Careening through the solar system, the audience is immersed in the immensity of space—the inky void of infinite nothingness pierced by the dazzling brilliance of innumerable celestial bodies.
On January 14, the American Museum on Natural History (AMNH) held a media preview of the Hayden Planetarium’s latest space show, “Worlds Beyond Earth.” The production is the first media presentation designed to take full advantage of the immense dynamic range enabled by the planetarium’s new Christie Eclipse RGB laser projection system, which the museum’s president Ellen V. Futter called “the most sophisticated projection system in the world.”
The film, she says, “is a feat of science visualization, built on real data and research, and now dazzlingly showcased through the Hayden Planetarium’s new cutting-edge projection system. We can think of no better way to celebrate the thrilling state of space science today as well as the Museum’s 150th anniversary of bringing the world and the universe to our visitors.”
The film flies viewers through the solar system, with Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o narrating the journey. The presentation—which is built on data from NASA, European Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace Exploration missions, telescopes, and supercomputer simulations—gives the audience a look at the wonders of our cosmic neighborhood with a degree of immersion that was previously impossible.
“Our ability to render these distant worlds is nothing short of astonishing, thanks to past and current space missions and the data they provide,” says Carter Emmart, the Museum’s director of astrovisualization and the director of “Worlds Beyond Earth.”
“We’re not making anything up here. The height, color, and shapes we see come from actual measurements. In the Space Show, you see these beautiful objects as they actually are, to the best of our abilities.”
“I don’t think many people realize just how much we, as the human race, have seen of our solar system,” said “Worlds Beyond Earth” curator Denton Ebel, a curator in the Museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and chair of the Division of Physical Sciences. “But we are out there, via these incredibly complex and successful spacecraft, and what we’re learning about our unique place in it is surprising and also a bit sobering.”
“This is the beginning of a whole new opportunity for people to see what is possible with a projection system,” says Larry Paul, executive director, technology and custom solutions, enterprise and entertainment at Christie. “It’s been a ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ problem: no one’s ever created a show that really takes advantage of [this technology] because the systems didn’t exist. Now that the systems exist, it will enable the creation of shows that are much more compelling.”
According to Paul, the projection system took some five years to engineer, beginning in 2015, when the company first began collaborating on its development with the museum. Previously, the planetarium had employed projection systems that could get bright but couldn’t preserve the darkness required to emulate the blackness of space; they also had systems that were dark, but couldn’t generate enough light.
This new system, comprised of six specially designed Christie Eclipse RGB laser projectors capable of 20,000,000:1 contrast, is not only the best of both of these worlds, but also provides UHD resolution, Rec. 2020 color, and 60FPS playout. Worlds Beyond Earth was created to take advantage of all of these capabilities.
“This show has four times the resolution and two times the frame rate [of what was previously possible],” said Benjy Bernhardt, senior director of electronic media engineering and support at the AMNH. “The data is eight times bigger for the same duration of the show. We needed more storage, we needed a faster network, and we needed new video servers that could process more data and get it onto screen.” Helping to solve this are 7thSense Delta Infinity servers, capable of handling the 8120×8120 resolution video files of the show.
In addition to the unparalleled video experience, the presentation also incorporates an object-based audio system featuring 23 speaker channels, two subwoofer channels, and a seat shaker. This adds a gripping cinematic dynamic to show, heightening the experience of flying through the rings of Saturn and watching the formation of the Sun.
The production’s mixing team worked essentially all night for six straight weeks, whenever the planetarium was closed to the public. The system is composed of Meyer Sound speakers and was mastered using Meyer’s D-Mitri platform. “With the 23.3 [channel system], you’re in a kind of one-off special-venue domain, and you need special mixing tools,” Bernhardt said. “You also can only mix in the space.” To achieve the desired result, Bernhardt said the production’s mixing team worked essentially all night for six straight weeks, whenever the planetarium was closed to the public.
In addition to the sound effects and Nyong’o’s narration, “Worlds Beyond Earth” also features an original score composed by Robert Miller that was recorded in Abbey Road Studios in London. So, the mixing team had to take exceptional care to ensure that all of these elements are presented harmoniously. “It’s a fine ballet, a balancing act,” Bernhardt says.