye, the actual ignition and flaming and exhaust trail was much more blazingly bright; when the camera sensor saturates to full white, that’s as good as you can project — but there was much more dynamic range than can be captured and hence projected.

But, the images really are in "real" space… and so they do reflect what we saw on those sultry Florida mornings. And, they are closer to the action than most people saw from their vantage points along the causeways coming into the space center area, although not as close as a few scenes we’ve seen taken a few hundred yards from the launch site using remote cameras. They’re immersive, and as far as they go, they reflect reality as it once was. And, there’s value in that for the fulldome medium. They tell a story. They reflect a time in history. That’s their true value — not how close we were to the launch site, or what equipment we used. Now, we have a fulldome story to create and share with others. What will it be?

(Note: Videos of the Endeavour and Atlantis launches can be found at http://www.vimeo.com/lochnessproductions)

Still image credit (if you use the attached still):  Fulldome view of Atlantis launch by Mark C. Petersen.  Copyright 2011, Loch Ness Productions.

Carolyn Collins Petersen is vice-president of Loch Ness Productions, a media production company specializing in fulldome production, exhibit and online media.