The Full Dome Saga Pt 3: Creating the Dome Master

Welcome back to The Full Dome Saga, the story of full dome production. Check out parts 1 and 2

So what is a “dome master”? Most planetarians like to consider themselves masters of the dome, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

brycecanyon

This is a dome master!

Frames for full dome movies are square with a circular image inscribed within it, this is called a dome master. When looking at a dome master on a flat screen it looks like a distorted spherical image, but when projected upward onto the dome the image produces an accurate immersive effect for the viewer.

superfisheyeHow do you make a dome master? Unfortunately it isn’t really as simple as taking footage or images intended for a normal flat screen and running them through some software to make them immersive. You need to capture the footage differently using special camera lenses. The super fisheye lens captures the 180 degree perspective necessary to get enough picture to fill the dome.

Many inexpensive cameras can capture high resolution still images, like Bryce Canyon image above. However, those megapixels aren’t put to use in video capture mode. The maximum video resolution for most digital cameras and DSLRs is a 1920 x 1080 rectangle (perfect for your HD TV at home!). Remembering back to previous articles, the fisheye lens produces a spherical image inside the camera’s sensor frame. So when capturing a video with a DSLR and fisheye lens you get a maximum of a 1,000 x 1,000 pixel dome master video. Which isn’t nearly enough!

liveaction

Red Epic pixels are expensive, look at all the wasted pixels on either side! Luckily this was shot with a much less expensive Canon 7D!

So, let’s put one a fisheye on a Red Epic and start filming! Again, hold your horses… The frame captured by a 4k movie camera is not a square image either, its approximately 4,000 pixels wide by 2,000 pixels tall (just what you need for a regular movie theater). Slap a fisheye lens on there and you get a large black rectangle, with circle in the middle of it. Planetarium producers only care about the height of the frame, that is the maximum for how big our dome master will be. So a 4k movie camera that costs $100,000+  will only yield a 2k dome master, and the resolution to either side is thrown away. Bummer!

This has been the main reason that full dome movies up until now have been mainly composed of computer animation. That and of course we don’t have a lot of live footage of outer space. In recent years full dome movies have moved beyond just astronomy topics. There are biology shows, chemistry shows, history shows, and entertainment shows featuring roller coasters in outer space. Computer animation has been the solution for planetarium producers for how to get that true 4k by 4k dome master at whatever frame rate they want.

When producing CGI content, an animator essentially creates a virtual movie set. With virtual objects, virtual lights, even a virtual camera. The animator assigns textures to the objects, and makes them move. When the scene is finished, the animator picks the resolution that they want, then the scene is rendered. This means, that the computer creates each individual frame of the animation. One frame at a time, the computer calculates how the scene should look based on the lighting and texturing of the scene as seen from the point of view of the virtual camera. Those frames are then assembled into a movie.

TritonUnrendered

An unrendered scene. Virtual Dome Camera is circled. “+” signs represent steam and ice particles that will be generated during rendering.

When producing for the dome, the animator uses a virtual camera that has a virtual super fisheye lens on it. In fact this virtual camera can capture beyond the 180 degree field of view, difficult to do with a real camera. Many full dome animators use a field of view of 200 degrees or more. This captures more of the scene, giving the viewer an even more realistic experience. At render time, the animator chooses an output resolution of 4,000 x 4,000 and renders out dome master frames, that will later be assembled into a movie.

TritonSideBySide

You see more of the scene with a wider field of view! The experience becomes that much more immersive for the viewer.

So is the sky the limit here? Not really. Come back next time to learn about how rendering actually works, and the time required to produce a 4k animation.

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