The sound of me not speaking

November 22, 2008

Had a bad cold all week.  Voice almost totally gone this morning.

Probably didn’t help that thanks to a scheduling error, I had three back-to-back programs yesterday morning, and basically spent 10am to 1:30pm talking nonstop to elementary school visitors.

Luckily, today there was an extra staffperson that could cover my schedule, and so I ran a quick revision of the holiday show then cut out for half a comp day.  It’s nice to be able to do that, and even though our public shows are fully automated (except for the intro speil) I was happy to be able to come home and rest.

But it brings up an issue that I’ve gone back and forth on since getting into the planetarium field: how much of a planetarium program should be automated, and how much should be live, given by a presenter?

Prior to me going to full-time in the Blank Blank Planetarium, the shows were for the most part all fully-automated–in fact, they were actually just movies, a wide-screen, non-full-dome format called ElectricSky, put together by Spitz in the mid-late ’90s that ostensibly was supposed to be a lower-cost alternative to the (then, and still) very expensive full-dome video systems.  These shows didn’t even use the theater’s star projector; if the person running shows bothered to turn on the lamps, all it did was provide some stellar wall-paper.

(ESky didn’t really take off, and there was unfortunately very little programming for it.  Nobody wanted to produce more traditional-style front-screen movies when full-dome was the next big thing.)

So after I had been there for a while and trained myself on the theater and laser automation software, I did a handful of live star tours for programs, which are typically always received well.

The problem with that is, learning the software can be difficult, and so can learning the sky well enough to riff a live show off the top of your head.  Getting staff that comfortable, especially with a science center and other intensive museum stuff stealing time away from your workforce, can be difficult.

One option is to write out a script, and just have someone read it or memorize it, and use a handheld laser pointer to target stars and constellations, but the way I see it, if you’re going that distance, why not just record the script and automate the whole shebang to begin with?

It’s been my philosophy in museum interpretation and nonformal education: presentations should have life in them.  Having someone recite something from a script or memory is essentially like having a talking signpost.  Why bother?

You’ll hear some ol-skool planetarians say that the only way to do a planetarium show is live, with a handheld.  And there are of course, skilled-enough folks that can do a 30-minute sky lecture off the top of their heads and have a totally rapt audience dying to come to the next show (my former boss is one of them).

On the flipside, newfangled theaters will be fully-outfitted full-dome jobbies with pinpoint automation, customizable enough that an attendant with absolutely zero astronomy or a/v experience literally only has to turn the key in the morning, load a day’s programming with one click of the mouse, then press the play command to start each show.

I personally think the best planetarium shows land somewhere in the middle, between wordy warm-body lectures and cold, faceless automation.  Every Planetarium is Different, and shows should always be planned and programmed to maximize a theater’s capabilities and strengths.

In my introduction spiel (and flush remarks) I try to insert a little bit of life to an otherwise fully-automated show, in an attempt to demonstrate to the audience, “Hey, look, I’m not just a projectionist, I’m an actual person, there’s a real (sort of) astronomer back here, I run this theater, I installed this show, I can try to answer your questions, I care that you have a good experience.”

With laryngitis, it’s difficult to do that.

Again, I’ve always been tempted to automate the introduction speech, but never had the heart to do it.  I’m glad someone was on the schedule today that could be a surrogate for me.  (Non-profits like us don’t always have that luxury.)


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