The 2011 APS (Australasian Planetarium Society) meeting will be in Melbourne in May 2011. For the preliminary program see http://local.wasp.uwa.edu.au/~pbourke/APS2011.pdf
heya fellow domelab’ers
i posted some of my rather lengthy thoughts on my website.
you can read about it at this link:
all the best,
I wrote most of this on my long, exhausting flight back to the States, after an amazing week with an amazing group of people in Perth. The quality of talent and content that I saw over the week of the workshop only made the awful in-flight movies more unbearable.
Our final 2 days of the lab were a flurry of production. We divided the participants into 4 teams, and they each were tasked with filming a narrative short of a genre. In the end, we had an eclectic set of short films that showcased some impressive talent for such a short deadline.
I’m sure they’ll be available either here or elsewhere soon, so I won’t dwell upon the specifics of the films right now; instead I’d like to talk about the techniques that I saw and what I thought the teams had learned and what troubles they ran into.
First, the universal trouble of all large format cinema productions reared its ugly head: content management. Only 1 team actually finished close to the original deadline, and I believe they were still 15 minutes late. That team had made several interesting compromises when planning their production, and these compromises allowed them to stay ahead of most other teams in the schedule.
Their particular short involved video only, with no synced sound. These two considerations greatly sped up their workflow, and they had time to preview their work in progress on the dome more than once to get a feeling for how shots and cuts were working. What I found most interesting about this approach was that they really got into the pacing of the film, adjusting the speed and length of shots, and paying careful attention to their choice of cuts. All in all, I think it was a great lesson in making hard choices about what to devote time to in the production. Really basic filmmaking 101 stuff, but they applied it towards the dome very well.
The other teams all had various levels of animation and compositing in their films, which of course greatly increased production times. Warik & I were floating about the editing room most of the day, encouraging them to consider how long different shots and tasks would actually take to produce, and all of the teams ended up having to cut or rethink various shots because elements simply weren’t finished.
So, other things that worked. 2 of the teams worked for a thriller atmosphere as their genre, and they achieved a good deal of success in my opinion. The use of the immersive space of the dome to make the audience uncomfortable by giving ambiguous imagery was quite evocative, and I found it interesting that whenever they cut to a more “conventional” shot the sense of dread was greatly diminished. Even if the scenes were still consistent and clear in the storyline, a cut from abstract imagery to straight forward actors immediately felt less threatening. I found that the more askew the camera was, the more effective, in particular a beautiful overhead tracking shot looking down into a bathroom stall, which reminded me of the stunning overhead tracking shots through the rooms of a hotel that Brian DePalma used in Snake Eyes.
The other element that was used effectively was dramatic, almost melodramatic lighting and color. 2 films used actors with spot lights against black to reduce the washing out of the dome and they had brilliant contrast and colors compared to the films that had a more homogenous lighting scheme. The vibrant colors used for costumes and makeup in one group’s piece also popped nicely on the dome.
Finally, what I found most interesting was the use of very close shots for the most part. The other tutors & I discussed this briefly, with various opinions, and I had a couple of short discussions about it with various team members. It seemed that the close shot was favored in our particular projection setups because of the generally low resolution of the video display. When projected over such a large surface, an actor who is more than a few feet from the camera quickly becomes a pixellated mess, especially in small details, such as facial detail. Broad movements generally work because we (viewers) are trained to recognize human bodies and movement, but any subtlety of performance is all but lost. For that reason, I felt that the productions used close-ups whenever they wanted to engage with the characters. In particular, there was a shot in one piece that I had observed during filming that didn’t work because of the lost subtlety. It was a scene that depended upon actors making eye contact, and the act of eye contact was almost totally lost in the projection experience.
Finally, I want to make a note about the comedy on display in most pieces. Only one piece had no deliberate comedy, and generally the comedy was rather broad and worked pretty well. One piece was almost a parody of the types of “traditional” dome filmmaking that we’d been showing the participants all week, and that drew a great reaction from the other teams who knew all the inside jokes. Another used broadly comical performances and silly dialogue to great effect, achieving a bit of farcical fantasy filmmaking that was funny without being cheesy. That’s a very fine line, and the piece walked it rather well on the whole.
I feel that the experiments of these productions taught me nearly as much, if not more, than I was able to teach the filmmakers. Many theories that I’ve heard in talks and read in papers for years were tested. Maybe not very rigorously or scientifically tested (it would be nice to get some audience feedback from non-workshop participants), but tested nonetheless. I really rather enjoyed that some of the filmmakers listened attentively to our collective “wisdom,” then said to hell with all that we’re going to try something anyway and see if it really doesn’t work. A great spirit of discovery and playfulness was present in all the productions, and while not everything worked, and I’m sure not every participant is totally sold on full dome filmmaking, I think everyone left eager to further test the possibilities.
As I left the lab, I was struck by how quickly everyone ran into the limits of current live action, large format production, dome or otherwise. Complaints about resolution, color, and light spill from the screen back onto itself; all the problems of full dome large format filmmaking were identified very quickly. Equally striking was how quickly the teams adapted to overcome or even utilize these to their advantage. I’m not going to say that the lab produced a set of gems, but all the films were displays of talent and improvisation in the face of technical difficulties.
I’ll leave with a film for everyone to watch for inspiration. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. You, your family, your friends, your pets. This film teaches more about filmmaking and creativity than any film school in the world. It’s also beautiful and hugely entertaining. It is also Lars von Trier. 87 minutes of awesome. For those who can’t watch films on Hulu.com, track this down anyway you can. The Five Obstructions, a film that is itself nearly perfect, about a film that is described within the film as “perfect.” In both cases, any semblance of “perfection” that exists arises out of obstacles. Or Obstructions.
From Paul Bourke:
hey peeps, been so busy i havent been able to fully get a pen down on domelab yet, but will make a full blog post about it in the coming weeks…
For those who are in Melbourne however if you are free then drop into to an opening of a group show I am taking part in. It’s called ‘Celluloid Cave’:
Opens Thursday 18th, 6 – 8 @ Blindside Gallery in the CBD
Full Deets here:
Thanks to everyone who made Dome Lab a rewarding experience.
In response to Peter Morse on the first day, I jotted down a few questions at the start of the lab about what I thought I wanted to get out of the lab. Here they are, together with a few subjective notes on what turned into a rather busy week. Welcome your thoughts.
Is it worth developing content for dome projection?
Absolutely. It’s early days but the scope for storytelling with immersive cinema is literally huge. This week we all got to experience content designed for our peripheral vision as much for our direct focus. While it may not be around the corner, I’m guessing that there is a market for this particularly with younger audiences less fussy about high quality projection. Even in a town as dome-deprived as Sydney, fulldome content creation may be viable. The drive for ever-more immersive visuals is unlikely to go away. Once display technologies that already power the video walls on skyscrapers are suitable for wrapping up into a dome configuration I’m guessing we will see an explosion of artists in this space.
What kind of stories work best in ‘dome space’?
With its origins in astronomy and science shows, fulldome projection seems to lend itself to dreamy reflective visionscapes more than it does to taut drama. A number of the devices film-makers take for granted prove to be rather disconcerting to audiences, particularly close-ups. That said, the lab suggests that its too early to limit the scope of dome content. Let’s chuck it all up there and see what people respond to. All four lab pieces have been tumbling around in my head since the weekend.
Work referenced at the lab conveyed the sense that this is a new medium still finding its feet and reaching out to content creators. Keep an eye out for past and future work by Warik Lawrance and the Melbourne Planetarium content team, as well as by Hue Walker and Jonathan Strawn from ArtsLab (University of New Mexico). The combined experience producing original shows such as Tales of the Mayan Skies was invaluable. Hue’s discussion of dome as a day dreaming state is going to be worth rolling around some more. Peripheral vision is something else.
What kind of compositions work best in ‘dome space’?
We got to see a whole bunch of different compositions tested and presented in the space of a week. I particularly liked the use of wide shots where the action was happening well back in the frame. The team that filmed their Sam Shepard piece on what looked like terraces, fading actors in and out as they appeared closer and closer, was quite effective. It took some time to realise how much coverage you get from a fisheye lens and how the image reads on a large screen. I was certainly caught out a number of times, retreating out of shot.
I also came away with a better understanding of framing as a creative technique. For all the talk of ‘frameless’ cinema, shooting and compositing the damn thing means a lot more attention to framing the experience. DomeLab host (and graphics pioneer) Paul Bourke gave an impromptu whiteboard explanation of how to read a dome (fisheye) image which I kept referring to for days. It’s all starting to make sense…. slowly.
Warik Lawrance provided a useful tip for prospective dome projects. His team uses non-accurate (but somewhat more comprehensible) storyboards to pitch investors and stakeholders rather than actual dome maps. Sketching the fulldome experience in layman’s terms is clearly more important at the early stages than getting the perspective right.
Keeping your head around the different composition remained a challenge all the way through production. Thanks to Ben Shedd who not only gave a number of insightful talks but practical tips on-set and in post (like the stickers in the photo below).
What compositions might work for presenting up to seventeen characters?
I didn’t get a chance to work on my existing Virtual Tour dome project at the lab (prompting this question) but thanks to the broad range of work displayed over the week I did note a number of compositions that could prove useful for arranging a large ensemble. Arranging people along the bottom frame line seemed to work reasonably well. As did presenting them in a slow moving carousel.
Could the dome master become the definitive version of a project?
One of the most practical new skills we learnt this week was the preparation of a Dome Master video (fisheye perspective) that can be delivered to planetariums. However it doesn’t look like this will be all that reusable in other contexts. In fact, it’s looking exceedingly difficult to see there being any definitive version going forward taking immersive cinema into account. One of the key realisations from the week was how variable ‘dome projection’ is. Given the variation in dome tilt angles and size there seemed to be even less opportunity for visual storytellers to lock down the user experience if they aspire for mass distribution of their work. Given that there were over a hundred versions of Avatar, I can only see more headaches to come for projects that do parallel dome deployment. Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be worth it. But even the choice of shooting for iDome vs Inflatable Dome meant different creative decisions on-set.
Is the inflatable dome viewing experience worth pursuing?
I came to Dome Lab with a rather poor view of the inflatable dome experience. My take on it was that it is pretty much a gimmick and that once you have seen a number of screenings you would be unlikely to return for more. That said, having spoken to a number of inflatable dome operators, there definitely seemed to be a market for younger audiences in shopping malls and school halls. However, by the end of the week, perhaps due to the pace and intensity of the lab, I found myself growing more and more accepting of the inflatable dome’s limitations. Sure, the picture was nowhere near as sharp as other but I enjoyed chilling out in the intimate space of the CosmoDome.
What kinds of domes are there?
During the week we had the opportunity to compare a variety of fulldome environments. Horizon The Planetarium at SciTech provided by far the grandest experience. This is an18m, 194 seat, tilted dome , converted from an OmniMax theatre. 6 computers feed the image to 6 projectors to project a full 4k image over the dome. Videos are is sliced, to quote manager Carley Tillett “like cutting an apple pie into 6, producing one mpeg video stream for each of our 6 projectors”. This makes exhibition of real-time content generated from a single machine problematic. The tilt (around 33 degrees) of the dome is apparently quite extreme in comparison to other venues but it did create a rather satisfying immersive feel similar to IMAX.
The CosmoDome inflatable system was kept inflated by a small pump and a velcro airlock, this system used a one projector/one computer and one mirror combination. While you could technically squeeze about thirty people into it, the practical limit was about 15.
The iDome upright dome was familiar to me from working with the iCinema team at UNSW so I was more interested in impressions from other lab participants. No one I spoke to seemed to be all that motivated to produce content for this format but as a preview facility or single-user device it’s pretty handy to have one lying around. Given its size the iDome requires a far shorter throw for the projector than in other domes so it did produce a noticeably sharper image. I can see how iDomes can be useful for research and other contexts where single-use mode was the norm. But it’s hard to see this format being widely adopted.
What is the future of fulldome venues?
In comparing the fulldome venues we looked at, the first thing I realized was the value of having a fixed entrance way. Particularly for your casual, potentially inebriated, punter. I was curious to compare The Elumenati’s GeoDome with its vacuum sealed inner surface and the CosmoDome‘s simpler construction. Navigating a short airlock shouldn’t be a huge deal but it is clearly a headache for dome operators. It was funny watching the various mishaps as people entered and left. Leaning on the wall of an inflatable dome is a bad idea.
I didn’t find the visible seam lines within any dome particularly distracting but I can imagine there will be an arms race to produce completely seamless surfaces for projecting onto perfectly smooth surfaces.
We didn’t spend much time talking about non-inflatable mobile theatres but companies like Obscura Digital seem to be doing amazing work at the high end using portable geodesic domes. Would be good to get equivalent shows going around Australia.
If anything, the key take-home lesson seemed to be that the quality of the dome surface and its construction is far less important than the audio/visual display technologies within it. The tinny small speaker system used in the inflatable domes all week let the experience down more than anything. Size does appear to matter as well. There seems to be no better place to view a fulldome show at present than a fixed dome planetarium with great AV systems but, as was alluded to throughout the week, it is difficult to see how the world’s planetarium venues can ever support an indie content sector any better than regular cinemas already do. The future may be augmented and virtual reality domes for the mainstream, and physical fulldomes for the privileged view.
What kind of transitions work?
If I learnt anything at the lab it was that speed on the biggest screens can be problematic. Some of the most effective work had long cross-dissolves and made a real effort to be kind to the viewer. As Ben Shedd pointed out, in a lecture reflecting his work shooting for the IMAX format, cuts that reposition the protagonist at a different part of the screen can easily leave the viewer staring at blank space. Learning to lead the eye is going to be fun.
So where to now?
It’s going to be interesting to track how many of us lab rats will go on to produce dome work for distribution. I’ll try and compile some notes on the production pipeline from each of the lab teams. How we do all this dome business is perhaps just as vital as what we produce and why in the early stages of a new medium. There’s clearly a lot more that can be thrown at the screen.
Just to reiterate Chris & Warik’s comments – a huge thanks to the organisers, hosts and tutors of this amazing workshop. I hope everyone made it home safely and are wondering, like me, why their town does not have a volcano nightclub!
I’ve also ordered a pair of fisheye spectacles because life outside of the sphere is now like unbaked bread.
It was an intense week of study and production, so what can I take from it?
Prior to the lab, my knowledge of immersive cinema was limited to being an end user of 3D, IMAX and planetariums … I had not been in a portable dome or seen an iDome. I like the idea of small portable domes and it was good to see two versions, though I would add that it would have been beneficial to have had more access to the Geodome over the five days.
One of the most striking features of fulldome video production for me is the technology and its seeming inability to deliver high quality projection – and therefore a high quality experience. I think this is important. It is clear that CGI works – but achieving the same visual impact with video or film (unless you’ve access to huge budgets and 70mm film) seems difficult. Coming from a film background, I was hoping to see more productions that had been shot on ‘4k’ 35mm film to get a sense of what can be achieved, as (please correct me if I’m wrong) film is still a viable production resource – especially for short projects where telecine costs are kept down.
And does the screen lend itself to dramatic storytelling? I think so – the lab proved that … as well as there being a fine line between story and high-drama!
There will be lots of follow up work and research and the lab will be a huge resource in terms of development of the form.
Thanks to all .. I’m sure our paths will cross at some point – let’s hope it is in a dome of some sort … or the volcano.
loving hearing about the fisheye dreams!
Bradley and I are in Adelaide, about to embark on our great road trip thru Oz…
I am doing some thinking and writing on our wonderful workshop and will be blogging when I get some thoughts together on the road…
but I just want to say that the wonderful mix of tutors and participants that Vicki and team assembled was fabulous! I enjoyed working with you one and all! and I look forward to future fulldome ideas from all of you!
thank you for creating a wonderful frothing of ideas in my head about humans looking at humans without a frame! lots to cogitate there!
and for any of you who make it out to NM let us know so we can bring you into our little dome to try out the skateboard!
more very soon!