A New Jack for Magic Tree House

July 29, 2009

mth_scriptLast week we spent about 4 hours in the trenches at Trailblazers Studios in Raleigh rerecording the voice of Jack for our latest production – Magic Tree House: Space Mission. Will Osborne, who wrote the script, worked with 11 year old Blake Pierce to bring out a newer, slightly older sounding Jack that will more accurately portray what Jack would really sound like. It took Blake a few minutes to get warmed up and comfortable (it was his first official acting job, after all) but with Will’s help and great demeanor, Blake morphed into Jack before our eyes and busted out his lines like a pro.


My God, it’s full of stars!

July 27, 2009

The camera rig we’ve used for Earth, Moon, and Sun has undergone a slight change for the Magic Tree House. We use a 5 camera setup, with Sky-Skan’s DomeXF proprietary plugin for AfterEffects to stitch all the cameras together. From what you can see in the picture, we got all the cameras pointed the correct directions with appropriate Angle of View. We went ahead and included use background shaded planes for the appropriate cameras so we don’t have to render stuff we won’t see. Sometimes however we need to blur certain elements in which case we would turn off those planes so that there won’t be a feathering on the master frames. In order to manipulate these cameras to where we need them to be, without letting them drift independently, a supermover holds the group node of all 5 cameras. A nurbs arrow shows what direction front is.


Now, this camera setup is what we used for Earth, Moon, and Sun. With EMS, we’d have our starfield referenced in seperately, but this time for MTH we decided to just combine the two and make it easier on our end. One of the first things I learned about astronomy since working at Morehead is that when you move from one planet to another in our solar system, there is hardly any star movement, if any at all. Essentially the stars are locked in space, and only move when we’re rotating the camera around. Since we didn’t want our starfield to shift in space, we applied a point constraint to keep the stars in the same position, relative to where the cameras are, but would also allow us to rotate the stars to accurately reflect where we are.


Quick Cuts on the Dome?

July 22, 2009

red_ceremonial_scissorsQuick cuts on the dome? Within a scene? MTV style!? Heeeeeellll no. Are you crazy?


Well, that seems to be the current golden rule of dome production. Quick cuts or moving from a wide to medium to close shot would kill the immersiveness of the dome environment. It would also be too jarring for the viewer. So everything lumbers along slowly and epic-ly. Don’t get me wrong, I like the epic reveal of the sun cresting above the earth as much as the next person. We’re actually doing a couple of those shots in our current production.

But are we locked into this medium-shot, slow camera pan or push with all of our scenes?  It’s visually tedious. Coming from the flat screen world, we want to cut. Cutting allows the viewer of a flat screen to see the entire environment – something that’s not necessary with a dome. But it also creates tension, builds emotion and gives some much needed visual variety.

Has anyone experimented with this? Are there any good examples out there of why it absolutely doesn’t work?

Lunar City

July 21, 2009

We’re reworking a shot from an old show we’ve been commissioned to convert to the full dome platform. We’re seeing what a colony on the moon may look like. Rather than go with something that is the equivalent of the MIR space station on the moon. I thought something much more fantastic, like a full city on the moon may be more inspiring to the younger audiences who see the show. Its still a work in progress, but its come a long way.

The city is equipped with its own fleet of touring taxi’s.

Interesting facts

July 15, 2009

A new idea in the works at the planetarium is visualizing science-related facts on the dome.  These little movies would last only a few seconds – long enough to narrate or write out something like “Humans not only have unique fingerprints – they have unique tongue prints as well.”  Then perhaps a person standing behind glass is filmed as they plaster their tongue print on the glass; to the audience it would appear as though this giant tongue were being laid on the dome.   Not the most glamorous of examples, but you get the idea that these facts are just supposed to make you go, “hmm.” or maybe even “Iii-nteresting.”  (plus it’s been done in Earth, Moon & Sun!  Though dinosaur tongue prints are probably negligible seeing as they are unavailable for filming.)

So far the facts that would work well on a dome have these properties:

  • portrayal of “actual size.” For example the tentacles of the giant Arctic jellyfish reach up to 120 ft. in length – the lengh of that tentacle could wrap around our dome two times.  Imagine sitting in the black of the dome, the muted bubbling of water as something swims around and around – and then you’re caught in the huge arms of a ginormous jellyfish.  The sense of scale might be a hard sell, but I think it could be really neat.
  • speed. Any fact dealing with speed caught my eye.  Did you know the pileated woodpecker can strike a tree with the impact of 1200 g?  A human could comparatively strike a tree at 16 mph.  Perhaps too greusome to show.
  • inside the body. What makes you sneeze?  why do you get dizzy?  what causes hiccups?  All of these questions are interesting and they all lend themselves to taking the audience inside the body.

And generally cool or gross things caught my eye.  Like the fact that killer whales can destroy sharks by ramming into them with their snouts.  The force is so hard the shark explodes.  Of course, my research at this point is still in the brainstorming stages, so none of these facts have been completely substantiated – for those who would wait for sharks to explode.  Because 43.8% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

John K and his awesome blog

July 13, 2009

A blog I have scoured through and read fairly frequently is updated by John Kricfalusi, who is known most for Ren and Stimpy. His blog is very informative, and he gives very good opinion on a lot of different things involving animation. What’s really great is he’ll throw up clips from different segments of cartoons, breaking down all the key poses and analyzing different aspects of the actions. He’ll talk about things like anticipation, follow-through, secondary motion, etc. what are some good things to keep in mind and what are some not so good things. Certain pitfalls animators can easily fall into, not excluding other sides of the dice like character design, background layouts, color use, and much more.

Even though he mostly focuses on 2d flat-screen animation, a lot of concepts can and should be applied to 3d, and by extension of that also applied to the dome setting. Things can be a lot tougher for animating characters in domes, such as having strong silhouettes, staging, and subtleties and perception of close ups.  Enough of my rambling though, here’s the link:

John K. Stuff

I should also probably note that even though we share the same first and last initials, and both have tough last names to pronounce (his probably more than mine I think); its not the only reason I read and enjoy his blog!

Challenging the Viewer in the Dome

July 10, 2009

071399802402_sclzzzzzzz_-11We’ve been curious here how we can expand the use of our dome beyond presenter led real-time and pre-rendered shows.  In these programs, the audience is being feed information while being for the most part, passive. After reading “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter” by Steven Johnson,  I’ve become much more interested in how the gaming model works and how we can utilize it. In a nutshell, Johnson explains that video games are popular because they put the user in complex situations and challenge them to figure something out, as opposed to a more traditional method of spoon feeding ideas. He also shows similarities to this in more complex TV storylines from shows such as Lost. These challenges and mysteries, once solved, give a sense of satisfaction and a better understanding of material to the viewer.

We’ve been talking with Eric Knisley over at RENCI about experimenting with the Unity game engine on the dome and how we can extend the challenging gaming experience to some of our presentations. The difficulty, beyond technical issues, getting 200-300 people to play a game that is typically controlled by one person. People have experimented with IR and other techniques that have been sucessful for simple interactions. But maybe there are other ways to create presentations and even pre-rendered shows that really challenge the viewer to figure things out on a different level.

Visual Storytelling

July 10, 2009

Pixar has done it again with another amazing short. No dialog, just wonderful character animation coupled with very tight storytelling.

Often times we fall prey to the documentary style show production on a dome. The format being a heavy handed narration and visuals that directly correspond to concepts discussed by the disembodied voice of the narrator. This short as I said has absolutely zero dialog, just the characters reacting to their environment, and each other, but a touching story is still told.

Often we talk about the dome as an immersive environment but the flat screen can be equally immersive. The only distinction is how well we get our audience to empathize and become enveloped in whatever it is we show them. Surrounding someone with an environment doesn’t place them in a scene, but getting them emotionally involved in what it is they’re seeing makes it an experience. A concept that I’ll be trying to understand and emulate in projects to come.

One other thing that I thoroughly enjoy about this short and the most recent release “UP” is there use of clouds, fog, and sky. Still grappling with getting volumetric fluids to look good and work correctly on the dome.