Grainger Sky Theater
A galaxy of applications and programs are put to work for a feature presentation of the Milky Way.
The Adler Planetarium in Chicago will hold the grand opening of its Grainger Sky Theater this July. Featuring an 8K x 8K projection dome, the venue is being touted as the highest resolution digital dome ever built. For the past two years, the production staff has been working on the theater itself as well as the 25-minute presentation of a tour through the galaxy, which is being designed to maximize the impressive capabilities of 8K resolution.
As project director for the new Grainger Sky Theater, Doug Roberts, Ph.D. is in charge of the physical theater construction as well as the production of this premiere presentation; the two are designed to go hand in hand in order to dazzle visitors with an otherworldly experience. The trick was to create an entertaining and informative show and also make the most of the extremely high-resolution possibilities.
As an astronomer with a background in visualization, Roberts is well versed in the world’s most fantastic scientific visualizations of astrophysical phenomenon. Roberts hopes to dazzle audiences with an intricately designed simulation of the formation of the universe, from the big bang to the present day. Inspiration, he says, comes from many sources. “One of my colleagues gave a talk on a star getting eaten by a black hole,” Roberts recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! I’d love to see that in the dome!’"
Once the production team had an idea of the direction they were taking for the visuals, the next step was to create a story to tie the presentation together. Science fiction writer, Nick Sagan (son of bestselling author and TV personality Carl Sagan), wrote the script based on input from Roberts and his team. Audience testing at the planetarium, Roberts reports, indicates that people love to hear about aliens and black holes, so those two elements were woven in to the production.
Once a script was developed, it was up to the filmmaking team to work out the technical and aesthetic issues involved in translating it all into images. “How do you render a star? Is it a dot? How is the light perceived?” Roberts asks rhetorically. To create those models, such as one of the Milky Way Galaxy, the Adler team is working with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In addition to the playback of the video, the system also has a real-time visualization platform called Uniview. “A gaming engine driving simulation software, Uniview allows you to fly through a computer model of the universe,” says Roberts.
The team is making use of a variety of modeling software systems, such as Autodesk's Maya 3D and 3ds Max and NewTek's Lightwave. Compositing is being done in Adobe After Effects. The planetarium invested in a render farm and storage system comprised of 83 computers, each with dual processors, running Autodesk V-Ray.
While some 8K theaters stack about six digital cinema projectors, this one will make use of 20 Rockwell-Collins Zorro projectors, which will in turn be fed by 45 computers. “We use that many projectors," Roberts explains, "so that each one projects a smaller image on the dome and that allows us to use our pixels more efficiently.”
While this project has been extremely challenging, Roberts says he looks forward to seeing more such presentations develop as the technology evolves. “There is going to be more collaboration between scientists and science centers to create shows like these,” he predicts. “Especially with increased interactivity and gaming technology, the stories we'll be able and the new capabilities to present photo realistic detail will open new doors for productions and make more presentations like this one possible.”