Let’s Make a Planetarium Show: Part 5 – Animation and Rendering

When it comes to making animations for any type of show, it’s helpful to use storyboards.

Storyboards help you find a direction as opposed to staring at a blank page or screen waiting for inspiration to strike.  I do storyboards for all my scenes throughout the length of the dialogue.

For example, there is a large section in the new Autumn Sky Tonight dealing with the colors of the planets.  Since Mercury is the first planet we can see low on our horizon and since it’s the closest planet to the sun, we start there.  Mercury is a great opportunity to use some new satellite images of the planet.  I recently came across an entire surface map of the planet thanks to NASA’s website.  I was able to take this surface map and apply what’s called a “bump” map to it.  A bump map is a way of separating the darks and lights from an image and telling the software that the brighter areas are raised ridges and the darker areas are recesses.  By doing this, I can create a 3D texture of the surface of Mars by using the official images from NASA.  I can then apply this 3D texture to a sphere in my Blender 3D software and actually make a realistic looking planet Mercury.

While in Blender, I can apply a dome camera to my scene and make this “Mercury” planet rotate in space.  I know I’ll add background stars later so all I have to worry about in Blender is making the planet, getting the bump map right, getting the image to warp onto a sphere correctly, and rendering it all in 4K.

For this particular scene, I want it to look like the planetarium audience is in a spaceship gliding over the edge of the planet.

As you can see, the animation looks like a big square with a circle in it.  The circle represents the dome.  In order to get the correct warping of the image so it looks correct on the curved dome surface, I have to use a certain type of camera and position it so that your center of interest aligns with the “sweet spot” on the dome.

I also have to make sure that when I animate a scene, I’m making it long enough for the actual scene and dialogue duration.  This is why it’s important for me to get that audio guide track done first so I’ll know how long to make these animations.

In my case, I need the Mercury animation to last for 35 seconds long.  Well, all the shows I make and run in the planetarium play at 30 frames per second.  That means I’ll need to make my animation at least 1200 frames long.  I make the animation a bit longer than needed so I can compensate for scene crossfades.

The Mercury fly-over is a very simple animation.  There’s not much to it.  That being said, it still takes a very long time to render out of Blender.  I might be able to render a little over a hundred frames per day with a single computer.  And this Mercury animation is really only rendering just the Mercury section at the lower part of the frame.  If I have a longer animation with more detail in the frame, it could take weeks to render.

That’s why I’m in the middle of making myself what’s called a “render farm.”

A render farm is a chain of computers that all help out with the rendering process. There’s a master PC which contains the job, and then there are slave PCs which each render a separate frame at a time.  Each PC has a version of the software and they communicate with each other with which frame each is rendering.  A render farm would significantly cut the render time down.

Rendering definitely takes the most amount of time, which is why I have multiple computer stations so I can continue working on things while my Render PC is tied up.  I’ve got my Digital Sky/Rendering PC, my audio PC, and my research PC which is where I can continue working on Digital Sky material as well as use other programs not associated with rendering graphics.

Basically, in this part of the process I’m getting all my scene animations rendered into one folder and in subfolders to then get brought into After Effects.

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