Student Team Designing First Digital Show for Vancouver’s Space Centre

Student Team Designing First Digital Show for Vancouver’s Space Centre

A team of MDM student filmmakers have been challenged with designing Vancouver Space Centre’s first digital planetarium show.

Last month, Vancouver’s H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, announced that they are retiring their 45-year old star projector and replacing it with a new high resolution full-dome digital projection system.

The students have been asked to design a 40 minute film aimed at 18 - 35 year-olds that’s meant to create an immersive experience that takes the audience to the 'edge of reality' and back. The film is intended to encourage the audience to consider seeing the community, planet and universe from new and unique perspectives.

The project team consists of Brett Pawson, Hao (Jeff) Yu, Jahan Zeb, Ligia Brosch, Micheal Auger and Neshat Piroozan, who all came from filmmaking backgrounds before starting the MDM program.

The project comes at an exciting time for planetariums. "The Space Centre is going from analog to digital—they're changing as we speak" says Micheal Auger, the Client Liaison on the project.

The student team is designing a template for the show, which means that at the end of the semester, they will present the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre with an outline of the narrative, visuals and sounds for the film.

When deciding on a theme, they decided that it was about individual journey and experience.

"We couldn't avoid space," says Auger. The concept of the film is a modern space odyssey that "takes you from the known to unknown, from the micro to the macro," explains Auger. It’s a journey from water to deep space and back again to earth. Not a typical narrative, the film focuses on interpreted and experimental visuals and sound.

UFO13 is an organic machine entity that travels through space and time. This is a test render, without textures.

UFO13 is an organic machine entity that travels through space and time. This is a test render, without textures. 

"We want to play with the aspects of the dome and patterns in nature," says Ligia Brosch, the Photographer on the project. "Spirals, filaments and threads that contrast and compare.”

The students are repurposing footage that the Space Centre already has, finding imagery and sounds online and creating some of their own content.

One of a series of 1000's of frames of a animation currently in progress.

One of a series of 1000's of frames of animation the students have currently in progress.

"We're trying to create and own as much of the content as possible so we’re creating still photography, dance and animation for the film,” explains Brett Pawson, the team’s Project Manager. 

The challenge is that they are doing all of this work without access to the new projectors or the Space Centre’s new digital assets. "The projectors aren't installed yet and we don't know what they're going to be like," says Pawson. The new digital projectors won't be installed until August.

"We're providing a template based on educated guesses," says Pawson. 

Another challenge is that they don't have access to dome software. "We're working with regular video software that renders our video flat versus dome-like which is how it will appear to viewers," says Auger.

Instead, the students have access to an evaluation copy that allows them to experiment with low-resolution samples in order to mimic how the final film will appear on the dome screen. 

The team is also working collaboratively with other companies, such as app developers and photographers, who are donating their work to the students.

A section of one of the dance sequences (in progress). This represents a collaborative aspect of the project with three dancers from SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts.

A section of one of the dance sequences (in progress). This represents a collaborative aspect of the project with three dancers from SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts.

The Space Centre plans to launch the video to the public this Fall. “I’m very excited about our transition to a digital projection system,” says Lisa McIntosh, the Director of Learning at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre.  

It will mean big changes to the types of experiences we can provide in the planetarium theatre. The new technology will mean we can more quickly incorporate current events into the visitors’ planetarium experience. An example of this is with the great images Chris Hadfield provided during his time on the International Space Station. With the new system we will be able to show these images as soon as they are available.

The new system will also provide a greater flexibility with the kinds of programming we can develop, such as the project the [MDM student] team is working on, as well as some of the other programming initiatives that more overtly integrate the arts with science. The plan for the students’ project is to incorporate it into our regular Saturday night programming. I’m not sure of an exact date at this point but hopefully in the later fall.

When the students were asked what it’s like to work on an MDM industry project, Pawson replied, "With a really supportive client it's a great educational environment. A real application of theory and practice."