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Giant Screen Cinema, Digital Domes Converging; New Special Venue Dome Business Emerging

Related: Giant Screen Theaters and Museums in the Recession – Part 1: How Some U.S. Institutions are Managing / Part 2: Effects of the Recession on International Theaters in the Giant-Screen Cinema Industry   / A Conversation with Steve Judson and Chris Palmer of MacGillivray Freeman Films, leader in Giant-Screen Cinema  / E&S Exclusive Fulldome and Planetarium Distributor of National Geographic’s Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure

In the eyes of special venue media producers and distributors, a significant new market is emerging – a network that includes 2D and 3D giant-screen theaters as well as fulldome, and connects the interests of planetariums and science centers. The two types of institutions already have a lot in common – such as similar missions and audiences, and a tilting toward the latest interactive and immersive exhibition technologies. But the sharing of content, facilitated by digital processes, is just getting started. It’s a marker of the “convergence” of giant screen cinema – which in educational institutions is still mostly a film-based medium – and fulldome digital video.

Two major producer/distributors contributing to the convergence by investing in this combined market are nWave Pictures and National Geographic Cinema Ventures. Both now offer fulldome titles. nWave’s fulldome library includes Fly Me to the Moon and TurtleVision and, coming soon, The Little Prince (based on the classic children’s book). Janine Baker, nWave VP of distribution and development, has expressed the company’s desire to make more titles available to the planetarium market in future.

poster for sea monsters film movie imax fulldomeForty-minute educational documentaries previously seen chiefly in Imax 70mm (aka 1570) film theaters can now be leased in fulldome digital video versions. The title Africa: The Serengeti now in the E&S fulldome library, produced by Graphic Films and distributed by K2 Communications, began as a giant-screen film. Ditto for Forces of Nature, a production of Graphic Films and National Geographic, a new addition to the E&S and the Sky-Skan libraries (E&S and Sky-Skan each did their own conversions of the title for fulldome). Additionally, National Geographic has repurposed for fulldome the popular Sea Monsters, which was enthusiastically received at a recent screening for planetarium operators (E&S did the conversion).

A title familiar to one sector has a good chance of being new to the other, and formatting or repurposing can go in either direction. In March 2009, at paul fraser fulldomethe Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) Film Expo, distributor SK Films introduced Molecules to the Max! – a 1570 film version of the fulldome standby Molecularium, and the first fulldome production to be repurposed for giant-screen film exhibition.

Conversions and versions

As the digital dome network becomes an increasingly valuable target for media producers and distributors, they begin to plan their productions with multiple formats in mind. Consultant Paul Fraser (right) reports that his client, National Geographic, is developing an original new fulldome production. Fraser, who heads Blaze Digital Cinema Works, is a specialist in out-of-home digital motion picture presentation and sits on the IMERSA board of directors. He negotiated the Sea Monsters and Forces of Nature fulldome distribution terms with the fulldome vendors on behalf of Nat Geo.

“To turn a 1570 film into digital fulldome, you have to first scan it to a high resolution digital file, then stretch and warp it to reformat it for a Dome Master, ” notes Fraser. “There are post-production companies capable of providing this service, but it is a lot of work, and expensive. Another expense is the slicing and encoding for each individual theater – although this is not necessarily an expense for the distributor, as theaters often do it themselves. And of course, 3D costs more.”

3D in the dome?

Three-D rendering is already used in dome productions, but Fraser is referring to stereoscopic 3D, with separate right- and left-eye images viewed through 3D glasses. “Right now, there are very few stereo-equipped fulldome 3D theaters, [the ’Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii –below left – is one] but it could snowball, ” he says. “If a distributor already has the 3D film asset, they are way ahead of the game – they just need the money to do the scan.” Sea Monsters was a logical candidate for a 3D fulldome treatment. “Even though there aren’t many 3D fulldome theaters right now, we know it plays very well in 2D and our research with planetarium directors confirmed strong interest in this title, ” Fraser explained. “And the fulldome system vendors thought the high-quality of the production and provocative title, with its combination of CGI and live action, would help drive interest in 3D upgrades and new 3D system sales, and therefore, 3D licenses of the show will follow, eventually.”
planetarium fulldome display
How many theaters does a distributor need to make it worth the expense of conversion? “It depends on your assumption of the average license fee, ” says Fraser. “For 2D, it is somewhere in the area of six to eight theaters licensing the show. For 3D, almost double that.” Not every title is ripe for conversion, and planning a piece of media to originate in multiple formats is not as simple as it may sound. It seems reasonable that, for new productions, one might design in a fulldome configuration so that a flatscreen version could readily be extracted and then a second eye rendered for 3D, thereby maximizing the show’s potential reach. We asked some experienced special venue media producers to comment on the feasibility of such a model.

Production paths

“You start by asking, ‘where is this movie going to end up?’ and then you produce your animation for the highest resolution first, ” said Mindi Lipschultz, a digital production pioneer who is now in the final stages of a bleeding-edge project for the 2010 world expo in Shanghai, which opens in April 2010. “You can plan for this and think in multiple outputs. In some situations it might be more practical to produce in two streams with an overlap of certain content.”

Sean MacLeod Phillips, a prolific cinematographer and director with many giant screen titles to his credit, including Sea Monsters, pointed out some inherent conflicts between the formats. “When shooting 3D you don’t want extremely high contrast. When shooting for the dome, you do. The thing to do is consider your primary market first, make your production work the best there, and work backwards from that. The best you can do is to extract from a 1570 film capture. It would be different if we had 16k cameras or 8k cameras.” These issues are most pronounced for live action, he noted. “In the case of animation or compositing, you have more flexibility: Pure animation lets you re-render.”

Producing original 3D immersive programming for the dome comes with its own unique set of technical issues. Don Pierce of Micoy explains, “Dual-lens cameras with spherical optics create ‘sweet-spot stereo, ’ that is, stereo images which are correct at the front of the dome with the stereo effect dissipating towards the left and right side of the dome, ” said Pierce. Micoy has developed a patented rendering shader and a live-action camera design that provides correct stereo separation throughout the entire dome surface. Micoy is currently working with E&S as a display partner in the planetarium and science center market.

Crossing over

The developing fulldome/giant-screen market is far from homogeneous. When it comes to their fulldome theaters, many planetariums prefer to produce their own shows, or opt  for live presentations over syndicated or “canned” shows. It would be naïve for a distributor to automatically count every single digital dome as part of their territory. “These are space theaters and they are mission-driven, ” says Fraser. “What they book has to fit the expectations of their visitors. That said, they haven’t had these kinds of options before. I’ve spoken to quite a few planetarium directors who begin to wonder how rigid they really need to be. Some non-astronomy topics may resonate very well if they are good documentaries grounded in good science.” Distributors must also consider show length. Some operators can’t accept a 40-minute running time, which is the standard length of a giant-screen documentary, because it won’t fit their throughput needs in the smaller dome theaters, or with school groups that have to keep to a schedule.
hawaii planetarium
One of the most compelling drivers of the convergence is the need for dome-specific content, especially on the part of the existing film domes. If we put aside idiosyncrasies for a moment and visualize a single community of dome theaters encompassing all digital domes over 20 feet in diameter as well as all giant screen film domes, we can perceive a community with considerable group purchasing power – a power that includes the ability to control content as a primary market. For film dome operators, a unified dome network would bring new viability and a brighter future to a situation that has for some years frustrated them: a dwindling of available content, exacerbated by the growth of flat screen 3D. “Filmmakers haven’t been creatively planning their films with fulldome in mind, ” explains Fraser, “especially when producing for flat screen 3D. But I expect this will change.” jeff kirsch fulldome

“Convergence is not only possible, but inevitable, for giant domes, ” says Jeffrey Kirsch, (right) Ph.D, Executive Director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, which houses the first permanent 1570 film dome theater. “I don’t think the content needs to be homogenized. “There will be a continued call for astronomy content as well as science oriented productions, and they will be designed for domes. The planetarium groups have kept this criterion intact, showing the way to the future for those of us like myself who cut our teeth on Imax domes and Omnimax type films. We need high contrast in domes and it is not favored for many 3D shots.”

A past president of GSCA, Kirsch has been working to organize film dome theaters, particularly the larger ones most in need of compelling content. The Giant Dome Theater Consortium meets under the umbrella of GSCA and sees digital technology as a potential tool of revitalization that can not only improve the supply of content but also restore the place of dome theaters in the public eye as destinations for unique out of home experiences.

Producers wanting to serve this market can take cues from some of the older giant screen films which, says Kirsch, “are better composed for the dome as a rule.” He named a few specific titles: MacGillivray Freeman Films’ Adventures in Wild California (2000), Coral Reef Adventure (2003), and To the Limit , sea monster head on white background fulldome(1989), and Howard Hall’s underwater films (Into the Deep, Deep Sea 3D and others), as “excellent examples of visually engaging the audience and getting them involved in the action on the screen.”

Next steps in the convergence

“The big problem I see right now, ” says Kirsch, “is convincing my colleagues and their museum boards that they have got to be pro-active in leading this transformation. That effort will ensure the future of their facilities. Now is the time for capital improvements, however scary in this economy. The business model will be what we work on as a community to make it work for us. That is how the giant screen business really started: we worked to make it work for the museum audience.” 

While the industry conditions aren’t exactly the same as when Imax had its genesis in the 1960s and 1970s, the fulldome community stands to benefit from the experiences of Kirsch – whose giant screen theater doubles as a planetarium – and others who have spent years building the giant screen industry. There is wisdom that can carry over about standards, for instance. “Giant screen film domes have historically had consistent technical standards and embraced them very well, ” says Fraser. “Everyone in the value chain knew there was a spec for these theaters and that tracked pretty well through production. Digital fulldome is younger and fast growing and has already seen several generations of systems come through. It would benefit from a consistent standard in terms of size, tilt, and so forth.” And then there are marketing and branding opportunities. “As an industry, as a group, as an idea, this is a business that could really benefit by pooling resources and building a brand around the concept that the dome equals maximum immersive experience.”

ed lantz fulldome planetarium“The planetarium community has much in common with giant screen film cinemas, but there are very strong differences as well in business models, culture, missions and in the range of theater experiences, ” says Ed Lantz (left), founding director of IMERSA ( IMERSA, a nonprofit association that grew out of the planetarium community to promote immersive media with an emphasis on fulldome, has taken an active role in the giant screen/fulldome convergence dialog. Lantz is a member of GSCA’s Tech Task Force, assisting in the development of digital specifications for giant screen domes and flat screen theaters. He points out that fulldome theaters are scalable, from small portable domes to giant screen theaters, while the most recent version of GSCA’s definition of “giant screen” set a lower limit of 60’ diameter for dome screens.

Nevertheless, Lantz indicates that many believe in the value of harmonizing specifications for larger fulldome theaters and giant screen cinemas, in order to further facilitate the distribution of giant-screen films into digital domes and the distribution of fulldome experiences into giant screen digital cinemas. Said distribution could include real-time experiences as well as playback shows. “Planetarians have always been innovators, and could well end up driving future developments in giant screen cinemas in addition to their own digital dome theaters.”

As part of the deepening dialog on this topic, on Feb 25 Lantz briefed members of the giant screen community on the fulldome market as part of the Dome Day sessions and screenings hosted by the Fleet in San Diego. The gathering was held the day following the GSCA Film Expo, which took place in Los Angeles Feb 23-24.

This article first appeared in The Planetarian, published by the International Planetarian Society ( and is reprinted with kind permission.

Images:  From the top.  1. Sea Monsters, live action , desert.  2. Sea Monsters poster.  3. ’Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii
inside the fulldome theater . 4.  ’Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii . 5. Styxosaurus.  Sea Monsers images kind courtesy National Geographic.

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