Some Thoughts About Planetarium
Programming In The 21st Century

by Mark and Carolyn Collins Petersen, Loch Ness Productions

Summarized from a discussion panel
"Planetarium Programming In The 21st Century"
presented at the Southeastern Planetarium Association conference
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, 18 June 2003

© 2003, Loch Ness Productions.

Introductory Comments
by Carolyn Collins Petersen, moderator

Planetarians are faced with a rapidly-shifting show production field in the 21st century. Yet, our job remains the same: to give the people who walk through the planetarium door what they expect — cool stories about astronomy. Depending on a planetarium's mission, shows can be anything from lectures and demonstrations to fully-produced multimedia presentations. Today's panel discussion is going to focus on the kinds of shows that we're all likely to be presenting in the 21st century.

For several decades we've been through many transitions in show production, and today's apparent headlong shift to fulldome production is the latest. Currently most facilities rely on a mix of slides and video to visualize their shows. Yet, for reasons you'll hear about later on, the slide-based way of life that many take for granted will eventually give way to video productions. This paradigm shift from slides to fulldome won't happen overnight, but it will happen. There are already fulldome spinoffs available to classical theaters in the form of short videos adapted for single-video projector use, like the flight through Orion sequence that wowed 'em in New York City in 2000.

Fulldome shows themselves haven't evolved out of nowhere and they have their own influences from outside the dome. We are seeing visual themes and metaphors borrowed from television, documentary, and motion pictures. And we've always seen ideas from the entertainment and now the gaming world filtering into shows at all levels.

It has been a year since IPS 2002, when many of us were alternately dazzled and overwhelmed with the wealth of technology that is waiting over our shared horizon. More than a year ago, when Phil [Groce, conference coordinator] asked me to organize this panel for SEPA, we talked over the changes in show production that many planetarians will be facing. And, we tossed around these questions: How is a 21st-century show going to be different from a 20th-century show? What themes and influences do we think will shape our shows? How do we use our 20th-century skills and tools in our shows? How can we as planetarium professionals with skills rooted in 20th-century techniques embrace these new shows and the production techniques they require?

I asked five panelists to take a stab at answering these questions and even to pose a few of their own. The full text of their comments will be available in the conference proceedings. We have reproduced my and Mark's comments here.

My thoughts
by Mark C. Petersen, panelist

Carolyn asked a goodly number of questions in her introduction. I'll try to answer some, but I have quite a few questions of my own I'm going to toss out, as grist for the discussion mill.

One thing she said in her introduction was this: "the slide-based way of life that many take for granted will eventually give way to video productions. This paradigm shift from slides to fulldome won't happen overnight, but it will happen." That's a pretty definitive statement, coming from a producer of slide-based planetarium shows, wouldn't you say?

People often ask us how long Loch Ness Productions will produce slide-based planetarium show packages. Our standard answer is "as long as it's economically feasible for us to do so." But the medium is waning, whether we like it or not — and there are simply some factors outside our control.

For example, Wess slide mounts are now just a sideline product for BCA Manufacturing, and their ready availability can no longer be taken for granted — as anyone who's tried to order some recently can attest. Circle mounts, gels... no more. Kodalith film — disappearing fast.

I'm sure [panelists] Steve [Savage, Sky-Skan] or Joyce [Towne, Spitz] or any vendor who sells projector systems can tell you how difficult and expensive it's getting to find good all-sky lenses for slide projectors these days, or even good zoom lenses.

Our production way of life is going the way of the dinosaur. Slide projectors per se could be called the T. Rex of incandescent planetarium visuals — the evolutionary pinnacle, or the end of the line.

Carrying the dinosaur analogy further, I do see an extinction event looming. I don't know when it will hit, but when it does, it will pack a double whammy. One hit will be when Kodak quits making slide projectors; the other will be when Bruce Wessinger quits making slide mounts. The fallout will form the K-T boundary. The slide-projector based planetaria will keep nursing their analog dinosaurs for as long as they can, but they'll eventually grind to a halt and fossilize. There is an upside — fortunately, since many are already in museums, the shipping costs will be low.

Does that necessarily mean the remaining digital mammals will thrive thereafter? If all those 20th century slide projectors are going to wither and die, does that mean the planetarium show as the medium we know and love today will go away too?

Here's something to ponder: in 1972, Jack Horkheimer created a slide-based planetarium show called "Child of the Universe." More than 30 years later, he's still running it. Do you think it will still be running 30 years from now? Do you think in 2033 there will be slide projectors to show it with? Or will it have been "converted" to video, to show in a fulldome medium?

Given the pace of the digital revolution, is it even likely that fulldome video, in its infancy today, will still be around in 30 years? Isn't it more likely we'll have that planetarium dome with the virtual display panels that Arthur C. Clarke wrote about in his novel 2010? Sir Arthur has given us only seven more years to make it so. Think it will happen?

Apparently not everyone loves slide projectors. Recently I received in the mail two postcards on the same day. One was from Jeff Bowen, touting his AstroFX system, which included the line "...eliminate slide projectors" followed by four exclamation points. The other was from Minolta, and said "The MediaGlobe easily replaces standard planetarium projection equipment including panorama, slide and special-effect projectors... Now all you really need is the MediaGlobe."

They might have a point. What's not to like? In the new digital fulldome medium, panoramas always align perfectly — because they're never split up to begin with. It doesn't matter how many pan segments there are, and how much they overlap, and whether or not you're shooting around the instrument in the middle of the room at 23.5 degrees because it's not on an elevator. All-skies never have two out the six pie-wedges darker than the others, and bright and dark seams where the masks don't overlap quite right. You can fly spacecraft in front of planets — and not see stars through either one. You can zoom an image, without worrying about the inverse-square law for brightness. Your images never collect dust and dirt, they don't form condensation amoebas, they don't fade or turn green with age. They don't jam in the gate.

The point is that now, finally, in the 21st century, we have the potential capability to improve the presentation of our planetarium shows, so that they can look even better than was possible before.

There are still some major concerns about the new digital dome medium, of course. Nothing is simple. Producing content for fulldome is not, at present, a walk in the park. Given the tools we have to work with today, it takes what many would consider an inordinate amount of resources — not only in computer equipment, but also in the enormous amount of time it takes to work with it. This means not just the time to render dome masters, which can be very substantial, but also the time spent by humans working in the software applications, preparing the imagery for final output. Naturally, all of this translates into real money, which always seems to be in short supply.

As I said at the beginning, Loch Ness Productions will continue to produce shows in slide-based form while it's still feasible to do so, but I don't think anyone would call slide-projector based shows the format of the future.

Carolyn has told me that the fulldome systems are finally getting to the point where she knows that it's now possible to show what she sees in her mind's eye when she's writing scripts. That's liberating.

Speaking as a producer, such systems allow me to put a polish on the type of visual choreography I've always wanted to do, but couldn't — being limited by the "lowest common denominator" of the slide format. I'm looking forward to applying those techniques that have been held in abeyance until now, in future shows we produce.

This is where I see planetarium shows going in the 21st century.

But whether we're using technology to recreate classic planetarium shows, or boldly going where no render farm has gone before, we must remember that it's the story-telling that makes us unique as planetarians. What's important is that you tell an engaging story, not the equipment you use to do it with.

Regardless of the media, it's a measure of our abilities as planetarians to be creative and inspiring in our storytelling. And that, I believe, is the most important part of show production in the 21st century.