Research continues

February 20, 2009

I’m going to have a TON of research to do on this show before starting the script, and it’s actually a little intimidating.

There’s going to be lots of constellations in this program, and I want to hightlight them visually as well as historically, but I’m struggling to break out of “list” mode—I don’t want the show to just be a monotonous list of the constellations and their features.  I’ve tried that, and the results were embarassing.

Orion bash!

Orion bash!

A big aspect of these constellation featurettes in the show will be whether they’re an ancient or modern constellation.  The majority of the 88 official constellations we have today come from two sources: The Almagest, by Ptolemy, circa 2nd Century; and Uranometria, by Johann Bayer, published in 1603. Later, in the 1760s, a book by a French astronomer named Nicolas Louis de Lacaille added a handful of new southerly constellations.

And yes, the constellations set up by Bayer in the early 1600s are considered “modern.”  Modern-er than the 2nd Century, at least.

Ptolemy’s list contains most of what people in the Northern Hemisphere think of as the “normal” constellations—Ursa Major, Orion, the Zodiac, etc.  They’re mostly Greek and Babylonian in origin, and typically have mythological stories surrounding them.

The newer images are distinctly more modern, and contain things like a microscope (Microscopium), a furnace (Fornax), a clock (Horologium), an easel (Pictor), etc.  They’re also mostly southish patterns; those lazy Greeks and Babylonians couldn’t be expected to travel so far south of the Equator just to see the stars over the far side of the world now, could they?  But by the 1600s colonization had worked its way into the southern latitudes, and knowing the stars and constellations definitely helps sailors find their way around.

Anyway, I want to keep away from dry, boring, information-overload as much as possible in this script, so I’m kicking around some gimmicky ideas that may sort of bring it all together into more of an experience and less of a lecture.  I’ll start outlining a script next week, and start in on a first draft as soon as I’m comfortable with the flow.


Show production starts this week

February 16, 2009

Well, meetings concerning grant funding and sizable donations that will help renovate my theater have been pushed back to mid-spring, and therefore we’re going forward with production for an original show at the Blank Blank Planetarium.

I thought it would be neat to outline the production process here at BS, from start to finish.

I’ll be keeping with my mysterious (and probably unnecessary) habit of not referring to the proper name of my employers or my institution, so this actually may not be very easy…  I’ll try to give as much detail about what I’m doing as I can, without giving away anything notifiable.

This show will actually be a tie-in with an exhibit that’s (probably) coming to Blank Blank for the summer, and I’m guessing that opening day for the both of them will be somewhere around Memorial Day.  I can say that it’s a constellation show, and has an interesting overarcing theme that I’ll discuss later.

Tuesday I’ll go into full-on research mode, finding trustworthy sources and royalty-free or Creative Commons licensed images.  In addition to the usual public-domain NASA/ESA images that make up a big part of any planetarium show, I’m going to be commissioning some original artwork for this work.

Once I’ve got enough base material, I’ll start on a show outline and rough script.

I’ll keep posting updates, following my production progress.  Production is one of my favorite things to do, and I’m excited to get back into.

More to come!


The 3-D Post

February 7, 2009

I’m a little behind on this, but I’ve been wanting to write about 3-D, and an NBC ad during the Superbowl got me to thinking about it.  Watch:

1-D?  1-D!?

Guh. Where to start.

Lots of kids, when they come into the planetarium, will ask me if it’s 3-D.  I say, “Yes, but not like you’re thinking.”  (An equal number ask where they pick up their glasses—their 3-D glasses.)

Because most planetaria’s screens are projection domes, the images that are shown on them are always 3-D.  Instead of a flat image being projected on a flat screen, you have a flat image being projected on a rounded screen, so indeed, some parts of the image are physically closer to you and some parts are physically farther from you.

That is real, actual, three-dimensions—height, width, and depth.  But as I said, not how people usually think of it.

When you’re watching TV, the images are 2-D—height and width.  Always.  It may look like someone is walking away from you (getting smaller on the screen) or walking behind something (disappearing), but it’s all an optical illusion.  TV and film images are 2-D.

But ignoring that, the Chuck promo is still wrong, because when they’re flat, they’re ostensibly two-dimensional (height and width), NOT one-dimensional.  In actuality, they’re still being presented as three-dimensional, because when they turn to the side, you can still see them.  If they were truly two-dimensional, they’d have no depth, and disappear from the side—but I digress.

When people say 3-D, typically they’re thinking of “stuff protruding out at you.”  Horror movies tried to capitalize on this, naturally, with a modicum of success depending on how high your cheese-squelch is set.

(By the way, the Chuck show that was 3-D was not protrusion, it was layering—the illusion of depth within the TV—so you had what looked like people standing in front of things.  Neat, but gimmicky.  I did read that the ratings were up, so maybe it worked.)

Now here’s where I get nitpicky.  What we call 3-D entertainment, and really any kind of entertainment that is “3-D” (and I’m including things like stage theatre here) is not actually done in three dimensions!

It’s four dimensions!  Time is a dimension!  Height, width, depth, and length, if you will.

Is time standing still when you watch it?  Probably not—I guess it could be said that still images are lengthless, but that’s a different argument.

So I maintain that we’re missing a dimension.  What people commonly refer to as 2-D should actually 3-D, and 3-D should actually be 4-D.

Regardless, the promotions people that had a hand in that Chuck spot should have known better—the show’s target audience is nerds (IG-88 anyone?), yours truly included, so they should have thought twice.


Geek vs. Veg

January 20, 2009

If you’ve never read (one of my favorite authors) Neal Stephenson’s treatise on the concept of geeking out versus vegging out, you need to.

If you’re lazy, here’s a summary, transposed from Stephenson’s original Star Wars editorial to an equally explosion-ridden piece of celluloid:

If you watched Transformers and the whole time were saying,

“Though Michael Bay’s visual image of Optimus Prime is drastically different than the Generation One blue and red Autobot leader, allowing the venerable Peter Cullen to voice the character lends it a distinct air of the traditional 1980s cartoon portrayal of Optimus as the utilitarian, grizzled yet caring battle commander.”

then you were geeking out.

On the other hand, if you watched Transformers and the whole time you were saying,

“Woah, dude!  Giant fighting robots and explosions!  Sweeeeeeeeeet!”

then you were vegging out.

Now most likely, a significant portion of the people watching Transformers (or at least the ones near my age), did some sort of combination of the two.

This is an extreme example of the concept.  Obviously, it’s typically much more subtle than that.  It’s also much more diverse: one could geek out over the CG renderings, or because of a favorite actor, the musicianship of the score, whatever.

In a planetarium, the opportunity for both veg and geek is high.  Too far on the geek side, and you end up with a dry astronomy lecture with high bore potential.  Too far on the veg side, and you end up with something that’s pure entertainment with little to no educational content.

This isn’t to say that people won’t like something that is radically geek or ridiculously veg.  There are folks who might appreciate a straight-up astronomy lecture—they’re called astronomers.  Likewise, pure entertainment has its place—Laser Floyd anyone?

I truly believe that good entertainment needs to be a combination of the two houses, bi-partisan if you will, and educational entertainment especially needs to be a very cultivated blend of geek and veg.

For example, you could show the audience a still diagram of a solar system orrery to demonstrate the orbits of the planets, and that might get your point across just fine.  An image like that has high geek potential, because people that have the order of the planets memorized will be happy to see something that they’re familiar with.

Now, up the veg factor by animating that same image so that the planets revolve around the sun, tracing their orbital path.  Typically you’ll need a video or laser projector to carry something out like this, and if done right, it can look really spiffy.

Take another step: animate the image in three dimensions*, so you’re able to change the audience’s perspective.  Spin the orrery so that you can see it from the top, the bottom, the sides, etc.

Go further into veg-land by doing away with the proscenium that is the TV frame: blow up the orrery so that it covers the entire dome, with the sun at the apex and Pluto (yes, I include Pluto) with its tilty orbit at the edge of the dome.  This kind of image is really cool; the audience has to look around the theater to take in the entire picture.

Finally, you can take an orrery to its logical extent by breaking the laws of physics and actually flying the audience through the solar system as if they’re on a spacecraft, buzzing the planets as you go, maybe showing actual Hubble images of each, along with all the fixin’s like rings and moons and asteroids.

At this point, you’ve got major “Oooh!” and “Aaah!” generation going on—so much in fact that the audience may be vegging out so far that they’re too caught up in the scene, totally ignoring the announcer or not even listening to the narration, missing the entire point you’re trying to get across with the orrery demonstration to begin with.  Crossing that line can be easy with so many cool toys to play with.

When producing a show, I try to present a mix of geek and veg, like an oscillation between info and wiz-bang.  I also try to build up towards the first big presentation of a veg-worthy scene, so that you don’t “give it away on the first date,” so to speak—by the time I do a big nausea-inducing spin of the stars or a relativity-ignoring planetary flyby, the audience feels like they’ve earned it.

I also puncturate very important educational points or themes by going dark.  That is to say, if there’s something in the narration that the audience absolutely, positively must know when they leave my theater, I’ll kill all images and stop all movement, so that there are no distractions—they’re forced to listen without their minds wandering.

The next time you find yourself sincerely enjoying a movie or TV show, think about the balance between geek and veg, and how it can really make a difference in audience attention and reaction.


Infurating God?

January 15, 2009

I just have to comment on this.  Some guy complained about a “Buddha statue” (i.e. a decoration at the tiger exhibit) at the Kansas City Zoo:

Engle, who said he and his family are Christians, said it was idolatry and “infuriating to God.”


“We can’t have a cross or a nativity scene on public property,” said Engle of Overland Park, who complained to a zoo employee. “It is phenomenal to me that the zoo would put up Buddha statues.”

Mr. Engle missed a couple of points here…  Firstly, the Zoo is a private company, and can display whatever the heck they want, and secondly, IT’S NOT EVEN BUDDHA:

“I have seen them,” said Lama Chuck Stanford, executive and spiritual director of the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery. “They are statues of Ho Tai, the patron saint of children in China and Japan. He is closer to Santa Claus.”

Durned foreigners and their beautiful heritage-rich flags!

Durned foreigners and their beautiful heritage-rich flags!

I worked at the KC Zoo’s education deparment a few years ago (one season with Lama Chuck’s daughter, cooincidentally enough).  In the African section of the zoo, we had the Kenyan flag on display, flying above the African-styled gift shop.

I came in after a weekend and noticed that it had been replaced with an American flag, which, uh, didn’t make any damn sense whatsoever.  I asked what the deal was, and it turns out that someone from the American Legion had complained about a foreign flag flying, so it was removed and replaced.

File that instance and this one under the heading of, “People Who Just Don’t Get It, and Probably Never Will.”


Goodbye, Greg

January 14, 2009

I’ve started and stopped this entry four times now.  Apparently I’m having trouble putting exactly what I want to say into words, so I’ll instead just be to the point:

Greg Hawley, curator of the Steamboat Arabia Museum and therefore my boss during my short but treasured time as a tour guide there, a man I admired very much for his vision, perseverance, geniality, and cleverness, died on Saturday in a car accident.  He was only 50.

My condolences and best wishes go out to his family and the staff at the museum.

If you have never been to the Arabia Museum, I encourage you to visit; it is a venue like no other, thanks in no small part to Greg and his tireless efforts.

He was truly an exhibit unto himself, actual walking, talking history, vibrant and enthusiastic, and will be missed.


My Definition

January 11, 2009

Spurred by a discussion happening on the Dome-L planetarium mailing list, I feel compelled to discuss my philosophies and observations behind the definition of the word “planetarium.”

Defining this industry seems like it should be pretty straightforward. I mean, even if a person has never been to a planetarium before, they still at least know what one is, right?

Well, not necessarily. As I’ve said before, I’m always amazed at the number of adults that have absolutely no clue what the planetarium is.

Partially the product of growing up in rural Missouri, I had long been an adult before I had actually ever visited a planetarium. It was the Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum in DC. I’m pretty sure the show I saw was Oceans in Space.

Even though I had never been to one, I still knew what a planetarium was: a specialty theater that showed astronomy programming.

Like a lot of kids in the ‘80s, I was very interested in space and science, and had aspirations of being an astronaut. I had been to see OMNIMAX shows, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and loved the experience—strangely, I don‘t remember much about the actual shows that we saw, but I do remember the ambiance of the theater: the tiered seating, the big reclining chairs, the domed screen, the gigantic elevating film projector… It’s telling, perhaps, that I was more fascinated with the theater than I was with the content.

Thinking back to the what I was like as a kid, I’m sure that I would have absolutely flipped out over seeing a show in a planetarium. It would have been one of those experiences that I would have never forgotten.

I try to keep that in mind when kids tell me that this is their first visit to the planetarium—that this could be something they remember their entire lives. It’s not soley the show they watch, or the uniqueness of the theater, or the music or the fantastic imagery. It’s the whole package; I want them to take the happy memory of the experience of the planetarium with them when they leave.

Anyway, there’s been an argument raging off and on for months on Dome-L about digital projection technology and its impact on the quality and subject matter of planetarium programming.

Traditionally, planetarium show imagery has been done with a series of projectors working in concert: typically a star projector, slide projectors for images, and various speciality effects projectors for things like planets, the Moon, the Sun, comets, shooting stars, auroras, etc.

Most newer planetaria forego these mechanical projectors and instead use digital systems that project a video image across the entire dome. As you can imagine, this can be very versatile—you can project almost anything a traditional mechanical system could (including starfields and images), plus much, much more.

On the mailing list, there have been a few proponents of traditional planetarium projection– Actually, let me rephrase that: There have been a few opponents of full dome projection systems that are voicing their displeasure with the new technology.

This phrase, a direct quote from one of them, sums their viewpoint up nicely:

“If it doesn’t have a star projector in its center, it’s not a planetarium, it’s a movie theater.”

Suffice it to say, I disagree vehemently. In fact, I would go so far as to say (and did so in a response on the list) that fantastically ridiculous to say such a thing.

I won’t go longwinded and try to outline the reasons why I think it’s ridiculous (at least not in this post—most assuredly later I will), but after some serious pondering on the subject, I’ve revised my personal definition of planetarium, which was:

A planetarium is a theater that specializes in aerospace programming.

This is my stock response to people that come up to me in the lobby and ask what the planetarium is. It gets the point across nicely. But to get down into the nitty-gritty philosophy of exactly what a planetarium is, I present a couple of revisions to my definition:

  • “…specializes in…” does not mean “…solely presents…” In addition to star shows and aerospace documentaries, a planetarium can (and in my opinion, should) also branch out into other areas of science (history, geography, biology, physics, whatever—it‘s all related!) and also can do programming that is pure entertainment, like music or laser shows.
  • Also, “theater,” under my revised definition, means any kind of theater. Obviously this is somewhat of a gray area, as the definition of theater, beyond “a place with seats and a schedule of shows” can itself be difficult to pin down.

The real question then is, can a theater without a projection dome be a planetarium?

My answer is a resounding YES. A theater does not need a projection dome to be a planetarium! It helps, obviously, but give me a laptop with Stellarium and Celestia installed, a nice bright video projector and something to shoot it at, a laser pointer, a microphone, and darkness, and I could do a planetarium show anywhere.

Likewise, a theater with a projection dome isn’t always going to be a planetarium (and won’t always even attempt to be).

The point then, is this: A planetarium is defined by its content, not by its theater.

Every Planetarium is Different™, and whether a theater has older-style brute-force projectors, or newer-style digital projectors, the content is what defines the concept, not the shape of the theater or the age of the machines (or the people!) running it.

A boring show is a boring show, whether it’s done with a 30 year old star instrument or a 30 thousand dollar fisheye video projector, and boring shows will not leave first-timers with happy, excited memories of their inaugural visit to a planetarium. Content is what’s important, and good content will almost always make for good experiences.

Planetarium: a theater (any kind of theater) that specializes in (but doesn’t not necessarily solely present) aerospace programming.

That’s my definition, and I’m sticking to it.