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Producing for the digital dome: Lessons learned at the Jena Fulldome Festival


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By Carolyn Collins Petersen, Loch Ness Productions

“The dome is a special space; not just a curved version of a flat screen. It takes more than just curvature correcting a set of images to make them ‘dome worthy.’”

What does a film festival do for you?  If it’s the Fourth Jena Fulldome Film Festival, and you’re a digital dome (“fulldome”) producer, or aspire to be one – a lot!  It gives you a chance to see a wide-ranging array of fulldome videos from around the world by both established producers and up-and-coming student animators. In the process, you learn what works in the dome, what doesn’t, and you get to peek into the minds of the producers as they showcase their vision. In my case (and I think for many others) there were valuable lessons to be learned about what works in the dome.

The festival was held May 4-8, 2010 at the Zeiss Planetarium in Jena, Germany, and it was a “must” event for anybody who is in fulldome production. There were three components to the collection of videos shown during the week. The first was the professional collection, comprising 26 full-length shows from producers around the world. They ranged from explorations of astronomy and space science to presentations on natural selection and climate change. In addition, we saw fulldome videos focused on art, dance and culture, time-lapse photography, and children’s shows. 

The second component was the student competition, with 34 short (4 minutes or shorter) films from students in Germany and New Mexico. The shorts explored art, science, humor, and popular culture. Both the professional and student presentations were entered in juried competitions.

The third component consisted of 17 "works in progress" clips and short trailers from professional productions. These were not juried, but presented as a preview of what producers have up and coming. My company, Loch Ness Productions (http://www.lochnessproductions.com), presented a clip from our collaboration with Dome3D, called SpacePark360: Geodesium Edition. Even though the short clips and trailers were not judged formally, the chance to get and give feedback about them was invaluable.

There were several “world premiere” showings, and I was quite taken with Mirage3D’s Natural Selection, an homage to Charles Darwin’s work.  It was one of four top winners in the professional competition, and the clear audience favorite from the popular vote tally.  Other top vote-getters by both jury and audience votes were We Are Astronomers by the National Science Centre in Leicester, United Kingdom; Fragile Planet from the California Academy of Sciences; and Our Living Planet from the Melbourne Planetariufulldome planetarium audiencem, Museum of Victoria. Each of these shows used the dome space to their advantage to tell compelling stories.

Among the student entries, my personal favorite was called “Above” and it was a simple wire-frame, line-drawing animation of a tight-rope walker. It won the Audience Award.  My second favorite was Super Golden Years, an interesting use of comic book illustrative technique. It won a Performance Award. You can see more about the winning shows at the Zeiss web site, http://www.zeiss.de/C12567B00038CD75?Open.

There were so many striking lessons to be learned from this festival, but what stands out in my mind is that fulldome presentations really need to be created with the dome in mind. Now, that sounds like simple Film School 101:  know your medium. But there were presentations shown at the festival that really didn’t work well in the dome. 

The idea of "working in the dome" was one of several important criteria for judging fulldome works at the festival. As a member of the jury for the professional presentations, I was struck by how well some producers actually "got it" when it came to making things work in the domed space. The ones who didn’t "get it" didn’t make the final cut when it came to awarding recognition. More than once, I heard sentiments from audience members that echoed this concern. The question “why is this in fulldome?” came up after attendees saw several shows that had been transferred to dome from the flat screen.

What do I mean by “not getting it?”  The dome is a special space; not just a curved version of a flat screen. Shots that work well in IMAX or on an HD exhibit screen are not necessarily going to work well on the dome. It takes more than just curvature correcting a set of images to make them “dome worthy.”  One of the first questions a producer should ask when considering a fulldome production is “what does the dome space lend to this work that makes it more appropriate over a flat screen?”  If the producer can’t make a good case for why something should be in the dome, then perhaps a lesson learned from this festival should be noted.  Simply put, audiences will notice when something is just not working in the dome. In Jena, audiences DID notice.  In more than one presentation, the imagery and video transferred from flat screen to fulldome was simply too large, too stretched out, too overwhelming.  It caused audience fatigue, as viewers were sometimes unable to even recognize what was being shown.

The Fulldome Festival in Jena was a wonderful experience, and we (jurists and public alike) were treated to a panoply of fulldome experience that is rare in our field.  I’d like to see more festivals of this type.  There is at least one other held annually in Espinho,    Portugal, and I’ve heard that others may follow.  I recommend attending them. You’ll learn a lot about working in this remarkable space we call fulldome.

Images :
1. The venerable Zeiss Planetarium in Jena, Germany, was the site for the Fourth Fulldome Film Festival, May 4-8, 2010. Image by Carolyn Collins Petersen
2. Attendees settle in for another night of viewing fulldome films. Image by Carolyn Collins Petersen

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